Armed Forces and Federal Ministries

'Just war' document well-meaning but unsatisfying

May 1, 2009
Armed Forces and Federal Ministries

The House of Bishops Theology Committee report, "Some Observations on Just War," is well-meaning, but incomplete. It is really an attempt to reconcile core values with national security interests—different from the charge given to it by General Convention. The chosen means to do this was to critique older Just War principles. The 2006 General Convention had noted the dated quality of those principles hence the resolution (DO68) requesting "a study on new warfare situations." It is unsettling to compare that request with the results in the committee’s report.

We are headed for the high season of important sounding pronouncements with General Convention on the horizon and with it an assortment of "non-experts" will be assembling in Anaheim. Amidst the same kind of preparation as this House of Bishops group and through various committee hearings on diverse subjects, convention will dare to make policy statements on nearly everything. Most often, the discourse will be inconsequential and disappear, not harming anyone. This would all continue to be quaint in July if the times weren’t so terrifying.

It would wiser to convene an adjunct panel of experts to any deliberation, sort of a ready telephone helpline since election as a delegate is no guarantee of knowledge.

Here’s an example where it could have helped with the Just War document. One of our senior chaplains argued that the whole concept of Just War should be replaced and did graduate study on it. Another chaplain in a major paper specifically warned about proportionality and the safety of non-combatants. He wrote, "We increase the lethality of our weaponry and thereby the safety of our soldiers on the one hand; non-combatants are left to fend for themselves on the other."

The battle area has become more and more toxic yet the bishops’ report addressed the enormity of this development with a simplistic statement like, "More care with air strikes may require pilots to fly lower, exposing them to greater danger of being shot down." Constructing such thoughts without the expertise of experience speaks for itself.

Had chaplains and other the members of the military been asked they would have lamented the impoverishment of Just War principles with, "Give us something we can use to act responsibly in undeclared wars." Added to the level of untapped expert knowledge, the Episcopal Church was noteworthy in having chaplains in the moral aftermath at both the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo prison sites.

The recent stir over released torture memos would ordinarily send the faithful in search of a church teaching but you won't find anything except a passing reference to "rape as a military tactic" in this report. Yet as we all know from a casual education by the media, torture runs the gamut from forced nudity, to prolonged stressed positions, to water-boarding. Yet there’s more. For example there’s an alarming connection between the proportionality of guided drone unmanned aircraft and the impersonality of meticulously documented instructions for torture. The report could have led us into the nuance that to be tortured is to be helpless against your will versus a drone aircraft controlled a continent away incinerating a non-combatant’s house is distinctly different; no one’s holding you down. The report could have posed the irony that if you’re watching your family burn around you that becomes a moot point.

The report does well in suggesting an end result process with a "pedagogy for Christian citizenship." We dodge the blunt need when a fancy phrase is used to sidestep a basic truth; we need a moral overhaul. Here, the committee seems caught in an a la carte style of subject commentary rather than using a unified field theory approach. Aren't other cultural values under attack, too, after towering levels of greed have threatened to submerge our society? Is it that hard to see a relationship among concepts of over dependence on technology and the promotion of self? Aren’t there many courses in this pedagogy?

The Just War document commends this education to the bishops. But in the words of the report, "there must be a cultivation of a common life within which believers display habits of gracious yet rigorous conversation." Giving the importance of this moment solely for bishops to ponder is a mistake. A stronger approach is to let persons build each other up in the Lord, tuned to perpetually updated knowledge, self reflection, compassion and sacrifice. Unlike the committee’s conclusion, we have a clearer view for our times: we’re not trying to cast out fear, just live with it and make it inconsequential.

The Rt. Rev. Carl Walter Wright

Bishop Suffragan for the Armed Forces and Federal Ministries