When President Obama accepted his Nobel Peace Prize (no further comment on that) in Norway this week, two statements in his speech stood out to me:
“Make no mistake: evil does exist in the world,” Mr. Obama said. “A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince Al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms.”
“I do not bring with me today a definitive solution to the problems of war. What I do know is that meeting these challenges will require the same vision, hard work and persistence of those men and women who acted so boldly decades ago. And it will require us to think in new ways about the notions of just war and the imperatives of a just peace.”
Obama discounts non-violent movements as being effective, at least in some situations, and later invokes the theory of just war. First, I have to preface anything I’m going to say next with a remembrance that having our President even mention just war is a step forward. It is my understanding, both from my own observation but also from that of important witnesses in the periods leading up to our current wars, especially in Iraq, that just war, as a theory or as a tool, was never considered. So, kudos for that, I suppose.
But, with the concept of a just war now re-entering our vocabulary, I wanted to spend some time remembering, thinking, and ultimately sharing with any of you reading this, what just war theory is really all about, and what it’s not, both from a more secular moral/philosophical standpoint as well as from the perspective of Christian ethics. Just war theory can serve as a guide to form personal conscience as well as a way to structure public debate.
In it’s origin just war theory is a synthesis of Greco-Roman philosophy and Christian ethics–so in a nutshell, Aristotle, Cicero, and Augustine. The original position of the Christian church was one of pacifism (for several centuries in fact), and you can think of just war as a very gray area between pacifism and crusade/holy war on a long continuum. The development of just war in the Christian tradition might best be viewed as a reluctant abandonment of non-violence in the face of the very real injustice and violence that exists in our broken world. Pacifism has an absolute presumption against war, just war theory has a prima facie (first look) presumption against war, but can envision cases where the presumption against war would be overridden with exceptions. Just war then: condemns war as evil, limits the evil that war entails when it happens, and humanizes the conduct of war. So, at it’s best, a just war is barely within the boundaries of morality, and there is an assumption that war and conduct during war is subject to moral deliberation.
The just war ethic asks 3 questions: Why? When? How? Or if you prefer Latin: jus ad bellum: concerns the justice of going to war; jus in bello: concerns justice in the conduct of war; and jus post bellum: concerns the justice of termination of war and peace agreements.
Ok, so there’s three parts to just war theory, how do we apply them?
In jus ad bellum, concerning going to war, there are six criteria, and each must be met–it’s all or nothing.
1. Just cause.
-to protect innocent people from unjust attack
-to restore rights that have been wrongfully denied
-to restore the basis of order necessary for decent human existence (yes, this would allow for justified
2. Right intention.
3. Proper authority and public declaration.
4. Last Resort.
5. Probability of Success.
Now for jus in bellow, justice in the conduct of war:
1-proportionality of means: only use enough force to accomplish tactical goals
In jus post bellum, just as much thought and stringent demands go into ending a conflict–turning over of power, dealing with prisoners, and establishing treaties and agreements as is required in the other stages.
So, take your favorite war, run through these, and see how far you get. Remember, it’s an all or nothing game.
My own belief is that I’m a just war adherent who believes the criteria for just war are so stringent that no war would ever pass the test and can be considered moral, therefore I’m a pacifist…sort of, mostly, in theory, sometimes. I’m not a total pacifist–if I call the cops, I want them to show up at my house with guns, for instance. I also have more serious struggles with pacifism in light of the need for humanitarian intervention (Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, etc…). So, I lean more towards the Realist camp, like Reinhold Niebuhr, who concede there are certain situations in which morality should be sacrificed for justice (and honestly, self-preservation). Niebuhr recognizes that we live in an imperfect world full of imperfect people (who have some limited moral resources to draw on–such as an ethic of nonviolence in our religious tradition that might still influence us), and therefore pacifism is a political impossibility even if it might be a moral good.