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Just War or just butchery in expanding Syria conflict


The 'Just War' doctrine has made a reappearance, in the form of an endorsement from the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. The occasion was the debate in the British House of Commons to expand the air conflict against ISIL into Syria, in what is already a horrendously crowded airspace.    

Archbishop Justin WelbySpeaking before members of the House of Lords on 2 December, Welby said: 'The just war criteria have to my mind been met, but while they are necessary, they are not by themselves sufficient in action of this kind.'

If Prime Minister David Cameron was hoping for a carte blanche blessing, he would have been disappointed. Britain might 'end up doing the right thing in such a wrong way it becomes the wrong thing', said Welby.

Resorting to aerial bombing, he added, 'plays into the expectation of ISIL and other jihadist groups in the region, springing from their apocalyptic theology: the totality of our actions must subvert that false narrative because by itself it will not work'.

As ever, lurking behind just war doctrine are fundamental contradictions, not least of all that it seems artificially neat.

A few of its elements are worth noting. Resorting to it should be of last resort when non-violent options are exhausted. It must be conducted by a legitimate authority. It must be directed to correct a suffered wrong, and done with right intentions. Prospects for success must be reasonable and inflicted violence must be proportionate. Distinctions between combatants and non-combatants should be maintained.

Theologians have been wrestling with these criteria for centuries, notably that pertaining to legitimate authority. Christian armies killing Christian armies make the issue of justice a rather odd affair, but there was always a scribe to provide an enthusiast's backing.  

The whole basis of where the just war concept as a notion crept into common usage is also an unclear one, though one attribution — to St Augustine of Hippo — is not as convincing as it might be. He did, however, suggest rationales for war by combining the classical concept of war with religious morality:

'We do not seek peace in order to be at war, but we go to war that we may have peace. Be peaceful, therefore, in warring, so that you may vanquish those whom you war against, and bring them to the prosperity of peace.' War was sinful, but in being waged by sinners, it might be a legitimate corrective, a justification that should only be undertaken with a heavy heart.

It was that greatest of Roman orators, Cicero, who tackled the subject in some depth, penning the basis for any war on self-defence or vengeance. Outside such parameters, there could be no valid reason for it, even if human beings are naturally nasty about that sort of thing. Certain duties, he argued, were owed 'even to those who have wronged us'. To that end, 'the rights of war must be strictly observed'.

St Thomas Aquinas would give the doctrine greater footing in medieval theology, and in time, it would seep into the corpus of international law in variations, with the father of international jurisprudence, Hugo Grotius' De jure belli ac pacis (The Rights of War and Peace) affirming the criteria.

Welby's endorsement was filled with doubts. He noted various absences in the Syrian debate. For one, he was 'constantly reminded that this is a global issue to which we are providing local solutions'. Extremism was but one feature of a global problem. To simply target ISIL would exceptionalise their cause, supplying a religious raison d'être.  

A global 'theological and ideological component' was needed to defeat such a threat, and it required 'challenging Saudi Arabia and Qatar, whose own promotion of a particular brand of Islamic theology has provided a source from which ISIL have drawn a false legitimation'.

For all the surmising that has taken place, it is very difficult at this point to see how one might bring the various enemies to the prosperity of peace. It is hard to imagine anything resembling it when the language is hardened by themes of uncompromising extermination from all sides. Everything, in this, but proportionality.

What is left is the ex post facto justifications for this expanded conflict that looks increasingly like spiralling out of control.

'Wherever conflict has been waged by a literate power,' observes Ben Snook, a keen observer of the reception of just war theory, 'it has been inevitable that, once the swords and the spears have been laid aside, the parchment and quill have been taken up; after the butchery comes the spin.'

With Britain's addition to the bombing raids on Syria, the spin has already begun.


Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Syria, Justin Welby, Just War



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Existing comments

On the supposed connection of St. Augustine with the just war doctrine, you should read the new book that thoroughly debunks that notion, "Augustine on War and Military Service." I should know something about the argument of that book, since I wrote it.

Phillip Wynn | 07 December 2015  

It is salient that ++ Welby did not endorse the United Kingdom escalating its involvement in the current conflict in Syria on the basis it was participating in a 'Just War'. That would have both been useful to Mr Cameron and vastly oversimplified an extremely complex situation which has brought devastation to the country and its neighbour Iraq.

Edward Fido | 07 December 2015  

Was it not Cicero who also wrote 'an unjust peace is better than a just war'? Given the indiscriminate nature of war in the modern world I rather think he was on to something.

Paul | 07 December 2015  

It’s easy to take the high moral ground and say you are against war. But to not take action against evil is a form of evil itself. Hilary Benn supported air-strikes against ISIS in Syria contrary to the position of his leader. The air strikes may or may not be the best solution, but at least he has taken a position. Last Friday, some Muslims from the USA, Canada and Britain set up the Muslim Reform Movement which rejects violence and political Islam, and which supports secular governance, democracy and liberty. They are calling on fellow Muslims and neighbours to join them. Of course others have tried reforming Islam: Mahmoud Taha was executed for apostasy and Farag Foda was assassinated. But that is no reason not to try again. With over 27,000 Islamic terrorist incidents since 9/11, reforming Islam may be the only solution aside from continuing wars. Perhaps Mr Kampmark could lend his considerable influence to this organization and help kick it off in Australia. It’s better than just criticizing others. http://muslimreformmovement.org/

Ross Howard | 07 December 2015  

I want to know, who's making money out of the "stacks on the mill" civil war in Syria, which provides the amniotic fluid for ISIS. Are any of these profiteers advertising the Canberra airport terminal? Are any of them ever allowed to use the Australian War memorial facilities for corporate functions?

Jim Jones | 08 December 2015  

Shame that another man of God is supporting war.

