The Just War Myth
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.