The Simpsons Gets Political - SE01 E05 - Bart The General

The Simpsons Gets Political - SE01 E05 - Bart The General

"We are happy, we are merry, we've got a rhyming dictionary!"

Script synopsis: After defending Lisa from school bully Nelson Muntz, Bart becomes Nelson's latest school bullying target. Sick of the harassment and torment, Bart, Grandpa Simpson, and Herman (a slightly deranged military antique store dealer with a missing arm) rally the town's children into fighting back against Nelson and his cronies. Ultimately forcing Nelson to sign an armistice treaty recognising Bart's right to exist and relinquishing any official power and agreeing to never again raise his fists in anger - only remaining a figure of menace in the neighbourhood.

Issue raised: Just War Theory - which claims that war, whilst generally undesirable, is not always the worst option. Furthermore, certain things can justify going to war and sets certain criteria which must be met in order to claim a war as just.

Traditional just war theory sets certain parameters with which to justify the act of declaring war (Jus ad bellum) and then further sets limits on actions which are permissible whilst at war (Jus in bello). A more recent addition to the theory is that of justice at the end of the war (Jus post bellum).

In this post I am going to analyse the episode from these perspectives and add one more sub-principle to those that are traditionally used, namely the notion of the democratic mandate for war(1).

Section One: Jus ad bellum

There are six principles which must be met in order that a war may be declared just according to traditional theory(2), and there is one that we can add to it as it is commonly used in discourse on just war. So, beginning with what is generally taken to be the most important and working backwards let's look and see if the Barto-Muntzian War (or the Nelsonian War) meets this criteria.

1. The war must have a just cause.

The event that triggers the consideration of war in the episode is, in the lingo, an act of asymmetrical aggression. Which is to say Nelsons cronies steal the cupcakes that Lisa has baked and destroy them. In attempting to defend the integrity of an ally Bart draws blood from Nelson. This then leads to punitive acts of aggression from Nelson. Forcing Bart to consider the war which follows. 

From the point of view of just war theory it can be argued that, the Nelsonian bloc justified the war through an act of aggression on the, in military terms, weaker Lisa. Meaning that, from the point of view of the theory the military action from Bart is justified from this point.

Herman is correct, however, to point out that it is, generally, considered good legal form to issue a declaration of war. Although, it is not quite correct to say that from this point on anything he does will be "nice and legal".

It is also generally considered to be good form to first seek the approval of the United Nations, or if you're Bart - these guys. 

What UN authorisation does is make the likelihood of prosecution for the war crime of aggression extremely unlikely, and will form an excellent defence if one is pursued. 

2. The war must be declared only as a last resort.

Following on from the last point, and before getting into the discussion proper of this one, it should be noted that the use of the word declaration implies that a war must be declared.  This means that any act of war prior to a declaration is unjust. 

A negotiation with the aggressor, was attempted by Bart prior to the initial act of aggression, following the infraction on the rights of Lisa as a sovereign nation in the lunch room - when a non-violent resolution to the conflict was attempted.

At this point Nelson makes clear that any attempt to negotiate would not be fruitful, by informing Bart that violence would be pursued at the end of the school day. This means that, from Bart's point of view, war is justified at this point - at no subsequent point during during the Nelsonian War does Nelson offer to negotiate to seek a peaceful resolution.

It might be suggested that Marges suggestion of attempting to befriend Nelson should have been pursued. However, whilst this might have been a tactic which could have stopped the acts of aggression by Nelson, it is not necessary from the point of view of justice to submit to an aggressor to end the violence. 

Just war theory is not a pacifistic theory - in that it sees violence as some times justified, and not something to be avoided and any and all costs. 

3. It must be declared by a proper authority.

The Wikipedia article lists this one as "It must be declared by a competent authority" which is a completely untenable position. "Competent authority" is a legal term which means a branch of the state. The explication on the Wiki page further assumes that war may only justly be declared by a state, which is patent bullshit which only serves the powerful. Resistance wars and wars of national liberation are clearly some times just. 

Furthermore, the existence of the state cannot be a pre-requisite for justice. The idea that it is, or can be, is clearly nonsense. It would have made the American Revolution an unjust war. 

That folks, is why you should not rely on Wikipedia to as an arbiter of truth.

Although, even using the Wiki definition, Bart and Nelson can both be said to satisfy this condition, given that they are both members of the model UN (See above). Making them both legitimate sovereign states from the point of view of international law.

However, the better definition is that of a proper authority - which can be interpreted to mean the proper moral authority. 

Which means that state-less people fighting a liberation war, or those who are occupied or annexed by another state are not precluded from being able to claim their war as just. It also neatly removes wars which are fought without democratic mandate from the category of just war. 