Maggie Galley | 08 December 2015  

A clash of arms begins with a clash of opinions, usually because of different and opposing points of view. If the opinions can be reconciled, the need or urge to arms vanishes. In the current clash the opposing opinions are "My traditions are right and true, and the only ones that matter." The 'West' has a long history of belittling and downgrading Islam, especially after Islam ( and Christianity) abandoned their quest for enlightenment, in favour of their immature and misleading traditions and allowed their frustrations to find expression in attacking the 'other'. Especially Islam attacking the abusive 'West'. Since both sides appeal to the same Almighty Creator and Father they should abandon their solipsistic viewpoints and find the reconciliation that alone will bring not only peace but cooperation, harmony, and love

Robert Liddy | 08 December 2015  

Archbishop Justin is right to critique the "just war" theory on the basis that it is too neat a solution by far. If we have learnt anything about War in the last 150 years it is that it is not as simple as goodies versus baddies! Today's allies are tomorrow's enemies, and vice versa. It serves political leaders' agendas to galvanise the public by painting issues as Good versus Evil. For once former PM Abbott may have been correct...this is "Baddies versus baddies"....as long as we are not so hypocritical that we fail to realise that this speaks about us too!

Stephen Clark | 08 December 2015  

Are the elements of the just war doctrine adhered to in any modern warfare? We invaded Iraq under false pretensions. Sophisticated aeroplanes were equipped with powerful weapons of mass destruction that killed, maimed and injured thousands of civilians, including children. Is the Muslim population expected to be grateful for that or might it reasonably be expected to result in hatred? Our Christian God was called on by the USA to bless the war! Binoy Kampmark states that for Cicero vengeance is a permissible justification for a 'just war'. Is there any disagreement among philosophers about this? It appears to me that it is vengeance precipitates attacks, for example, after the Empire State Building was destroyed and many people killed. It is now the case after the Paris attacks. When Jesus said "love thine enemies" he probably didn't mean it literally but it does not appear that he would endorse the use of massive destructive force to revenge the enemy.

Anna | 08 December 2015  

Ross Howard:" reforming Islam may be the only solution aside from continuing wars." It will be PART of the solution. The OTHER PART will be the reform of Christianity and Judaism, and all other religions that simplistically claim to have exclusive authority or enlightenment from God. The greatest single factor determining one's religion and beliefs is Tradition - the primitive bonding instinct that BINDS us to our traditions, and BLINDS us to the traditions of 'Others'. It is also the greatest obstacle to understanding and cooperation with those 'Others'. If WE, (whoever 'we' happen to be), were born into and reared in other traditions, we would almost certainly have bonded to their beliefs and traditions, unless some strong outside influence affected our development. We all need to recognise that we are each on different paths up the 'Mountain of God', and then combine to promote mutual help and enlightenment.

Robert Liddy | 08 December 2015  

Thank you, Anna, for mentioning Christ's name in connection with this debate. I do not have enough knowledge of the Sacred Scriptures to be absolutely certain about what I am about to say. The Hebrew Scriptures have an underlying message. God is on the side of the Israelites. He even helps them win battles and establish kingdoms. But in the Christian Scriptures Christ does not promise victory to His followers. In fact he foreshadows persecution, torture and execution. As He Himself was to suffer. For three centuries Christians accepting Christ as their Way embraced their fate. They did not invoke any right of self-defence. Respite came under the Emperor Constantine. Thus began the accommodation of Christianity with a secular power. The moral teachings of Christ became secondary as theological disputes (e.g. Arianism, Monophysitism, Donatism, Pelagianism) took hold and supporters looked to the secular powers to resolve contentious theological issues, by force if necessary. Truth belonged to the victors. Christ's teaching about loving one's neighbour and turning the other cheek got short shrift. Christ's example seems to show that even if we have rights and have the power to defend them that is not His Way.

Uncle Pat | 08 December 2015  

I'd be interested to hear more on this from Fr Andrew Hamilton, with a comment he made in a previous column in mind that gave me some hope that Just War theory isn't just religion getting into bed with geopolitics. I recall his comment that the original intention of just war theory was a personal ethical framework for soldiers conscripted or drawn into battle, expected to fight in a context where they object to killing.

AURELIUS | 10 December 2015  

It's said an ant can eat an elephant in many small bites. It's obviously an elephantine effort to fix the ISIL/ISIS/Daesh problem in Syria as a Syrian war problem, but is it the same as a local Australian problem? ISIS' domestic relevance is that there were and may be other men who will cite loyalty to that organisation as a motive for committing random acts of violence locally (and the softer the target, the more random the location of the violence). It's been reported that these so-called enemies in the Middle East always manage to talk to each other through back channels, Israelis to Iranians, etc, Communication boundaries there are porous. Elements of the Afghanistan and Pakistan state apparatus have contacts with their supposed enemies. It seems that all the participants are in the loop except the Western voter. If Australians were courageous enough not to outlaw Communist beliefs and organs at a time when Communism was the bogey flavour of the era, why not, as with the PLO, invite ISIS to open an information office here, so they can defend their ideas and calls to activism against the antiseptic transparency of a sceptical democratic press and people?

Roy Chen Yee | 10 December 2015  

To my chagrin I found, after reading his entire speech in the House of Lords, that ++ Welby did endorse escalating British involvement in the Syrian conflict, subject to this being part of a 'holistic' solution. Sadly, the eggs have been well and truly broken in this case and ensuring a 'holistic' situation is a bit like unscrambling eggs.

Edward Fido | 10 December 2015  

It's enough to cast a faithful person into despair about the state of religious doctrine -realising that the commandment on adultery/divorce is absolute, but the commandment on not killing is negotiable and dependent on tribalism.

AURELIUS | 10 December 2015  

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