Armed Forces and Federal Ministries

The Just War Tradition Today

January 25, 2016
Armed Forces and Federal Ministries

The roots of Just War thinking are to be found, not in scripture, but in the Stoic tradition of philosophy that can be traced back in its essentials to Aristotle. The highest priority was not (as it tends to be in modern thinking) the preservation of human life, or even innocent life, at all costs. Life was not regarded in the ancient world as universally precious, and in the Christian religion was in any case regarded as only a preparation for the life to come; therefore it preservation was of value mainly as an opportuinty for repentance and growth in sanctity. The evil of was was seen less in terms of its cost than of the licence it gave for the exercise of unruly passions and desires: ‘love of violence, revengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable enmity, wild resistance and the lust for power and such like’. These passions exist, and war may be necessary to curb them and restore justice and order; but the means to be used should be those approved by reason and informed by virtue. Hence the familiar Just War principles governing the conditions under which war may be initiated (jus ad bellum) and waged (jus in bello). There is nothing distinctively Christian about these: they result from more common sense and rational inference than from religious revelation, and are assented to by members of other religions and by secular thinkers. But, in its Christian formulation, Just War thinking as we have inherited it from Augustine and Aquinas represents a delicate balance between divine revelation and natural law. Aquinas in particular sees the natural law as both authoritative in its own right, because it is a system of ethical rules which anyone can understand and accept simply on account of being endowed with human ‘nature’; and yet as totally dependent upon God, since God makes all the kinds of creatures there are, including human kind which has this nature and is thus gifted with a capacity for moral responsibility. For Aquinas it is impossible to believe in natural law without, at least implicitly, believing in God as its author.

Now from our twentieth-century vantage-point we can see how delicately poised was the mediaeval bridge on which Aquinas stood, linking revelation and reason, divine command and natural law. On one hand, belief in human nature as God’s creation was not just a philosophical or theological postulate: it was embedded as a founding element of the political and economic culuture of mediaeval Europe. Wars between Christian princes, for example, were commonly regarded as subject to regulation by divinely authorized naturallaws. These provided the means for distinguishing (say) lawful from unlawful authority, or just from unjust causes, for going to war. On the other hand crusades against the infidel could not be regulated by such laws, for they were holy wars, waged at divine command. Consequently the natural rights to which Christian enemies were entitled were not to be conceded to infidel enemies, who were fighting against God’s explicit command and who did not belong to Christendom.2  Thus (to take one notorious case) it was forbidden to Christina soldiers, by the second Lateran Council in 1139, to use the cross bow against Christian enemies.3  But its use against the infidel was not forbidden by this decree.

We recognize the fragility of the Thomist bridge when we look further ahead, to the sixteenth century. Whereas Aquinas’ Just War theory ‘hardly envisages cultures in which Christ has not explicitly been preached at all’,4  Franciscus Vitoria (1480-1546) had to confront this problem head-on. He was the first significant Christian theologian faced with having to apply Just War criteria to wars waged by Christians against people who had never had any contact with Christianity. The Spanish wars against the American ‘Indians’ were not ‘crusades’ commanded by God; and, unlike the crusaders, the conquistadores were certainly not motiviated by obedience to the demands of confessors that they should undertake penance. Here then was a new puzzle: how to apply the natural criteria for justice in war when there was no shared Christian culture available to both sides. The puzzle was soluble in the end only by cutting the link between natural law and belief in a divinely instituted common Christian culture. Despite Vitoria’s valiant efforts to keep alive the Thomist marriage of divinely revealed law with nature, in the end divorce became inevitable. In the work of Grotius and his successors,5  Just War theory was secularized precisely in order to deal with situations which involved people quite unfamiliar with Christianity. Natural law now aspired to be autonomous and to provide the basis for an international law that would hold equally for peoples of all races and cultures.The ‘body’ (sõma) of Thomist natural law, dependent as it was on God as its alpha and omega, had become the mere ‘flesh’ (sarx) of a legal order operating on its own. Thenceforward the problem would always be how to prevent this flesh from becoming mere grass.6

Now of course, the system of autonomous international law which we have inherited from this divorce is of inestimable practical value. In it lies today’s hope for a more peaceful, humane world in which conflict can be conducted without violence. Our hope is for an international law which breaches the cultural walls which divided Christendom from the pagan or infidel world. Today, legally enforceable rights are claimed to belong to everybody, irrespective of religion, race, gender or whatever, simply because we are all human.

