War, when it occurs, is mostly the result of failed diplomacy or aggressive intentions. In a democracy, discerning the underlying motive for military action is vital for providing a defensible justification for using military force. And a justifiable reason for going to war is essential to maintain public support for actions that result in the loss of lives, the destruction of property, and the diversion of public funds.

Most people view war with disdain. The average human being does not relish the thought of armed conflict or widespread destruction for the simple reason that they do not want to be killed, nor do they want to see their families, friends, and neighbors killed either. Conversely, most people do not long to be killers, especially not to advance a cause that in itself furthers the aims of a corrupt government. The number of armed conflicts, seemingly teeming with faithful warriors, may seem to invalidate the idea of man as peaceful, but the truth could possibly be different than the picture that is presented by a world at war.

To defend the concept of armed conflict is to accept the notion that humanity is incapable of solving its differences through compromise and honesty. Indeed, there are times when rational discussion cannot occur, simply because the intransigence of one or more of the arguing parties forbids them from even coming to the bargaining table. Sometimes this reluctance is based on humanitarian principals, such as the Allies refusal to accept anything less than unconditional surrender from the Axis powers at the conclusion of WWII. Sometimes religion is the catalyst for fighting to the last man, such as the Crusades of the Middle Ages and their quest to eradicate “infidels” from traditional sacred lands. Whatever the reason, the failure to avoid armed conflict always marks the beginning of dark times for all parties involved. At best, the only defense for armed conflict between nations is that of the nation (or by treaty, another nation or group of nations who are sworn to each others mutual defense) who is defending herself from the aggression of another, that aggression itself being of a military nature. So while it takes two to argue, the real blame for armed conflict lies with the one who strikes first.

It is easy to justify to a general public the validity of fighting an enemy who has attacked you first. Not only is the average person angered by an offensive assault on their country and countrymen, they are often eager to exact retribution to those who attacked them. What is less easy to do is justify an armed conflict that began not as defensive actions, but rather as an offensive or preventive action. To satisfy a reticent public about the need to fight, government must paint a picture that illustrates the cause of the tensions between nations as well as providing details of the efforts taken to mitigate the problems. They must then establish that the conflict is one of national importance, with our very way of life at stake in the outcome. They must demonstrate that the government has bent over backwards to reach some kind of equitable solution, and that the only way to protect ourselves now is through a first strike military action. And then they must back up their claims with irrefutable evidence of their veracity.

Unfortunately, the information government’s offer for war justification (other than clear cut defensive reasons) is anything but clear and reasoned and often inconsistent with other governmental claims or policies. Shifting reasoning for military action is a sure sign that something is amiss, for if the fight is indeed a just and right cause, there should never be a change in the rationale for the war. Any change in rationale belies the fact that either the public was not told the truth initially, or that the real reasons for the war are in no way acceptable to the public. People may be willing to die for their freedom. They may be willing to die for someone else’s right to freedom. But how many are willing to die over a political sleight, or to enrich multinational corporations who always maximize their profits during wartime? How many are willing to die for half-truths or outright lies?

The onus of telling the truth is on the government, but to get honest information, we first need leaders with integrity and who trust the American people to support whatever action is needed. The burden of making sure the public learns the truth lies with the media. They exist for one thing, and despite their insistence that they are just here to make a profit, media has a responsibility to find the truth and share the truth with the public. Sadly, the ability to separate truth from propaganda has become difficult at best.

If defending war with another nation is an arduous task, justifying a war against an ideology is even more difficult to do, especially without reverting to baseless racial or religious claims as moral authority for conflict. The fact that an army of ideologues could be scattered around the world is itself an impediment to warfare as usual, meaning a near infinite front, a constantly shifting battlefield, and a continually targeted civilian population. Ideological warfare tends to create an arena where surrender is impossible, simply because to do so would be to admit that ones beliefs were less viable than another cultures beliefs. But success is often impossible too, for the exact same reason.

Clearly, there are a few valid reasons for engaging in military conflict, among them the defense of ones own national lands, resources, and people from an armed invasion force; as part of a coalition of national militaries mutually bound to defend another under attack or invasion for no cause; or, in a limited attempt to quell genocidal conflicts and restore civil order. Outside of these reasons, precipitous armed actions should be avoided at all times. The cost of committing ones troops to armed conflict is too high to pay.

The War on Terror began with some semblance of clarity, at least among the general public. We had a good idea who attacked us, where they were, and we went after them. With near unanimous support among the citizenry and around the world, our act of war in Afghanistan was as justified as war ever can be. Sadly, this conflict came at a time when the leadership in place had not the temerity to finish the initial task and end the conflict. Instead, the current crop of political leaders chose to deflect the momentum and turn their sights towards another foe, one that was despicable, but at best only tangentially connected with the other, ongoing war. Iraq presented a diplomatic problem, a humanitarian problem, and a political problem that threatened the reputation of the mighty U.S. of A. For reasons best described as greed, revenge, and control of resources, Iraq was portrayed as a player in the attack on the U.S. They were portrayed as an imminent military threat, not only eager but capable of sending heinous weapons to our shores. We now know that these rationales are false, were false, and will always be false. That Iraq was in need of a new form of government, for the benefit of its citizens and its neighbors, is of no real dispute. Tyrannies are never acceptable to those who love freedom and long for peace. But just as war in Afghanistan was fought for a declared purpose, and almost achieved its stated goal before ramping down efforts, the war in Iraq is just the opposite. The goal is ever changing, the reasons ever morphing, the evidence increasingly underwhelming and even fabricated. The truth is starting to show through, and the reasons offered aren’t holding up so well anymore.

Fighting a foe that subscribes to a fanatical worldview is indeed a life and death struggle, especially when those doing the killing are elusive, eager, and relentless. It requires a level of honest assessment when developing a plan of action and a clear enunciation of what the aims are, what the measure of success will be, and how the conflict will end if your side is the victor. It requires a leadership that is more concerned with ending the menace of terrorism and extremism than it is with lining the pockets of favored national corporations. It requires a stronger vision than that of the religious ideologues who fight against us, a vision that comes not from an opposing version of God but rather from a human wisdom of compromise or disengagement. And it requires an acknowledgment that the act of war is itself a horrible thing, not an end in itself, not even a means to an end, just a continuation of humanity’s inability to live with itself in peace.