Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Evolving Just War Tradition (Part 1)

This is a paper I wrote several years ago that examined the Iraq War through the lens of the Just War tradition. I think many of the comparisons, as well as the basic JW framework, can apply to Syria as well. For instance, before the invasion of Iraq we were told that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and that it was affiliated with Al Qaeda. Now, we are being told that Syria has used chemical weapons on civilians. Whether Just War endorses violence or not depends on this information being CORRECT. Anything short of a UN report saying Assad used chemical weapons, in my opinion, is not enough.

Here is part one of the paper. Bibliography will appear at the end of each part for reference.

The Evolving Just War Tradition: Lessons Learned From Iraq

The relationship of Christianity to violence has had a long and bountiful history – both through the fruits of academic discourse and through the spoils and suffering of “holy war.” The tradition of arguments for the justified use of deadly force has come to be known as Just War Theory – although many modern theorists prefer to replace “theory” with “tradition” to more accurately reflect the genealogy and ongoing revision of its arguments. Since Augustine, this tradition has passed through Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and the Anabaptists all the way to contemporary Christian ethicists such as Reinhold Niebuhr and John Howard Yoder.

While it is not the goal of this paper to provide a historical or theoretical review of the Just War tradition, it will be necessary to establish the most common criteria used in arguing for the justified use of force. I will then examine the Just War critiques for the 2003 invasion of Iraq (hereafter referred to as the “Iraq War”) and see if there are any commonalities among these critiques – the vast majority of which find the Iraq War to be unjustified. Using these commonalities, I will attempt to offer reasons for the failure of the tradition to prevent this war. These reasons can be used in an attempt to better critique any future conflicts that may arise. While the Just War tradition may not ever result in a lasting global peace, I believe the goal of making each successive war more just than the last would go a long way towards reducing the amount of suffering inherent in war.

Criteria Justifying the Use of Force

The criteria that the Just War tradition addresses most commonly fall into two separate categories: jus ad bellum which establishes what just causes for war might be (pre-war criteria) and jus in bello which provide criteria for justly prosecuting a war (in-war criteria). Yoder has assembled a 13 page list of all the various criteria historically mentioned as necessary for a just war. The goal of this list is to show the magnitude and evolution of the tradition (Yoder 147-161). While this appendix is insightful, a more concise framework for justifiable violence is outlined by A. James Reimer in Christians and War. This framework is also found in the vast majority of Just War thinkers in some way or another. Reimer boils down jus ad bellum criteria to:

(1) legitimate authority declaring and waging war; (2) just cause; (3) peace as the ultimate intention or goal; (4) love of neighbor. not hatred or vengefulness, as the motivation; (5) war as last resort – all other avenues must have been exhausted before going to war; and (6) probability of success. (73)

To these six criteria are added four more that cover jus in bello:

(7) means as commensurate with the intended end; (8) proportionality of means to end – the harm caused must not exceed the harm prevented; (9) immunity of innocent people – the distinction between combatants and noncombatants; and (10) respect for international law. (Reimer 73-4)

Reimer's ten criteria provide a broad yet manageable foundation for understanding the framework within which the Christian tradition views the justification of violence. To this religious framework, Michael Walzer adds a secular utilitarian view. While Walzer agrees with all of the criteria outlined above, he also relies on the “domestic analogy” and number crunching as the basis for many of his criteria. For Walzer, “every comparison of home and country or of personal property and political independence” relies on this analogy (58). In this view, just war is like killing an intruder and aggressive invasion is like breaking and entering. Where he admits this analogy fails, however, is that there are no police to call on when one country is charged with breaking and entering. Because of this, Walzer argues that “police powers are distributed among all the members [of international society]” (59). From this, Walzer lays out criteria for determining the aggressor in a conflict (similar to Reimer's six pre-war criteria) and calls for a response. A unilateral response is only just when the sole reacting party is the one being attacked. In many modern cases, the attacked is for all practical reasons defenseless. In these cases, Walzer argues that a multilateral response is the only just response. Third parties acting unilaterally will most often betray some level of self-interest (here, Walzer's secular philosophy matches very nicely with Reinhold Niebuhr's Christian realism). While this self-interest may also be the case in multilateral actions, its dilution is a lesser of two evils (Walzer xiv).

Before advancing to the intricacies of the justification for the Iraq War, it should be pointed out that pacifism is also a strong Christian tradition regarding violence. Some Christian pacifists take their inspiration from the Decalog, but most focus on the Sermon on the Mount. The Society of Friends (the Quakers) are probably the most well known pacifists while other Anabaptists, such as the Mennonites, also represent the peace movement. Both Yoder and Reimer are Mennonite pacifists. Interestingly enough, both have written books on Just War. Yoder's When War Is Unjust is an excellent accompaniment to Walzer. While often agreeing with Walzer, Yoder raises two important points that deserve mention. First, the Just War ethic must at times serve the negative function of denouncing a war or possible war as unjust. Yoder seems to be aiming mainly at government officials and Christian spokespeople who run in those powerful circles. The calls for jus in bello during World War II from Christian ethicists as well as the denouncement of the Vietnam War by similar voices point to an overgeneralization by Yoder. There have been Christian denouncements of unjust wars and unjust means, but they are often unsuccessful. Yet Yoder is correct in accenting the negative quality of the tradition – some wars are simply not just.

The second point that Yoder makes is the necessity for selective conscientious objection. Pacifism teaches that all wars are immoral. This makes it easy for a pacifist to claim conscientious objection. An individual who subscribes to the Just War tradition, however, will refuse to fight only in unjust wars. Yet this action could land that individual in jail. As Yoder states:

The fact that a Quaker or Amish young man, rejecting all wars as his church teaches, could be recognized as a conscientious objector and given alternative service, whereas a Catholic or Lutheran draftee, evaluating wars case by case as his church teaches, could not, represents a kind of backhanded establishment of religion. (49)

Yoder is right, I believe, in hinting at the unconstitutionality of the lack of selective conscientious objection. If one's religion teaches them to practice moral discernment as outlined in the Just War tradition, prohibiting that person from practicing this aspect of their faith could not only be seen as a “backhanded establishment of religion” but also as a violation of one's freedom of religion.1

While the pacifist tradition is strong in this country, I believe that both Yoder's and Reimer's decision to address Just War tradition acknowledges the pragmatic necessity of accepting that we will not see “peace in our time” but must rather work on restraining war. It is here that I believe the majority of American Christians would agree with Reinhold Niebuhr who, when writing in April 1941 about the precarious state of Europe, says “the only peace that Hitler would accept now would be one that left an unredeemed continent under the heel of his dictatorship and that would give him the possibility of a more complete triumph later” (172). For Niebuhr and many Christians, an unjust peace is not preferable to a just war.


1The case for selective conscientious objection is most valid regarding conscription, but possibly could also be applicable to enlistment.


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