Yet, as we know, the bridge between cultures on which modern international law stands is at least as fragile as that on which Aquinas stood. An example will illustrate this point. It is drawn from the work of the International Court of Justice.7  On 8 July 1996 this Court gave its advisory opinion on the legality (or otherwise) of the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons. It emerged that international law, thus interpreted by the only authoritative judicial body in the world, cannot quite make up its mind on the crucial issue of nuclear use and disarmament. For the product of its deliberations taken as a whole is ambivalent—as the international judges from different countries and cultures have shown by their divergent interpretations of its meaning.8   This is perhaps not surprising when we reflect that although the judges of the International Court are supposed to operate simply as legal authorities, without reference to their own cultural backgrounds, on the nuclear issue those from nuclear-weapons states took a markeldy less anti-nuclear stance than many from non-nuclear states. No judge took a line incompatible with the policy of his or her own government. International law, on its own without reference to any objective standard such as was afforded by a divinely authorized ‘natural law’, was unable to provide an independent criterion that could override that partial perceptions of individual member states. The only conceivable superior authority to which appeal could be made is the United Nations itself; and it is open to question whether this has, or even ought to have, the standing required to act as ultimate arbiter in the manner of the mediaeval church.

To the pacifist, in any case (and indeed to many others), reflection on the Just War tradition may seem something of an academic exercise. When has reflection on Just War principles ever prevented war from breaking out? What restraint have these principles ever exercised on the belligerents once the fighting gets desperate? Are they anything more than a means by which Christians have been able to salve their consciences when taking part in war, a compromise between a theoretically non-vioent Christianity and the practical imperatives imposed by civic loyalities? And are they still in any sense adequate to the task of giving guidance to politicians and strategists when any use of force amy rapidly escalate to unprecedented levels and when violent conflict is liable to break out, not between nation states with accountable governments, but between ethnic and even religious groups within the territory of a single country?

The pessimism implicit in these questions is understandable. But ultimately it is the same pessimism which may greet any attempt to lift or alleviate the curse of Cain, including the pacifist project itself. War, it can be argued, is endemic in the human race. Nations will fight each other until one or other is victorious, until both are exhausted, or unless a more powerful force is interposed between them. Apart from the undoubted success (in this respect) of the European Union, the only policy which can be shown historically to have prevented war has nothing to do with international institutions or peace movements but is the formation of alliances to maintain a balance of power. The evident folly of initiating war with massively destructive modern weapons cannot be relied upon to deter the ambitions of a ruthless aggressor. Once the battle is engaged, no one can predict what atrocities the loser may commit to avoid total defeat. Even a religion such as Christianity, with its clear imperative to renounce violence, has again and again been an accomplice to warlike intentions. Against such powerful instincts and well-established military cultures, now made still more lethal by modern armaments, Just War theorizing and pacifist refusal to engage are alike ‘academic’. Only force, or the threat of it, is capable of saving the world from unprecedented catastrophe.

Our argument has been that this pessimism is no longer justified. The last half-century, with its new international institutions, with a new consensus on the inviolability of human rights, with an effective diminution of the freedom of sovereign states to initiate aggression and with a common agenda to conserve an increasingly fragile environment, has arguably given the world at least promise of an international order that could greatly reduce the risk of major armed conflict. The questions before us now is not so much whether the Just War tradition has ever prevented wars in the past and restrained the intentions of belligerents as whether it has a part to play in the contemporary striving of humanity to reduce the risks of war taking place and whether it can still provide moral and theological justification for the Christian non-pacifist position.

In a sense this amounts to casting it in a new role. Historically, it is unlikely that Just War theorists ever imagined that their reasoning would actually prevent wars taking place. In antiquity, in the Middle Ages, and indeed up to the First World War, the likelihood of war was taken for granted. Despite all the grievous suffering it might cause, war was assumed to be an option rulers might follow when other means of protecting their interests or gaining their objectives had failed; moreover its successful prosecution could lead to fame and honour beyond anything promised by the arts of peace. In these circumstances the theorists had little chance of influencing the course of events: they aspired rather to guide the conscience of Christian rulers contemplating war and of individual Christians who had to decide whether to take part in it. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ was a divine and universal prohibition; but the apparent necessity of war meant that there must be exemptions. Some classes of people, such as the clergy, could never be exempted.9  But in time of war a Christian man could legitimately take up arms with the intention of killing an enemy so long as the Just War conditions were fulfilled — so long, that is, as the war was engaged in for the right reasons and waged in accordance with ‘just’ principles.

