Today, the United States is the only super-power on the face of the earth. With such power comes the ability to wage war unilaterally using our own country’s set of presuppositions and or priorities. Yet the United States is a country, that ostensibly is “God fearing” and “under God.” As Christians in the United States, seeking to serve and advance God’s mission of repentance, reconciliation and restoration in the face of war, Episcopalians must ask ourselves how and when can war be justified? Does just war theory, a theory and set of principles inherited from classical philosophy via Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, have anything to say to us and to our country today? Does it have a part to play in the contemporary striving of humanity to reduce the risk of war? Can it legitimize a Christian non-pacifist position? When facing the agony of prospective war, or the consequences of having to act morally within one, the church must reconsider the concept of “just war.” Armed conflict is so terrible and such a disfiguring act for humankind that a reasoned evaluation of and by the faithful in the time leading to battle, and after it commences, is of the utmost urgency.
Two evaluations must be brought to the subject. First, why nations engage in war or, the justice of war? Second, a criteria applied to how the war is being fought, the justice in war. The former refers to how “just” the cause for war is, “jus ad bello.” The latter, “jus in bello,” governs the behavior of the military, possibly other agents, perhaps even ourselves if we are close to the events of battle, though most times we are some distance from the conflict. Indeed war, though often far removed from us, cannot be a casual interest since it is a commissioning of others to kill on our behalf. As it says in a litany of confession, “Forgive us for the evil done in our name. Lord, hear our prayer.”
Christianity is not alone in looking for a moral way when considering aspects of war. For example, Jewish tradition has a reference to “righteous arms”; Islamic belief represents it under the title “justifiable defense.” Within the philosophy of just war, however, Christians are especially active in assuming roles to assure the common good. Their purpose might include forming a government or even assuming public office. Since the baptized are also citizens, this could mean direct participation in those parts of the society where the use of coercive force is necessary, such as the police or the military.
This background of societal engagement joined by an increasing influence of natural law reasoning, resulted in the development of the just war theory. Just war theory thus comes to us today as a considered set of assumptions, principles, and conditions. It is intended to be a moral map by which we can find our way through an array of ethical, empirical, and spiritual issues when the possibility that coercive force might be employed.
The “hell” of warfare, though a social creation, tends, as Karl Von Clausewitz wrote, to have no limit but simply the steady movement to increasing ruthlessness. General Dwight D. Eisenhower observed that the only boundary seemed to be the limitations of force itself. Given that extremity, how can any guidance possibly contemplate success in setting boundaries on warfare?
It is God’s intention for peace to abide everywhere, and just war theory acknowledges that war is always a departure from the way humanity is intended to live. But the facts of the world often present life where we cannot live in pretended innocence. Max Stackhouse writes, “violence erupts in the midst of history and sometimes the use of forceful means is necessary to overcome that violence and re-establish the relative peace that is possible.”
The Development of Just War Propositions
There is an erroneous perspective within parts of the Church that scriptural study will yield significant assistance in framing a point of view vis-à-vis war. The Hebrew Testament speaks of the Yahweh God as warlike at times and quite violent. Moreover, Israel is no model for compassionate conduct in the prosecution of battle. As Christians we look to the New Testament for guidance but our Lord says nothing about war, though he indirectly addresses soldiers and uses examples of preparation for battle as examples of being prepared for the Kingdom of God. For a sense of our Lord’s attitude we embrace Christ’s message of the preciousness of and need for the redemption of every human being, his/her dignity and essence in God’s sight, and the importance of living out a destiny in God’s service.
