The argument is often made that although some group committed a violent aggression, they were provoked into it by an act that was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. The South at Fort Sumter; the Russians in 2022; the Nazis: all those have had that argument made for them.

The people who make that argument too often forget that the red flag only works because the bull is a bull. Humans react to the waving of a red flag by asking “Why are you waving that thing at me?” There are humans who act like bulls, but one does not get to turn around and proclaim that they are “playing four-dimensional chess”, as some people liked to say about Putin. Bulls don’t do that; they trample chessboards and shit on them. (And, indeed, the “four-dimensional chess” line seems to be taking a bit of a rest at the moment.)

That doesn’t mean the argument has to be wrong. A historical case where it is generally accepted is the Ems telegram, which provoked the French to declare war against Prussia in 1870. But that general acceptance doesn’t come with the idea that the French were actually right to declare war, or even that they were “in the right” though they lost the war. They were just being foolish.

So the argument can be right, but it can’t do what most of the people making it want it to do, which is to reverse the morality of the situation. To make it, you have to start by assuming the aggressor is mentally inferior. Then, well – yes, bulls have their uses and don’t always need to be fought.