It is therefore unfair to criticize the Just War tradition for not having succeeded in preventing wars. Nor should it surprise us that the tradition has made only a minor contribution to the modern ‘laws of war’. Though it does of course contain the principle of ‘discrimination’ (forbidding the deliberate killing of non-combatants), its emphasis and approach are somewhat different from that of recent Christian and humanitarian thinking. It is concerned, not with individual responsibility, but with strategic aims and tactical options. As its name implies, the criterion it invokes is ‘justice’. If an aggressor has disturbed international order and committed a wrong that must be put right, the question is, in what circumstances can one be sure that the righting of the wrong will do more good than harm, and what tactical rules must be observed in order that the war may remain ‘just’ and not descend to a level of barbarism such that it should never have been engaged upon in the first place? These are questions for rulers and commanders, not subordinate officers and individual servicemen. Matters such as the safety of non-combatants or the treatment of prisoners receive little attention in a tradition derived, not from any humanitarian principles, but from a concept of justice that goes back to Stoic philosophy and beyond. Recent Christian thinking, by contrast, tends to start from a principle found in scripture as well as in natural law, namely the absolute inviolability of the innocent, which is necessarily a matter not just for the commander but for the individual. The Nuremberg trials in 1947 placed responsibility firmly on the individual to respect the difference between the legitimate (or ‘just’) killing of a combatant enemy and the killing (which is murder) of an unarmed civilian; and modern military manuals reflect the same principle. Moreover, the ‘proportionality’ which is such an important element in the Just War tradition, if defined as the avoidance of excessive casualties and destruction, is now seen to depend on the professionalism of servicemen as much as on the tactical decisions of generals. This shift of attention from politicians and generals to subordinate officers and individuals, and the apparent priority of the principle of the protection of the innocent at all costs over the abstract concept of justice, might make us think that the Just War tradition has lost some of its purchase on the realities of war and on the Christian conscience today.

Yet it is arguable that these considerations were always implicit in Just War thinking, even if they have become explicit in modern times. Certainly recent events have shown the tradition to be still very much alive. Not only has it played a significant part in the debate on the ethics of nuclear deterrence; its principles were widely invoked in the discussion leading up to the Gulf War in 1991. Admittedly there were doubtless other less academic factors which caused the opening of hostilities, ranging from concern for supplies of oil to the personal and political reputation of George Bush. But (at least in Britain) the issue was vigorously discussed in moral terms which respected the principles of Just War doctrine. It was argued that Iraq had invaded another sovereign state in defiance of the UN Charter and must be repelled (‘just cause’); the objective of military action was to restore the integirty of frontiers and re-establish international authority (‘right intention’); the operation had been formally authorized by the international community through a Security Council resolution (‘lawful authority’); it had a ‘reasonable prospect of success’; and the use of ‘smart weapons’, absolute superiority in the air and well deployed ground trooops would ensure that the degree of force exerted on Irag and the likely casualities would be ‘in proportion’ to the object to be achieved, namely the expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait. These traditional Just War arguments persuaded many Christians that the Desert Storm campaign was not merely acceptable to their conscience but was a duty laid upon member states of the United Nations of which the Charter had been flouted; but it was the last category, that of ‘proportionality’, which caused most misgivings. In an age when the actual conduct of hostilities may be seen by millions on their TV screens and when it is impossible to conceal the scale of casualities suffered and inflicted, what level of death, wounding and destruction would be publicly acceptable as ‘proportionate’ to the objective? Might the massive exploitation of technological superiority in missiles and aircraft, even if it greatly reduced the risk of casualities to the allies, nevertheless cause injury and suffering to Iraqis (particularly civilians) ‘disproportionate’ to the scale of the military operation? In the event, despite claims made for the limited damage caused by ‘smart weapons’, it was this quesiton of proportion which caused most unease: and the ruthless bombing of retreating Iraqi troops on the Basra road, causing thousands of enemy casualities with little apparent military justifiication, forced many to the conclusion that the war had been ‘unjust’ in its conduct if not in its intention.

It is indeed the difficulty of applying the criterion of porportionality in modern conditions which most seriously calls into question claims by belligerents that the wars they wage are just.10  In the European Christendom in which Aquinas developed the principles of the ‘Just War’, the practice of making proportionality-calculations must have been so familiar, so embedded in the culture, that in the discussion of the ethics of warfare it would have hardly merited special attention. For the whole of mediaeval trade and commerce was based on belief in the ‘just price’ for goods or services.

