Just war II

In Christian thinking about war, there have been two main strands: just war and pacifist theory.

Pacifism commits its adherents to a refusal to collaborate with, or give support to, any war.

The position can be grounded in two ways: its adherents can argue either that all war today is intrinsically immoral or that, despite the reasonable arguments in favour of war, the specific teaching and example of Jesus Christ forbids his followers to take part in it.

Many are attracted to pacifism because it is radical and uncompromising. They may also disdain just war theory as a device for allowing those set on war to maim and kill others, while also enjoying a good conscience and reputation. Both the form of argument endorsed by just war theory and its conclusions are, according to pacifists, inconsistent with Christian faith.

Pacifism is often a powerful, mute challenge to the national conscience. But public discussion will be the poorer if it is the only Christian contribution. For if pacifism is grounded in the example of Jesus Christ, it will be able to engage only with Christians, leaving others to get on unchallenged with the making of war. If pacifists argue that all war is immoral, they need to argue their case.

Public argument and conversation are important, because they allow arguments to be scrutinised. They also demand that arguments apply equally to similar cases. The reasons that allow or prohibit us from going to war will also allow or prevent our enemies from doing so.

A recent statement by the United States bishops accepts the importance of public discussion. Because it is pitched within the public debate, it offers a framework for moral conversation without drawing definitive conclusions. It uses the categories of just war theory in a way that shows awareness of their frequent misuse:

Just war teaching has evolved … as an effort to prevent war; only if war cannot be rationally avoided, does the teaching then seek to restrict and reduce its horrors. It does this by establishing a set of rigorous conditions which must be met if the decision to go to war is to be mostly permissible. Such a decision, especially today, requires extraordinarily strong reasons for overriding the presumption in favor of peace and against war.

The categories of just war theory, namely proper authorisation, just cause, hope of success and proportion between good and evil caused, offer a shorthand list of questions that Australians might usefully ask about their participation in any war against Iraq.

The debate about the proper authorisation of an attack on Iraq has largely been identified with securing a United Nations resolution. The issue is important because it assumes that to be legitimate, war must be approved by the international community and not simply by one nation. While the process leading to United Nations’ resolutions can be manipulative and coercive, the demand for such  resolutions should be endorsed.

General support for a war, however, does not alone legitimate it any more than it legitimates bullying in the playground. The cause for which the war is fought must be right. There is increasing agreement that the only just cause for which a war may be fought is self-defence. The United States has urged this case against Iraq, claiming that it, in common with other peaceful nations, is at grave risk from terrorism, and that Saddam Hussein’s evil disposition and possession of weapons of mass destruction greatly increase the risk of terrorist attack.

This argument for war is vulnerable in its parts and in its articulation. Although Iraq, under Saddam Hussein’s regime, acts viciously and has some weapons of mass destruction, it is not alone on either count. The United States itself has a more lethal arsenal, while the Burmese regime, for example, acts equally brutally. But these qualities alone would not justify war waged against these nations. Furthermore, no evidence links the Iraqi Government to terrorism that claims Islamic inspiration. The lack of this evidence, and the relative weakness of Iraq, disqualify a war against it as one of defence against aggression. Rather, it would be a pre-emptive war, fought to prevent the future possibility of terrorism.

The moral consequences of deeming legitimate such a preventative war are enormous. The argument, if endorsed, would justify a military response to almost any perceived threat, no matter how remote. It would also negate the force of another provision of just war theory—that it should be a last resort. The normal responses by a stronger power to real but not immediate threats are monitoring and containment. There is no evidence that those responses have failed in this case.

To be morally justifiable, a war must also achieve its goals. Although some opponents of war claim a war might be long and inconclusive, massive military superiority could be trusted to achieve short-term goals, such as the collapse of Saddam’s regime. It is difficult to see, however, how that would help to provide security against terrorism or realise other larger goals.

Just war theory asks finally whether there will be proportion between the good achieved and the harm inflicted by war. This calculus is often discussed in amoral terms. It is argued, for example, that for Australia, the importance of the United States alliance outweighs any moral objections to participation in the war. But in moral argument, the benefit and harm of war must be measured in human and not in geopolitical terms. The killing and maiming, the damage to health,  education and spirit, the resentment of losers and the moral blinding of winners must be given their full weight. These consequences are massive and predictable. The benefits brought by modern war are so doubtful as to weigh morally against any decision to go to war. The United States bishops represent Catholic teaching in saying, ‘Such a decision, especially today, requires extraordinarily strong reasons for overriding the presumption in favor of peace and against war.’

Although the statement of the United States bishops is open-ended, it opens the way for strong action.  In a balanced and apparently anodyne passage, it considers conscientious objection: ‘We support those who risk their lives in the service of our nation. We also support those who seek to exercise their right to conscientious objection and selective conscientious objection, as we have stated in the past.’

Because the bishops are so sceptical about the moral justification for military action against Iraq, their support for selective conscientious objection is significant. Governments often accommodate pacifists who believe that all war is immoral. But they are angered by anyone who wishes to opt out of the particular war that they wish to wage on the grounds that it specifically is morally unjustifiable. In this statement, just war theory provides the grounds for making this claim, and the insistence on the right to selective conscientious objection provides the space to act on the claim. 

Andrew Hamilton sj is Eureka Street’s publisher, and teaches at the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne.



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