Episode 114: War and Justice

In response to some input from listeners, I feel it is necessary to explain some things about how I cover the war in Ukraine and how I feel about wars in general. Let’s talk about wars, international law and justice.

Today’s episode of The Private Citizen was inspired by listeners of the show providing feedback on how I handled the topic of the war in Ukraine. I hope the resulting discussion of the points that were brought up are beneficial to everyone interested in this topic.

Unlike most other episodes, this one was not recorded live due to time constraints and scheduling issues. I should be back to live recording episodes on Twitch and more regular releases by the coming week.

Transcending Mass Media’s Emotional Ukraine Coverage

In response to some producer feedback on my recent Ukraine episode, I want to address a couple of points on the war in Ukraine and also how I view the subject of war in general:

War is never just. At first, I must start with my strongly held belief that war is never just. It may be necessary – and thus justifiable – but it is never an act of justice. Wars get labelled as “just wars” based on propaganda, which often turns into what further generations regard as the historic truth – because the winner’s propaganda tends to influence what historians record as facts. At least at first. Compare the US invasion of Iraq which was based on obvious propaganda lies to the current Russian invasion of Ukraine. Why is one war accepted as a good cause and the other as crime against humanity? This has nothing to do with justice.

But what about international law? As I have discussed in episode 105, justice flows from a person’s own ethics and morality, whereas law flows from the state in an attempt to organise its citizen’s lives in an orderly fashion. In the best case scenario, this approaches justice, but it is never the same thing. International law is much worse in this respect because it is not a matter of a state trying to treat all its citizens equally. International law doesn’t flow from a higher authority, it’s a matter of treaties between equals (sovereign states). Therefore it is often more concerned with precedents than it is with justice. For example: There is no concept of murder in international law because states have historically agreed that killing people in war is normalised behaviour. International law is concerned with the interests of states, not its citizens.

What exactly is a war crime? International law may be locally codified and there may be courts arbitrating over it, but putting it on the same level as local laws is short sighted. War crimes are a good example in this context, because the definition of what makes up a war crime can be incredibly arbitrary. Shooting and killing a person with one kind of bullet is allowed, while using another type of bullet is a war crime. Just imagine a local law like that where murder is totally accepted unless you use the wrong weapon. This idea of “crime” has nothing whatsoever to do with justice and the rules are, largely, not made to protect the public, but rather as a way to normalise warfare. It’s also historically very evident that most of the time, only the losers of a war get persecuted for war crimes committed.

The detached scientific perspective. When it comes to discussing war and foreign relations from a scientific perspective, it is important to divorce oneself from moral judgements. The realpolitik approach to foreign relations holds that there are no morals in the dealings between sovereign states. A statesman is beholden only to his or her responsibility for their own country. Was it morally right for Bismarck to start wars with Denmark and France to create the German nation in 1871? From a historical point of view, this is largely irrelevant. Germany could not have been founded without those wars. In a few hundred years, the public will look in the same detached way at what Putin did in Ukraine – no matter what outcome it has. Historians and people who think scientifically need to try and adopt this detached perspective right now.

Understanding propaganda. Ever since Walter Lippmann, Edward Bernays and the work of them and their colleagues during the First World War, it has been accepted that all governments use propaganda in wartime to bolster the war effort and to galvanise their populations for their cause. While this was universally understood in the 1930s, almost a hundred years later the continuing use of mass propaganda (and its rebranding as public relations) has numbed many observers to this understanding. These days, our press and mass media organisations are happy to call Vladimir Putin’s propaganda exactly that while Volodymyr Zelensky’s propaganda is largely accepted as the truth. But if war and death is always bad, then so is propaganda that glorifies or downplays it – no matter on what side of the conflict it originates from.

Producer Feedback

Since this whole episode was based on feedback by the show’s producers, there’s no dedicated feedback section this time.

If you have any thoughts on the things discussed in this or previous episodes, please join our forum and compare notes with other producers. You can also contact me in several other, more private ways.

If you are writing in from Russia, you might want to use my whistleblower contact form.

Toss a Coin to Your Podcaster

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Thanks and Credits

I’d like to credit everyone who’s helped with any aspect of this production and thus became a part of the show. I am thankful to the following people, who have supported this episode through Patreon and PayPal and thus keep this show on the air:

Georges, Steve Hoos, Butterbeans, Rhodane the Insane, Michael Small, Jonathan M. Hethey, Michael Mullan-Jensen, Dave, 1i11g, Jaroslav Lichtblau, Jackie Plage, Philip Klostermann, ikn, Bennett Piater, Sandman616, tobias, Vlad, m0dese7en, Kai Siers, Joe Poser, Rizele, Fadi Mansour, Dirk Dede, avis, David Potter, Mika, MrAmish, Cam, Dave Umrysh, RikyM, Barry Williams, Jonathan, RJ Tracey, Rick Bragg, Captain Egghead, astralc, Robert Forster, Superuser, D, Noreply and krunkle.

Many thanks to my Twitch subscribers: Mike_TheDane, jonathanmh_com, LunaSpork, Galteran, l_terrestris_jim, mtesauro, redeemerf, BaconThePork and harivatana.

I am also thankful to Bytemark, who are providing the hosting for this episode’s audio file.

Podcast Music

The show’s theme song is Acoustic Routes by Raúl Cabezalí. It is licensed via Jamendo Music. Other music and some sound effects are licensed via Epidemic Sound. This episode’s ending song is Lawrider by Roots and Recognition.