Prices were calculated by the intrinsic use-value of things, not simply by their exchange-value as determined by the market. Elusive as the concept of the ‘just price’ undoubtedly was, the habit of proportioning prices to use-value was endemic. The huge amount of effort made by theologians, bishops and preachers to stamp out avarice and extortion is proof of belief in the theoretical validity, as well as of the practical difficulty, of the proportionality, or ‘just price’, principle.

In trade, then, the proportionality principle was taken for granted. But today, in a world where prices are determined by exchange-values in the market, the very concept of proportionality becomes deeply problematic. Indeed under economic conditions of perfect competition the vice of avarice or the practice of extortion would become logical impossibilities, because these vices and their opposing virtues would have no place in the theoretical underpinnings of the system. However, as the existence of public disgust at the avarice of ‘fat cats’ shows, there is widespread disbelief in market forces as defenders of moral decency. The market cannot be trusted to deliver an ethically tolerable society. Mrs. Thatcher notwithstanding, people want and demand that it be bucked.

Regulation of the activities of market forces, though demanded and necessary, remains problematic. And for precisely parallel reasons, the concept of proportionality has also become problematice for modern belligerents. In our post-Clausewitzian, market-dominated society belligerent behaviour is governed essentially by a market-system of morality, in which the principle of proportionality as a means of regulating war becomes all but unintelligible. In the sixteenth century the successes of rapacious adventurers in making disproportionate profits by stealing the lands and natural resources of the ‘Indians’ became scandalous to the conservative Dominican moralists of Salamanca, who began to recognize that people had inalienable legal rights simply because they were human. Today determining the just price for military operations — say in calculating the just level of casualities to be inflicted or suffered in a particular engagement — has to be conducted in the absence of any objective principle or criterion. It may be a matter simply of what public opinion will tolerate or what the professionals believe to be appropriate. There is no culture of ‘just prices’ for victory in modern post-Clausewitzian warfare. And, in the present climate of moral relativism, there is no consensus on how to create one.11

A second Just War principle which has become difficult to apply is that of ‘discrimination”. This principle can be stated thus: there is simply no purpose, however noble, for the attainment of which it is licit, as a means to an end, intentionally to kill, or to consent (even conditionally) to the killing of, people who are innocent of doing or threatening to do us any harm.

This principle should apply both in waging and in the deterrence of war; but it is not universally accepted. There is, for example, the objection put forward by Michael Walzer in his discussion of siege warfare and the immunity from attack of innocent civilians in the besieged city. He argues that civilian citizens who, having been given the chance to leave the city by the besieging forces, choose for whatever reason to remain, thereby lose their normal immunity from direct attack. This is so even though their ‘choice’ may well have been made under extreme duress by the defending commander who wants civilians in his city as a kind of protective shield, or to help him in other ways.12  Walzer’s argument is founded (a) on the fact that sieges are permitted by the laws of war, and (b) that without the above-mentioned reservation concerning civilian immunity sieges may well turn out to be impossible. Yet Walzer is open to the cirticism that, despite their choice to stay, these civilians still fail to constitute any kind of threat to the besieging forces.13  And if they are no threat, how come they have lost their immunity from attack and have now become legitimate military targets? For even if they are in the city ‘voluntarily’ they are still not combatants, and surely ought to be allowed the immunity normally granted in Just War theory to those innocent of doing, threatening to do, any harm to their opponents?Mutatis mutandis the same argument can be made about the immunity from direct attack of civilians in a city under aerial bombardment, or even of those caught up in guerilla warfare.

Now Walzer may reply that the civilians’ choice to stay despite being given the chance to leave must make some difference to the question of moral responsibility. But what the argument shows is at most that things are not quite as clear cut as the discrimination principle at first suggests.14  Even if the responsibility falling on the various players for the deaths of the civilians in a siege cannot always be clearly identified, this does not alter the essential principle of the inviolability of the innocent in war. The principle of discriminiation retains its absolute validity.