Democratic mandate is something which one might consider to be a necessary but not sufficient condition of just war. Which is to say if the people on who's behalf the war is being fought do not support the war then it is unjustified - even if the rest of the criteria are met. In the case of Bart, he seeks a coalition of the willing to fight against Nelson - and given that they all fought voluntarily, although admittedly after having been promised "victory and good times" - we can assume the democratic mandate sub-criteria was met. 

4.Those declaring war must have the right intentions.

This might initially appear to be a sensible inclusion - after all, if the person seeking to initiate a war is only using just war theory to initiate a war they would wage otherwise, then surely that is not just. But given that this concerns the intentions of another, it is not something that can be known by anyone(3) - and therefore cannot be used to judge actions.

We can assume that Bart would not have initiated the Barto-Muntzian War, of the Nelsonian Wars, had he not been initially attacked by Nelson. We cannot however know that for sure, therefore we cannot judge his actions based on this criteria. Unless, Bart openly declared that he would have gone after Nelson no matter what - which would be incredibly stupid as well as unlikely even if it were the case.

5. The war must have a reasonable chance of success.

What constitutes reasonable here is up for debate. But what this is meant to mean is that one should not send an army off to fight a war that they have absolutely no chance of winning. Thus, to declare a war that one knows to be futile is never justified.

In the case of Bart, he is clearly initially of the belief when he begins engaging in acts of war that it is possible for him to win, having been coached in combat by Homer. When this proves to be false he then seeks the counsel of Grandpa Simpsons, who takes him to speak with Herman.

Knowing that he cannot defeat Nelson alone, he then seeks the help of the rest of the kids in the neighbourhood, satisfying this criteria. It could be argued that if he had carried on fighting knowing he could not win then this would be unjust, from the point of view of this theory. Although, it might be argued that it is better to die on ones feet than to live on ones knees.

This notion can also be applied to the aggressor, and it is actually when it is reversed that it becomes most interesting. Which is to say, it is unjust for an extremely militarily powerful nation,  in this case Nelson, to wage a war on a militarily weak nation knowing that those they wage war upon have no chance of success. So, when the Nelson attacks those he knows cannot meaningfully defend themselves he is engaging in an unjust act of war.

6. The end must be proportionate to the means used.

This might initially appear to more appropriate to the category of just in bellum, or justice whilst waging war. But what it means in this context is that it is unjust to go to war over trifling matters. What this is getting at is that there will be certain scenarios where-by all of the above criteria are met, but the issue at stake is trivial and it is not therefore just to sacrifice human life to resolve the issue.

Given that Nelson has engaged in repeated acts of aggression against numerous individuals numerous times, we can consider this criteria to be satisfied. Bart's end is proportionate to the means used - the issue is not trivial.

Section Two: Jus in bello.

Homers contention that: "Some times you need to bend the rules a little in order to win.", might be considered an expression of a realist theory of war - given that it concerns tactics employed within war in order to win, rather than notions of the morality of such actions, it won't be considered here. This isn't the only episode on war, so the realist position may be dealt with in a future post.

But what then are the criteria set by just war theory such that actions in a war might be considered just, and does Bart's coalition of the willing meet them?

1. Principle of distinction.

The principle of distinction is the principle that targeting of civilians or non-combatants within a war violates principles of justice. This is a principle which often surprises many, given that it is frequently violated - and was widely used in a war that many consider the paradigm just war, World War Two. 

It is however clear from the point of view of justice why this is included. Civilians by definition have no means with which to defend themselves and violates basic considerations of what we might considered "fairness" - although the term is woefully inadequate in this case.

In the case of the Barto-Muntzian war this one is not met; and here's the precise moment that it is violated:

Grandpa targeting Homer violates the principle because, despite demanding a cessation to the hostilities, he wasn't involved in the conflict except as an observer. Therefore, Grandpa is guilty of a war crime(4)

2. Principle of proportionality.

What this means is that, the means, or actions, used within the war should not be to punish the other side for engaging in the war. So, for example, if country A attacked country B's navy and sunk one warship - and in retaliation country B used a nuclear bomb on country A's capital city - this would be unjust.

Further, it says something of the duration of the war. If one of the participants of the war refuses to accept a surrender because they deemed that punishment needed to be meted out for having gone to war in the first place - this would violate the principle of proportionality.

In the episode - Bart's coalition stick to this; once Nelson's cronies have surrendered, a surrender which they respect(See below), they only move to attack Nelson who has not surrendered and subdue him so that an armistice may be negotiated.

Once the "saturation bombing" has served its military use - it ceases. Which respects the principal of proportionality in a way that certain military powers in the real world seem incapable of doing.

3. Military necessity.

No action within the war should be more than is needed to win the war - continuing to target ex-combatants who have surrendered and pose no threat violates this principle.

