The Absolutely Essential Distinction: Wars of Aggression are Not Equivalent to Wars of Self-defense

Courtesy of Mohammad Hamza/
War is an abomination. War is anathema. However, not all forms of war are the same. To understand war, and to assign culpability with clear conscience for the war and its outcomes, it is absolutely critical to differentiate between waging wars of aggression and wars of self-defense. One form of warfare, self-defense, is brought about by the imposition of the other form, war of aggression. Hence, any artificial equivalency is unacceptable between the two forms of war or between/among the warring parties.

Yet, to pay attention to definitions, launching a war of aggression is but terrorism on a massive and indiscriminate scale because there is no technology that can guarantee that weapons only target the fighters defending against aggression. The waging of war causes the death of civilians, including children, women, and the elderly and infirm. Thus, it is a no-brainer to be in solidarity with all those who seek the abolition of war as a means to resolve problems.

Finally, in seeking to abolish the institution of war, I must iterate that war is not just any regular abomination. War is not protesting civilian deaths as even the military of the aggressed nation are victims of war. War is not about the death of children and women as all sectors of the population regardless of age or gender are equally victims. War — especially a war of aggression when initiated by a militarily superior power against a militarily weak country — is the destroyer of societies; families; generations; emotional ties among people; history; the environment; economic structures and infrastructures, as well as the capital spent to build them; and reconstruction costs that do not give a damn about the human cost of war. War is the maker of refugees. When the United States invaded Iraq, millions of refugees were forced to leave Iraq; yet not even one single American left the United States because of that invasion. The current war waged against Syria has created 4.8 million external refugees and 6.6 million internal refugees. ((See Syrian Refugees.))

Jan Oberg, co-founder of the Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research, also feels revulsion for war. While he is adept at recognizing propaganda and disinformation (Oberg readily recognizes the propagandic ploy of the so-called White Helmets and the animus of western elitists and western corporate/state media against Russia), and while he doesn’t draw an equivalency between warring parties, he fails to distinguish between who is the initiator of war and who is fighting in self-defense. ((As an example of fuzziness, Oberg contends: “Peace was never an important factor in anything Western countries have done in and to Syria. No matter what they say.

If it were, this would not be the result. It’s easy to blame Syria and Russia for the destruction of Aleppo. Far far too easy.”))

Oberg took to East Aleppo to document the aftermath of the violence after the Syrian Army entered the city divided by war. Yet, he expresses despondence about how little influence photos will have for an anti-war movement: “I do not believe that pictures of wars and victims will, in and of themselves, lead people to think of peace. Hiroshima films have done little to eliminate nuclear weapons.”

Nuclear weapons still abound. But a Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty did come into effect, and it is generally believed by the wider public that no nuclear weapons have been used on populated targets since then. ((That is, of course subject to debate since the US has exiled Indigenous peoples from areas where they carried out nuclear tests. It has also been reported that the United States used tactical nuclear weapons in Afghanistan and Iraq. Veterans Today writes that Israel used an American nuclear bunker buster bomb against Syria. Then there is the other argument made by Bob Nichols, summarized nicely by the title: “There Are No Words … Radiation in Iraq Equals 250,000 Nagasaki Bombs.”))

With that proviso out of the way, Oberg then argues for the effectiveness of making the Aleppo carnage visible to the public:

But in this particular case I do believe it is necessary to document just how big, systematic and unjustified the destruction of Aleppo has been – not only for those who built it and lived there over 7000 years but also to humanity, to all of us. [italics in original]

I wonder: why set up the strawman of saying films of the devastation in Hiroshima have failed to eliminate nuclear weapons, and then state it is necessary to document Aleppo’s destruction? What is the connection? Does this same rationale of a need to document not apply to Hiroshima (and Nagasaki)? Is there a convincing argument for saying history of any type should not be documented? ((See documentation.))

Oberg continues:

With what right did all the parties contribute to this utterly heartless and meaningless destruction?

Will we ever learn – not only that war is stupid but also that this type of destruction cannot conveniently for some be blamed on one single side?

All parties who used violence have blood on their hands. [bold added]

This is only true in a most simplistic sense. However, it neglects a basic moral imperative: to distinguish between the violence of the aggressor and that of the defender. Unequivocally, every nation has the right to defend itself from aggression.