But can this principle still be applied? In modern war, are there any ‘innocents’? The twentieth-century concept of ‘total war’ implies that almost any section of the civilian population may be involved in ‘the war effort’, and so cease to be strictly non-combatants with immunity from attack. Certainly the very large number of civilian casualities in recent wars suggests that the principle of non-combatant immunity is no longer thought to apply (unless it is being ruthlessly disregarded). The ‘collateral damage’ consequent upon the use of modern conventional bombardments — let alone nuclear or biological weapons — is now accpeted by strategists as a regrettable but necessary feature of war. If virtually the whole population is regarded as committed to the struggle, their exposure to attack, even if to be avoided so far as possible, is nevertheless regarded as legitimate. In this case the principle of discrimination appears to have become obsolete. Yet there is a way of defining ‘innocent’ which may give it at least some sphere of application. It can be asked of any section in the population — such as farmers, housewives, children or the elderly — however much they hate the enemy and are in solidarity with others in the struggle against him: Do they in any sense constitute a threat to the success of his military activities? If not, then they surely count as ‘innocent”, and the principle of discrimination should continue to have at least this limited application.15

Further problems arise when we consider the principle of ‘just cause’. From Aquinas onwards, the tradition is quite clear that a Just War may be waged only for the righting of a clearly-defined wrong that has been committed. This implies that the objective of a war must always be strictly limited, a point which might seem to be endorsed by Clausewitz’s principle that war is simply a particular means of pursuing a specified objective (though in Clausewitz’s thinking it is in fact cancelled out by his insistence that one may proceed as far as the total annihilation of one’s opponent). But is a limited war any longer possible in view of modern technologies, the globalization of economic power and the widespread disintegration of unstable states? May the Falklands War have been the last example of a war with the aim of simply righting a specified wrong? And what of irregular wars (by far the commonest sort now and in the foreseeable future) which are nearly always conducted for some absolute principle rather than for the righting of a specific injustice and are seldom brought to an end by the achievement of some limited objective? It is true that from the point of view of the international community such wars may look less like wars than disturbance of the peace by groups of organized criminals; in which case the appropriate armed response is more like a police action than a war, with the limited objective of restoring order in the region. To this extent it may be called ‘just”. But the international character of the operation itself raises a further problem.

This problem relates to ‘just intention’ and may be illustrated by the Gulf War of 1991. Was it not designed, pace Bush’s rhetoric about establishing a new world order, simply to eject Saddam from Kuwait in accordance with the UN Charter? Not everyone agrees that this was the real aim. There are British Muslims, claiming to speak for a majority of their co-religionists the world over, who insist that the true purpose of the war was to maintain oil supplies to the West, to keep the Islamic world divided, and to perpetuate Western dominance over the Arabs.16  The question here is not whether or not such plausible claims are warranted, but whether in such a case the concept of recta intentio any longer has application. In mediaeval or renaissance or even Napoleonic times the aim of a war was whatever purpose the sovereign belligerent had in waging it. Its aim was his aim, for which he was answerable. In those circumstances there was sense in insisting that, to be just, the sovereign belligerent’s aim (his intentio) must be right (recta): namely to establish peace.17But can a huge unwieldy assemblage of variegated states, armies, economies and interests such as was required for dealing with the Kuwait crisis be said to have any clear aim orintentio at all, let alone a right one? Who was in a position to say authoritatively what the was?

Of course one answer to this question was that the aim of the war was the aim set by the United Nations through resolutions of the Security Council. But the United Nations is not a sovereign state, and was not itself a belligerent actor in the war against Saddam. The coalition which waged the war under the aegis of the United Nations (Charter, Article 51) was a coalition of belligerents; but the United Nations was not itself a belligerent. Of course, one can speak of the Security Council’s aim, and judge that it was recta. But this was not necessarily the same thing as the aim of the belligerents who joined in the coalition, who may have been motivated by a variety of interests. It may be granted that the Security Council had a right intention in lending its authority to the war. This intention was embodied in resolutions, and certainly did not extend further than removing Saddam from Kuwait (hence the decision not to pursue the war after that objective had been achieved). But here we are trespassing on the territory of lawful authority rather than of recta intentioas Just War theory envisages it, for in international relations theory only states, because they are sovereign actors on the international stage, can be regarded as responsible for war-aims, just as the sovereign prince of old was. It thus made sense to speak of (say) Argentina’s aim in occupying the Falkland Islands, or Indonesia’s aim of invading East Timor, or Saddam’s aim in annexing Kuwait. But these aims are not on a par with the aim of the Security Council in authorizing belligerent action. And it is quite another thing to speak of a coherentintentio among a coalition of interests cobbled together to fight a war under its authority.