Again, Bart and his coalition seem to stick to this principle.

4. Fair treatment of prisoners of war.

This is pretty self explanatory - don't torture them, don't force them to fight against their own side, don't arbitrarily kills them. Bart's coalition seems to meet this - although one of the cronies seems to enthusiastically enter the fray on behalf of Bart after surrendering. Like a Springfield version of World War One Italy, but he appears happy to do so - like World War One Italy.

5. No means which are malum in se.

This means nothing which is evil of itself, such as rape, should be used as a weapon of war. Water balloons are annoying, but ultimately innocuous - so this criteria seems to  be satisfied. 

Grandpa's targeting of non-combatants may be considered malum in se given that water bombing non-combatants is best categorised as water fight murder rather than water war - but his cards are already marked.

Jus post bellum.

This is an idea which is in its infancy - in the context of the wider theory which is of medieval provenance. It may be for this reason that exactly what the principles of jus post bellum are, or should be, is not settled. However, for the purpose of discussion it is possible to focus on three;

1. Soldiers from all sides of the conflict must be held accountable for war crimes

It is so rare for this to be stuck to in the real world it's almost a joke. It's also possible to suggest that your troops shouldn't be liable for prosecution for war crimes and this not cause an outrage - basically the right wing press in the UK is tough on crime. But only if the criminal wasn't wearing a British Army Uniform at the time.

But I digress - in the context of the episode this is not stuck to, because we don't see Grandpa Simpsons tied up being asked to atone for his sins. The war crimes of both sides in the conflict need to be accounted for and prosecuted.

2. Terms for settlement should be measured and reasonable, ruling out unconditional surrenders

In the terms of surrender Nelson is given a place as a "figure of menace" within the neighbourhood. Meaning that the treaty is intended to protect Bart and his comrades from any future attack, but is not meant to humiliate Nelson. 

Again, we could do to take note of this in real world conflicts.

3. Terms for settlement should be made public

It was broadcast to an audience of millions. What more d'you want?



(1) This is a commonly used concept in civic discourse prior to, during or after wars in the real world although it is not commonly included in the traditional just war discourse. I am definitely not the first one to use the concept in this context.

(2) Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Entry on Just War Theory, Section on Just Ad Bellum; Accessed: 05/05/2017, 17:32 British Summer Time (UTC+1)

(3)Except God - which the author does not believe to exist, or if it does in a very minimally defined form which we would not wish to attribute knowledge to.

(4) Although someone has subsequently pointed out to me that as Homer gave assistance to Bart in training him for combat he might be considered part of Bart's military structures. But for the sake of the joke let's just say that Homer had retired his role as drill sergeant. Credit to Ronak in the comments for spotting this and pointing it out.


  1. Real interesting stuff Matt, keep it up!

    1. Genuinely, thank you! The response has been great man, thanks for the support!

  2. MAybe you meant WW2 ITaly? In WW1 they were part of the triple alliance, true, but it was a defensive alliance and Italy was not bound at all to join Austria-Hungary and Prussia in their aggression. To be precise, in WW2 what would be the future republic rebelled against the fascist party and Germany, but fascism itself - and the territories it controlled - still fought alongside germans as the RSI.

    1. I am actually referring to the changing of alliances in 1915 - it's meant to be facetious though' - I don't think post-Fascist Italy has moral continuity with Fascist Italy!

      Edit: I misread you saying WW2 as WW1 my first comment, that's why I deleted it, to edit it.

  3. Very fascinating analysis, Matt! Question -- you characterize Grandpa's attack of Homer as a war crime. However, towards the beginning of the episode, Homer aids Bart in his initial campaign against Nelson. Based on this, I think its arguable that Homer could either be construed as a member of Bart's "nation" or an ally of it in his campaign against Nelson. If one of these views were adopted, would it impact your analysis of Grandpa's actions? In other words, could an otherwise improper attack on an ally or one's own forces be prosecuted as a War Crime under traditional rules of international law?

    Sorry if I'm missing the point. Again, great analysis!

    1. No, I think this is a really great point!

      You could definitely say that by providing counsel to Bart he is part of Bart's military structures - as he's providing training, and would therefore probably be considered a legitimate military target.

      However, in this case Homer and Grandpa Abe they are on the same side so Abe would be guilty of murder and would obviously be subject to justice for that.

      As for providing material provision, it's definitely a civil offence to provide material support to an enemy in wartime - at least in the UK, and I believe the wider EU. Likewise groups designated as terrorist. I think this would be tried in the countries courts rather than at war crimes tribunals though'.

      Thanks for the comment as well!

    2. Thank you for your thoughtful response!

    3. I've added a little footnote to include what you've brought up!


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