The evolution of the just war theory, however, has its roots in classical antiquity. Plato formulated a code of just war although Aristotle phrased it as “just war.” Plato within the context of the wars between Ptolomic city-states wrestled with the problematic thought that Greeks would wish to exterminate fellow Greeks. He helped to establish the parameters within which rational people would wage war as the ultimate way of settling disputes. The just war was meant to vindicate justice and restore peace. Beyond Plato and Aristotle, just war theory is traced back to the Roman orator and statesman, Cicero (d. 43 BC). Ambrose of Milan (c. 339-397) introduced Cicero’s ideas into Christian theology, subsequent church fathers like Augustine and Aquinas further developed just war theology as a part of the Christian ethos, and Luther and Calvin carried them into the Protestant Reformation. Pacifism, as a Christian doctrine, is enacted only later through church groups such as Anabaptist and later Quakers. But each of these groups gave different emphases to understandings of nonviolence. These marginalized groups are important variations in the historical tradition of the church that has at times operated firmly in the service of the rulers and at other times struggled to distance itself from oppressive rulers by affirming an alternative liberative tradition.
In Christian history then, three attitudes are to be found towards war: pacifism, just war and holy war. The early church, persecuted by a pagan state was pacifist until the time of Constantine of the fourth century, when through the early church’s close association with the state and the threat of the barbarian invasions, Christians took over the classical world’s doctrine of just war, especially as St Ambrose and St Augustine added Christian elements to understanding just war. In order to fight in a war, the motive had to be love and the clergy were exempt from fighting in war until the crusades of the middle ages. Just war seems to have become an official church doctrine through the rise of Renaissance Italy’s city-states. Perhaps the chief justification for war came through the Reformation that precipitated wars on religion. For example, Anglicans and Lutherans accepted just war and by and large still do today. As the church grew complicit with colonization in the 18th and 19th centuries, the interpretation of peace among nation states changed on the basis of European churches now defining what should represent peace around the world. Then the 20th century came with two world wars in which the church’s three positions of just war, pacifism, and holy war resurfaced again, but in a different way.
Today the question of just war is at the forefront of the church as the world balances on the brink of war. Before discussing the applicability of just war theory and how it might or might not serve God’s mission of repentance, reconciliation and restoration, it is important to state the just war tenants. Building on the above history and summarizing Thomas Aquinas’s position on just war, a just war should; Be executed as a last resort after all other peaceful initiatives have been truly exhausted.
- Be declared and waged by a legitimate authority, usually a state or nation. This means unassailable and ultimate control to authorize a beginning and an end to the conflict.
- Be fought with the right intention to redress an injury and thereby the embrace of a “just cause.” This is a primary proposition, which describes the parameters of the conflict and guards against questionable national ambitions.
- Have a reasonable chance of success. A war should not begin if it cannot change the situation and redress the wrong.
- Have the ultimate goal of re-establishing a just peace and counsels that the victor “settle up” after the war is over.
- Employ violence proportionally to the injury suffered. As the war commences, force must be measured to the good effect it intends.
- Use weapons and strategies that discriminate between combatants and non-combatants. With the increased use of more deadly weapons and their tendencies to inflict “collateral damage” on innocent civilians, this has become the abiding problem in determining a just course in the prosecution of a conflict.
How the Propositions Are Applied
Many feel that World War II has been the only classic example of a war brought to bear with just cause and just administration. Certainly stopping Fascist expansionist designs as well responding to the Holocaust puts this war in a special and noble category, not to mention a first attack on Pearl Harbor. But the years of the conflict also include intentional Allied bombing campaigns directed at civilians in German cities and, of course, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
After the Korean War, the 1991Gulf War was only the second conflict to receive a United Nations commitment. It was watched closely and initially seemed to rise to the level of a just conflict as hostilities began. A right intention, restoring the order before Iraq’s invasion, was satisfied. So too, in novel ways, was the principle of legitimate authority undertaking the task, as the Security Council went on record and recruited member nations-the U. S. being primary-to prosecute the war. It was noted at the time that since the United Nations must always apply its decisions through the variability of agent nations, the moral constant of just war principles had particular appeal. As the war progressed however, the extraordinary and disproportionate firepower employed by coalition forces coupled with significant damage to civilian casualties and resources halted any satisfaction that a just war was underway.