It has to be admitted that here we are venturing on to new, tricky, ground. The fact is that the United Nations is neither a sovereign actor nor a government with full authority over other actors. It is a bastard creature of the twentieth-centry’s history. Had it been a sovereign belligerent in the Kuwait war, it would have been both judge and jury in its own cause — the Machiavellian anomaly in international relations that the United Nations itself was set up to overcome. On the other hand had it been a sovereign government, it would have had its own forces to deploy — as Boutros Boutros Ghali recommended in his Agenda for Peace. Unfortunately, it was neither, and had to cope as best it could under the far from unambiguous terms of the Charter. The fact is that the United Nations is, and was intended to be, in hock to the ‘great powers’, that is the major sovereign states who won the Second World War. But things have changed so radically since 1945 that this founding principle is no longer enough. True, a readjustment took place when the Republic of China replaced Taiwan; but this did not alter the underlying principle of the dominance of the ‘great powers’. The problem today is that power has been radically redistributed in the world while the United Nations has been unable to accommodate fully to this fact. It is neither a global sovereign authority nor simply a forum for building peace and security among states without recourse to violence. Its ambivalence is an expression of a world in drastic transition, struggling to be reborn. It is this ambivalence which raises unavoidably the question of the applicability, in modern circumstances, of Just War principles, including in particular that of ‘right intention’ in the use of military force for the settlement of disputes.

There is a further feature of the modern world which may be thought to make Just War reasoning problematic. The tradition was premised upon war being waged between states (or ‘princes’) for the purpose of righting the wrong which one of them had committed. Its application today (as in the case of the Gulf War of 1991) similarly presupposes that some act of aggression has taken place which it is necessary (‘just’) to repel and punish. But the end of the twentieth century has seen a significant amount of warfare conducted, not between states, but within states. The question then is not so much whether a neighbouring state or alliance should go to war with an aggressor as whether the international community should intervene within the boundaries of a state and exercise force to prevent genocide, ‘ethnic cleansing’ or some other major violation of human rights. The dilemma this presents can be expressed in terms of two apparently incompatible Articles of the UN Charter. On the one hand there is an absolute veto on any use of military force to intervene in the domestic affairs of another state (Article 2.7). On the other hand the member states are obliged (Articles 55, 56) to protect and promote human rights to the best of their ability, and recent events (as in Somalia, in Algeria, in former Yugoslavia) show that this may not be possible without the use of force. Can the Just War tradition help to decide whether such action should be taken? Or (to put the questions concisely) is there such a thing as ‘just intervention’? 

Some traditional principles certainly seem relevant. One that is regularly appealed to is that of ‘lawful authority’. Before considering intervention the international community is keen to be assured that military action is authorized by the UN through the Security Council and is legal according to international law — and it is arguable that (were this practicable) the UN Charter should be amended in order to remove the apparent illegality of intervention in the affairs of an autonomous state in such circumstances.18  ‘Just cause’ again, seems well provided for by the moral necessity of protecting the innocent from deliberate attack. But ‘right intention’ is particularly difficult to assess. A major part of the problem of military intervention is the lack of a clear objective. If force must be used to protect one part of the population, what then? Can this foreign force remain neutral if the oppressed mount a counter-attack? Is the object to create a ‘safe haven’, to introduce a long-term peace-keeping force, or to vacate the field as soon as possible? Uncertainty about the future role (or ‘intention’) of the intervening force is a major cause of hesitation. ‘Just proportion’, again, is singularly difficult to apply. What level of casualities, if any, will the intervening countries and their public opinion tolerate for their own troops? What degree of force is it appropriate to use in response to the alleged violation human rights? There seems no precedent for answering these questions, and in practice the issue is likely to be debated less in Just War terms than as a matter of balancing the strength of the humanitarian concern voiced by the international community against the practical difficulties and long-term implications of military actions.19  Only a few of the traditional Just War arguments seem to gain any purchase on these increasingly prevalent threats to peace. In this respect, again, many may believe that the tradition is obsolete. 