Writes Oberg: “I am on the side of the underlying, perfectly legitimate conflicts and not on the side of anybody’s violence.”

With an uncritical first read, this might sound highly principled. However, “perfectly legitimate conflicts” sounds ominously like greasing the slopes for just war theorizers. Furthermore, Oberg’s sentiments ultimately contribute to the physical violence. Usually physical violence does not spring from nothing. There is a motivation, and Oberg is aware of this:

The images conveys [sic] the clear message that these occupiers who took up arms to fight the Assad government of Syria had no intention of creating a better society and life for those who lived here. It appears to be mostly caused by search for money, by in-fighting, destruction and death for its own sake.

Oberg has cited motivations for warring by the insurgents, but in the following paragraph he writes:

Of course the truth is complex and of course neither the Syrian military nor the Russians – operating as the only foreign force that is legally in Syria upon the invitation of the government – are innocent in this destruction.

What does Oberg mean or suggest? That by defending the territorial integrity of Syria from mercenaries and foreign-backed insurgents Syria and its ally Russia are rendered guilty? This is patently ludicrous. Self-defense is an inalienable right, and the “inherent right of individual or collective self-defence” is recognized in article 51 of the United Nations Charter. It is also sanctioned by just war theory.

Oberg does ascribe the largest share of blame to the outsiders, and he does exculpate Russian and Syrian planes from the destruction of Aleppo noting such destruction would have flattened the cityscape and this was not the case, except for as Oberg estimates a “7-10 per cent of the destruction of Eastern Aleppo that has been destroyed by the airforces.”

But the peace researcher finds:

With this multi-causal destruction of a UNESCO World Heritage site belonging literally to the world, to all of us, the protests against all sides should increase and the blame-game stop. And no government contributes to such destruction without a reason. [Italics added]

Protests against all sides and an end to the blame game? If there is no blame, then what does this mean for the initiator of the warring? How should one identify the perpetrators for subsequent war crimes tribunals, assuming these tribunals have the capability to bring to justice western and regional players? What deterrent effect would this blameless war have on launching future wars of aggression? Were the initiators of recent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Gaza blamed, cited, and prosecuted?

As for no government contributing to such destruction without a reason. The wording here is curious. It seems to apply to all sides. Does Oberg consider that the Syrian government would wish to contribute to destruction of its own territory? Did Syria’s government not have legal and legitimate grounds to use a violent self-defense in response to the aggressive violence first wreaked against it?

When an invading force, mercenaries, and disgruntled (legitimately or not) domestic insurgents start killing and occupying territory what should the legitimate authority do? The Syrian government has on occasion offered an amnesty to the insurgents. If the Syrian government was compelled to resort to violence and its violence resulted in destruction and loss of life (as would be expected despite whatever measures were taken to minimize any devastation) is that the Syrian government’s fault or is it the fault of the insurgents?

Consider the pacifist logic in the following analogy:

If there is a bully in the neighborhood, and that bully and her pals break into your home and begin beating your younger brother, how should you respond? As a pacifist you plead with the bully to desist with her violence. She laughs and continues landing punches to your bawling brother whose face is becoming very bloody. What does a pacifist do?

The bully is powerful and you realize that the presence of her friends preclude you from being able to save your brother. Still you try and physically dislodge the bully from your brother. She smacks you away by breaking an ottoman over your head. Are you now culpable for the violence and destruction?

You call your best friend living next door to come and help. She comes running over with a baseball bat. Immediately she swings at the bully on your brother. The bully’s pals now enter the fray and tables are broken, glassware is shattered, even bones are broken, and when a vase strikes one bully on the side of his head, he collapses with a face-first deadly thud to the floor.

Is your friend now a contributor to the violence and destruction?

Does the victim share blame for the violence with the rapist when she fights back?

In considering the preceding analogy, how then does the logic extend to the violence of wars among states and state-backed actors? Is it accurate, fair, or reasonable to condemn all parties for their engagement in the violence and destruction without defining what the level of engagement is and why such engagement came about? Does such a one-brush-tarring-all-combatants-equally not contribute to propagandizing, biasing, and painting an inaccurate picture of the violence? If so who benefits from the inaccurate depiction?

  • Part 2: How will people who abhor war bring about an end to war?
Kim Petersen is an independent writer. He can be emailed at: kimohp at Read other articles by Kim.