Failing the existence of perfect examples as a moral checklist, the just war formula usually follows the following course of application:
Because God expects peace, the use of force must be the last resort as patience dictates the exploration of every possible alternative. An exceptional response is allowed in self-defense. When an immediate attack is underway much is granted to the society as its livelihood and very corporate self is threatened.
This reveals the originating premise in just war theory: that of initiating action under a right intention or just cause. The U.S. position towards Iraq is currently being questioned closely about such a determining cause since so much depends on its presentation in order to reach the level of a defensible claim.
Just as the reason for war must be unassailable so too must be the authority which brings coercive force to bear. In our present day this can be an elusive yet fundamental exercise, (e.g. the argument of the African National Congress with the apartheid regime in South Africa) because it is the access to and ultimately the guideline for future just behavior. For, very quickly as Max Stackhouse comments, “practical calculations have to be made: One is whether there is a realistic hope of success, a just peace is not established by futile suicide. The other is that a case has to be made that more good than harm is likely to come of it - no just peace is aided by actions that make the problems worse.”
Given that the preliminary conditions are met in order to declare war, the just war convention does not give carte blanche to prosecute warfare by any and all means. Behavioral conditions would now be operable for the justice in war, “jus in bello,” phase. These identifiable conditions, such as using weapons of a proportionate nature to the offense and employing a manner to discriminate between combatants and non-combatants, allow for a measure of care and balance to prevail in an environment fraught with pain and chaos. The standard continues in the provision of prisoner care and treatment. Unique for an arena where there is an exchange of violence, the just war convention requires the victors to restore the conquered to a just level of living.
Just Behavior in War
Even after hostilities begin, the pursuit of justice continues as two tensions convene. One is the desire to win the war quickly, bringing everything necessary to bear as an aspect of utility to assure victory. Of the second tension, Michael Walzer observes that there is an imperative to prosecute the war morally, or, “to carry on the fight well.” He further comments that both aspects of justice in war, “jus in bello”, “(are) the military equivalent of an ends and means concern.”
With increased use of technology, the proportional dynamic in the battle area can become noticeably one-sided. The firepower employed by the coalition of countries during the Gulf War was extraordinary. As Michael Walzer writes, it is hard to apply the measured response contemplated in just war when the battle is a rout and a “turkey shoot.” We should note, in fairness, that there was considerable discussion during the air portion of the Gulf War that a concerted effort was underway in the “moral” evaluation of each target. Later, and on the ground, the reality of those strikes was another matter. Nevertheless it does not diminish the interest and energy of trying to abide by just war standards. It should sound an alarm, however, to military planners as they endeavor to apply ethical standards of just war. Keeping moral pace with the weapons used in an increasingly lethal battlefield environment is a rigorous exercise.
Clearly, then, the single principle of proportionality bears special attention in this era and beyond. An axiom develops with this view of a proportional response: vigilance for the non-combatant. The inviolability of human life is the clear message from our Lord Jesus Christ. Given that, and the ambiguous nature of embracing right behavior, we must become sensitive experts in being advisors on the use of power for noble purposes and just deeds.
Most modern warfare throughout the world is unseen, and not publicized. Save for a few years there has always been some part of our planet at war. Usually it involves disputes on a small scale, less distinct, and fraught with internal variation. Our current “War on Terrorism” is now in that category. Often a terrorist movement is the result of a specific grievance by a criminal or revolutionary element in the society. In such instances just war principles seem even harder to apply as the hostility (true to the concept of terrorist threat)moves in and out of a prospective and imaginary status. Some fresh thinking has been generated recently to meet the challenge and may be key as we conceive of pre-emptive responses.
Pre-emptive and Preventative War
Recently, with the War on Terrorism, the question of the additional condition of the justness of a pre-emptive and preventative war has demanded attention. There has always been a precarious philosophy about preventative war and the balance of power since such a posture could lead to any number of odd conflicts. Achieving such a balance is difficult and needlessly delays the formation of a lasting Christian attitude. The counter response is that fighting now prevents fighting later on a larger scale. That thinking, of course, is leading us into a current foreign policy which, failing any identifiable opposing state, moves us away from any current understanding of the just war convention.