This discussion has shown that there are serious difficulties in applying Just War principles with any stringency to modern armed conflicts, even though they have been explicitly appealed to in connection with some recent military engagements. But it is this tradition which for many centuries furnished the Christian conscience with justification for disregarding the apparently pacifist mandate of the gospel and for engaging in warfare. If this justification can no longer be maintained, it might seem to follow that Christians today, if they are to remain faithful to the teaching of Christ, have no option but the pacifist one, and that their churches should publicly refuse to endorse the threat or use of force in international affairs. But before drawing this conclusion it is important to bear in mind another strand of Christian thinking which, though implicit in the Just War tradition, appeals not to the philosopical concept of ‘justice’ but to the principle, explicitly stated in the Bible, of the inviolability of innocent life. It is this principle, now widely accepted, which has given us the ‘laws of war’ protecting the sick, the injured and prisoners of war and imposing on bellligerents the duty to avoid targeting non-combatants; which has sustained the fundamental objection to a policy of nuclear deterrence (that it acquiesces in the probable slaughter of large numbers of civilians and the maiming of many more still unborn); which adds moral pressure to technical military reasons for developing ever more accurate (or ‘smart’) weapons so as to reduce what is euphemistically called ‘collateral damage’ (which usually means civilian casualities) to a minimum; and which is the criterion many people will instinctively use today when considering whether a given military operation, apparently required for the protection of human rights or the re-establishment of international order, is compatible with the Christian conscience.

In point of fact it may be argued that certain elements of the Just War tradition (particularly ‘just cause’ and ‘lawful authority’), along with the religious and humanitarian consensus that the innocent must be protected, are embodied in the UN Charter, and that this now provides a guide to the Christian conscience which replaces both. Article 52 limits the permissible pretexts for war to self-defence in case of attack by an aggressor, and then only until the international community has been able to mediate; Article 42 authorizes the UN to use force if necessary to cause the aggressor to desist; and Articles 55 and 56 (in uneasy tension with the foregoing) lay the duty on member states to protect the human rights of individuals, with the implication that in serious cases of genocide or ‘ethnic cleansing’ it might be necessary to intervene by force. On the basis of these provisions there is an emerging international consensus that: 

(1) no use or threat of force is permissible that is not in accordance with the UN Charter;

(2) military action should normally be engaged upon only with the authority of a UN Security Council Resolution;

(3) it must be conducted with the minimum force required to achieve the objective and with the utmost practicable protection of non-combatants;

(4) all personnel must adhere strictly to internationally agreed laws of war and rule of engagement.

The consensus undoubtedly represents a significant advance in humanity’s striving for peace and order and deserves the widest possible endorsement, including that of Christians. Indeed it was concern whether the Nato campaign in the Balkans in 1999 strictly observed these conditions that underlay much of the anxoius questioning to which that campaign was subjected. In particular, the duty to support the United Nations and its agencies and to adhere scrupulously to the Charter is laid upon all who are committed to work for peace. This does not mean, of course, that the UN is above reproach or can claim ultimate authority over the conscience of individuals. Security Council or General Assembly resolutions represent only the views of the majority that voted for them, and may well have been influenced by the political interests of the most powerful states. Yet the degree to which they take account of the traditional principles of just cause, right intention and lawful authority before authorizing military operations, and insist on the protection of the innocent in their conduct, arguably provides a criterion by which Christians may decide whether they can in conscience approve them and take part in them. On the other hand, our discussion has suggested that the difficulty and uncertainty involved in applying this criterion may drive more and more Christians to consider seriously adopting a pacifist stance. But before we discuss this further, there is another potion to be considered.

The above material, Chapter 4 ‘The Just War Tradition Today’ in A.E. Harvey, Demanding Peace Today: Christian Responses to War and Violence, SCM Press 1999, appears here with the permission of SCM-Canterbury Press. Copies of the book (price $13.99) can be obtained in the USA through their agents, IPM, 22841 Quicksliver Drive, Dulles VA 20166. Telephone: 800-758-3756, Fax: 703-661-1501.

