A Note on the Morality of Fictional Wars: Fictum ad Bellum and Fictum in Bello

by Brendan Lalor

Scholars in the tradition of Just War Theory distinguish between jus ad bellum (justice in going to war) and jus in bello (justice in the conduct of war). The distinction facilitates nuanced moral discussion about which actions and motives of warring parties might or might not be justified, and helps prevent overgeneralization of blame and innocence. A warring party might have been justified in going to war, but not in its conduct of the war; or it might be blamed not for its conduct but for inadequate justification; and so on.

To my knowledge, scholars have not yet considered the importance of a related distinction whose time has come: fictum* ad bellum (fictionalization of the case for war) vs. fictum in bello (fictionalization in the conduct of war).

The Bush Administration’s Iraq policy provides perfect examples of each.

Fictum ad Bellum. Considering the Bush Administration’s Iraq policy from the fictum ad bellum point of view highlights a number of moral considerations, including its deception of the U.S. population about (1) the fictional links between Saddam and Osama, and perhaps (2) the Iraqi drone planes that posed a fictional threat to the world, or (3) the aluminum tubes that could fictionally be used in centrifuges to enrich weapons-grade uranium, or (4) the fictional “signatures” of mobile biological or chemical weapons labs about which Secretary of State Colin Powell alerted the Security Council prior to the invasion.

Such anti-democratic manipulation of the American public and the world reveals a morally objectionable, callous disrespect for the personhood of those deceived. The Administration has treated people as instruments to be used, as tools, in support of its agenda. It has not deemed it important to provide the public proper evidence or motive because the public has in effect been irrelevant all along, from its point of view.

These are some of the evaluations that emerge from ad bellum considerations.

Fictum in Bello. This angle is distinct from that which emerges upon taking the fictum ad bellum point of view. During the conduct of the war, the Bush Administration has, for instance, (1) declared a fictional end to combat, since which time — 16 months ago, when the White House arranged for the strategic unfurling of the “mission accomplished” banner — three times as many U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq than before; (2) a fictional “return of sovereignty” to the Iraqi people, who are fictionally represented by a nonelected government that readily honors the U.S.’s privatization of the Iraqi economy; and it looks as though we will be treated to (3) a fictional January election, in which would-be voters in cities in the “no go zone” will be disenfranchised.

While some of this deception is merely in the cause of “saving appearances,” much of it carries extra moral weight on account of the needless death and suffering that arise from incompetent execution. For instance, many Iraqis saw through the sham of the “handover of power,” which, it turned out, fueled an insurgency and more violence.

Take another example. Although Iraqi forces are not capable of maintaining order, Iraqi officials believe U.S. forces are not compensating. According to the Christian Science Monitor, the officials believe that, as the result of a political calculation, the U.S. is following a “go-slow policy towards the insurgents” until after the Nov. 2 presidential election to keep military losses down in the eyes of the U.S. public. In the meantime, “extremists [are] growing in power.” As Newsweek headlines it: “the insurgents are still getting stronger.”

If this is correct, then the costs of maintaining fictions about the progress in Iraq are being borne by Iraqi citizens, American taxpayers, and, in spite of the Administrations efforts to downplay it, U.S. soldiers.


* ‘fictum’ comes from the Latin, fingo: to contrive or invent. It is obviously the root from which comes the English word, ‘fiction’.

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