Friday, April 13, 2007

The Just War Myth

Senator John McCain (AZ), following the example of President Bush in 2002 and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in 2006, went to Lexington to “fire a shot” on his support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, unlike the Minutemen’s “shot heard ‘round the world, ” McCain’s volley misfired.

Location might have something to do with that miscue – he was in Lexington, Virginia at the Virginia Military Institute, not in Massachusetts. And while the uniforms worn by the VMI cadets are not “redcoats” but Army green and the 1,200 cadets were a friendly venue, reporters found that not all of the students agreed with McCain’s position that the “surge” tactic is working.

In addition to the “surge,” McCain spoke about victory and defeat, security and strategy, politics today and terrorism tomorrow. “Supporting the troops” was another predictable theme. But what seemed new for McCain was the characterization of the Iraq war as necessary and “just.”

In fact, Senator McCain mentions Iraq as a “just war” at the beginning of his speech (a conditional reference) and again near the end (an unconditional reference), employing this concept like “moral bookends” between which he tries to define his reasons for strongly supporting the White House position on the war.

In 2003, I wrote a memorandum laying out the difference between necessary wars – a political consideration – and the claim that war can ever be just. It is what follows.

In general, “just war” is a Western concept. Moreover, it is a concept with distinct religious-moral roots. Its development occurred within the Catholic Church, notably by Augustine of Hippo in the 5th century, by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th, Francisco de Vitorio in the 16th, and Francisco Suarez in the 17th. At this point, the influence of secular thinkers such as Hugo Grotius began to overshadow that of churchmen, whose standing was undercut by the religion-driven 30 Years War that sundered the Holy Roman Empire.

Discussions about just war tend to dwell on the six criteria that are traditionally “required” to exist before a war can be called “just”: just cause (e.g., correct a grave public evil, self-defense); legitimate authority; right intention (ultimately, peace); probability of success; proportionality; and last resort. But it is critical to understand what is missed by starting any consideration of just war theory with these six criteria. Starting with the criteria effectively inverts the traditional Christian position that disputes are to be resolved peacefully. The underlying principles of moral conduct at work here are: life is God’s gift, and because there is “that of God” in each life, no human has the right to take life from another.

Beyond this fundamental point, modern warfare arguably violates proportionality because of the tremendous destructiveness of today’s weapons. The second principle habitually violated is that of “just cause” – specifically, who is empowered to declare that the cause for which war is declared is just? Simply declaring it does not make it so.


Anonymous John Neff said...

In my experience it is common for both sides in a war claim that they have a just cause, God is on their side and they will only settle for a just and lasting peace. The continuing conflict in Israel is an example.

People start wars with the expectation they will be short, decisive and relatively bloodless. The Iraq war is most recent example. The formal war was but the expected liberation turned into an costly occupation combined with a bloody civil war. The recent polls indicate that the majority of those polled think the cost in blood and gold exceeds any possible gain.

The people responsible for the war will never admit they made a mistake because they would have to take responsibility for the loss of so many lives and the waste of so much wealth. It is unrealistic to expect the president to negotiate under those circumstances.

10:26 PM  
Blogger Helena said...

Dan, thanks for writing about "Just War' theory. It is always an important discussion to have. You're quite right to note that to start with the criteria misses a very essential point about the theory... But in my understanding, that essential point is really a keen understanding that all wars inflict terrible harm on people (God's creation); and therefore that only once the six criteria have been rigorously met should a leaders even think of launching a war.

In modern times, too many Americans lost that understanding that war is intrinsically very harmful, and started to buy the idea that with 'precision' weapons etc, very clean-and-easy wars could be fought for good ends...

Also, re the role of JW theory in church history, I think it was really first enunciated by Augustine of Hippo-- long before Aquinas-- and Augustine did that at a point shortly after the church had suddenly had the amazing good luck (as its leaders then thought) of 'converting' the Roman Emperor Constantine to its beliefs... and along that, Christianity nearly overnight became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Augustine was writing shortly after some reverses in the (Christian) Empire's worldly fortunes.

But anyway, what is important to note is that this whole theory of a 'just' war was a much later, and post-Constantinian accretion to Christian doctrine, having nothing at all with the message of the Gospels, the Beatitudes, etc... That's why Quakers and the other peace churches reject it as far too political and 'worldly' an addition to the spiritual heart of our belief.

Re what John Neff wrote-- quite right! No leader ever once claimed in public he was going off to fight an unjust, rapacious, very harmful war.... Oh no! Every leader of every side in every war believes at some important level that his actions are completely 'just'-ified. We do certainly need to take these claims very seriously.

2:22 PM  
Blogger rasphila said...

A helpful posting, especially since some Just War theorists like Jean Bethke Elshtain—who should have known better—used rather stretched Just War reasoning to defend the Iraq War.

The point of the Just War theory is not to justify wars but to prevent them, i.e., to limit the resort to military force and to contain the damage if force is used. As John Neff says, every national leader proclaims that his/her nation's war is just. But as both the posting and commentators make clear, modern warfare rarely, if ever, meets the standard of proportionality.

I'm a pacifist myself, but I understand where Just Wat thinking is coming from. If the use of force is permitted, there have to be standards to control it. The problem with the traditional Just War theory is that countries, even nominally Christian ones, never decide to go to war on the basis of moral standards. Containing the violence of war requires stronger international institutions than we have now.

Having said that, I should give the UN its due. After the first Gulf War, international inspections led to the end of Iraq's WMD capabilities without further violence. Saddam Hussein remained in place, but he was far less of a threat to his neighbors than he had been. Containing him did not threaten the very fragile stability of the Middle East. The U.S. invasion, although it overthrew Saddam's government, achieved precisely what the UN had prevented: an unstable, very dangerous situation in the Middle East.

9:21 AM  
Anonymous john topel said...

rasphila has it right: the originators of the just war theory (Augustine and Aquinas) had clearly in mind the Christian prohibition of killing and of war. War was the lesser of two evils and therefore could be entered only for overwhelming reasons and after all other means had been tried and failed. In my lifetime, only WW II passes the test of the Just War theory.
Certainly the Iraq war passes NONE of the criteria of the just war theory, and president bush has also violated the criteria for the just prosecution of a war "justifiably" entered. Thus anyone calling this war "just" must appeal entirely to his own personal ideology.
Incidentally, the more alert Catholic moral theologians are now saying that the nature of modern weaponry and the inability to distinguish between civilian and combatant populations makes the just war theory no longer tenable.

12:33 AM  
Anonymous JayG said...

'All military triumphs are rationalized by reference to the courage and superiority of the "winning" group-fantasy systems, but in fact all come down to accepting that might makes right and to denying the premise that all violent actions in fact represent the failure rather than the triumph of real human values.'

Reading your post reminded me of the above quote. There are two sides to the moral superiority, beginning wars and ending wars. In the Middle East the war with Iraq is a Holy war, it is a test of whose vision of God is correct, a test of prophecy.

6:08 PM  

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