Notes to Chapter 4 The Just War Tradition today

  1. Augustine, Contra Faustum 22.74. Translation as in John Langan, ‘The Elements of St. Augustine’s Just War Theory’ in William S. Babcock (ed), The Ethics of St. Augustine, Scholars Press, Atlanta 1991, p.171.
  2. For Aquinas’ views on infidels see Summa Theologiae IIA IIae Q.10.
  3. See N. Tanner (ed), Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, Sheed and Ward and Georgetown University Press 1990, Vol.1, p.203: ‘We prohibit under anathema that murderous art of cross-bowmen and archers, which is hateful to God, to be employed against Christians and Catholics from now on’ (Canon 29). The cross-bow was not just a very nasty weapon; it was oibjectionable also because it was a favourite of low-born soldiers, whose skill with it against mercenaries and brigands threatened the privileged status of the knightly class. On the historical context of this decree see James Turner Johnson, The Quest for Peace, Princeton University Press 1987, p. 78.
  4. Timothy MacDermott, Summa Theologiae: A Concise Translation, Eyre and Spottiswoode 1989, p. 328.
  5. Cf. James Turner Johnson, Ideology, Reason and the Limitation of War, Princeton University Press 1975, chs III and IV passim.
  6. For the view that this prolbem has caused a breakdown of the tradition of moral philosophy in our own day, see G.E. M. Anscombe, ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ in Collected Philosophical Papers, Vol. III, Blackwell 1981, pp. 26-42.
  7. Advisory Opinion on Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, International Court of Justice, The Hague, 8 July 1996.
  8. While the Court says that the threat or use of nuclear weapons ‘would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict’, it cannot give a clear ruling on the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons ‘in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which the very survival of a state would be at stake’ (Advisory Opinion 105E). This loophole is reminiscent of Michael Walzer’s argument about ‘supreme emergency’ in ch.16 of Just and Unjust Wars, Allen Lane 1978. On the other hand, the Court insists (following Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) that ‘there exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control’. This obligation is stressed by the Court without making any reference to ‘general and complete disarmament’ which is also mentioned in Article VI. The Court appears to regard the obligation to negotiate on nuclear disaramament as a quite separate matter from negotiations on ‘general and complete disarmament’ despite the fact that some states, in their arguments before the Court, sought to establish an inextricable connection between the two (see John Burroughs, The (Il)legality of Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, Munster 1997, pp.50 and 122-23).
  9. ‘All the clerical holy orders are services of the altar on which Christ’s sufferings are made present in sacrament. So their office is not to kill or shed other’s blood, but rather to be ready to shed their own for Christ, imitating in very deed what they sacrementally re-enact’ (Aquinas, Summa Theologiae IIa AIIAe Q.40 Art.2, trs Timothy MacDermott, p.367).
  10. The following two paragraphs, and much of the argument which follows, are taken from a paper submitted by Brian Wicker.
  11. See Brian Wicker, ‘A Just Defence of Just Prices’ in New Blackfriars, Vol.77, No.904, May 1996, pp.232ff. for examples. If war is conducted on Clausewitizian ‘absolute’ principles, notions of proportionality go out of the window. J.F.C. Fuller put this point concisely: ‘Clausewitz’s insistence that war is a political instrument is the first principle of all military statecraft, but his equal insistence on the complete overthrow of the enemy vitiates the end of grand strategy, which is that a profitable peace demands not the annihilation of one’s opponent, but the elimination or modification of the causes of war’ (see J.F.C. Fuller, The Conduct of War 1789-1961: A Study of the Impact of the French, Industrial and Russian Revolutions on War and its Conduct, Methuen 1961, p.310).
  12. Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, ch.10.
  13. Theodore J.Koontz, “Non-Combatant Immunity in Michael Walzer’s “Just and Unjust Wars”‘ in Ethics and International Affairs, Vol.II(1997), pp.55-82.
  14. Michael Walzer in Ethics and International Affairs, Vol.II(1997), pp.102-3
  15. There is also the point made by Elizabeth Anscombe that neglect of the distinction between the innocent and the combatant leads to serious moral damage: ‘Pacifism teaches people to make no distinction between the shedding of innocent blood and the shedding of any human blood. And in this way pacifism has corrupted enormous numbers of people who will not act according to its tenets. They become convinced that a number of things are wicked which are not; hence seeing no way of avoiding wickedness, they set not limits to it’ (G.E.M. Anscombe, ‘War and Murder’ in Collected Philosophical Papers, Vol. III, Blackwell 1981, pp.51-62;originally published in Walter Stein(ed), Nuclear Weapons and Christian Conscience, Merlin Press 1961, pp.45-62).
  16. For a statement of this argument see Haleem, Ramsbotham, Risaluddin and Wicker (eds), The Crescent and the Cross, pp.164-71.
  17. When Aquinas insists that war can be just only if waged with a recta intentio he has in mind not so much the subjective reflections of the ruler as the aim or purpose of the war he is engaged in.
  18. See Roger Williamson (ed), Some Corner of a Foreign Field, Macmillan 1998, pp.58-61.
  19. When the balance tipped in favour of NATO intervening in Serbia and Kosovo in 1999, allegedly (and unsuccessfully) to prevent further atrocities, many of these questions remained unanswered and returned to call into question the justice of the campaign.

The Rt. Rev. Carl Walter Wright

Bishop Suffragan for the Armed Forces and Federal Ministries