The challenge is to identify and isolate the nation which espouses a threatening attitude and then to determine a course of action. But the task does not end there. For, current proposed preventive military action so rearranges the understanding of just war to the point of being unrecognizable. The just war convention is based on a world of integrity and relative relationships among nations as sovereign states. Not only does that coherency use order and exchange as a framework, it infers the prevention of unilateral appropriation of the just war theory by one state over another. Understandably, the United States. is desperately trying to pursue a foreign policy which will protect its citizenry, but the just war convention is charged with a longer view of world history, one that sets limits on interactive behavior. To do otherwise opens the door to the kind of opportunistic acts of a Hitler showing “just cause” for the invasion of Poland.
This new era seems to depend upon de-facto “packaging” parts of the just war convention for contemporary application with inconclusive results. Is not there a justifiable response when there has been a demonstrated threat to the common good? Indeed, we can stipulate, as Walzer says, sufficient “acts of malignity” promoted by terrorist organizations which rise to the level of “threat,”, or, “(the) declaration of one’s intention of inflicting injury.”
It has been said that injury and provocation are the commonly used references of just war and make up the threats under which no nation can be expected to live. With that analysis as a guide, we are asked to move along a range in search of those who have already harmed us or who are currently engaged in doing so. For Michael Walzer, once that circumstance is realized, an appraisal must be realized to determine the “intent to injure, the degree of participation that makes that intent a positive danger, and most important, a general situation in which waiting or doing anything other than fighting greatly magnifies the risk.” When the point of sufficient threat is reached, so the thinking goes, a preventative attack is warranted.
The Limits of Just War
John Howard Yoder has a lot to say about limitations of just war theory in his essay, “Just War Tradition: Is It Credible?” He urges that any honest discussion of just war must address the illusion that it always conveys certainty. It is an easy mistake since the exercise is based on the moral discernment of facts and universally accessible rational principles. In this process it is essential for the inquiring Christian to insist on what facts and information are truly available. That presents a two-fold problem. First, in a democracy the part of the sovereign contemplated in just war theory is not a distant ruler who decides upon a course of action but rather the “people” of the republic. Bosnia War correspondent, Chris Hedges says, “Establishing just cause is crucial in the war effort so the people’s agent, the government, spends tremendous time protecting, explaining, and promoting the cause.” But activities of information control severely restricts a population from any just war exercise. The conflict with an administration preparing for war is obvious and not in concert with the free debate so necessary to give the people, as Yoder says, “the wherewithal for evaluating the claimed justification for war.”
George Weigel makes a potent observation about just war. He says it is an “essential moral dimension for statecraft in the modern world.” But what of how certain states deceive themselves seizing the high moral ground “thereby suffering from illusions about their own righteousness?”
Earnest conversation about just war has never prevented a war. Rather the just war convention has always been a means for inquiry and moral reflection. These questions are continuously posed throughout a society’s sense of itself in war, not only in the preparation period. For example: What weapons are being created? When would they be used and to what result? If a trade blockade is instituted, how will it be maintained and what allowances for humanitarian aid will there be? (Ironically, this question remains unanswered from the last Gulf War.) What targets are contemplated in the prosecution of the conflict, do they have impact on the civilian population, and will those choices hamper recovery after the conflict?
As faithful Christians seeking to be responsible to God’s mission of repentance, reconciliation and restoration, we must engage these questions about the use and abuse of just war theory. We must participate in public discourse about war, as individual citizens at the personal level, as members of parishes at the communal level, and as members of a global Anglican communion, that includes Iraq as part of the Anglican Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf. Educating ourselves about just war theory, its applicability and its limits is a profound act of faithful service to the God who reconciles and restores all to wholeness and peace.
For Further Discussion
1) Trace the development of just war theory. How does just war theory build on the idea of Christian ethics and ideals?
2) Do you think just war theory is applicable in these times? Why or why not?
3) What do you think God is trying to say to us as communities of faith, given that the United States is the only super-power in the world today