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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Just War and Just a War

One of the thorniest problems man face is when, if every is war justified.  The bible says there is a time for war and a time for peace, but that could be just a bow to the inevitability of war in the fallen world.  If also says that they will beat there swords into plough shares and study war no more. 

Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, William Miller and other Catholic Workers often ascribed to pacifism or near total pacifism face with the near impossibility of every untangling the moral consequences of violence from the ends desired in undertaking it. But St. Augustine, faced with a world where Christians were starting to replace pagans as political leaders and Christians we soldiers in obedience to the leaders tried to come up with criteria by which war could be measured.  

Augustine knew that the Gospel question on it was complex.  One the one hand Jesus told people to turn the other  cheek and also told Peter to put away his sword and not defend him hen he was arrested. On the other hand he treated the Roman Centurion as a man of faith and morals. So for Augustine first of all the individual soldier had limited accountability for the actions of war.  He could obey all lawful orders.(What orders of course are lawful?)  And he gave political leaders a criteria called the Just War Theory.

 Just War has three essential components  First, that the war is necessary. It's easier to establish that in defending your country or overthrowing a tyrant than in a war by treaty obligation or a war inspired by opposition to the evil of your enemy.  Second that the means are just, that is not worse than the conditions of not going to war. Using poison gas for instance, or shooting prisoners is unjust. Third  that the war is winnable.  

In  the case of Libya man have called on us to take action based on the evils of our enemy, while others,. both conservatives and progressives,  have reservations.  Former Senator Hart has raised two sets of objections.  The first is that post the cold war we have not developed criteria for when to go to war and when to refrain, particularly in this "brush war" situations, which is to say we have no lens by which to see the first criteria or to evaluate data for the second and third criteria.   Second he has raised questions about the particulars of the situation in Libya --that there are tribal conflicts involved and there may be terrorist linked elements on the rebel side. 

On the other hand people supporting the war have raised the desire to defend people being slaughtered, end the rule of an old enemy, preserve our influence in the area and support the potential of democracy.  The second and third motives of course are less than pure and the fourth is speculative.  

So first, does a humanitarian obligation become an equivalent of defending your country or it's allies by treaty, or is it not and if so when?  Second,  are we sure that we are not bombing civilians in Libyia when we bomb there air force?  Third, can the population of Libya prevail against Khadaffi--if not we do them no favor, if so the third criteria is fulfilled.

Overthrowing the dictatorship might be a good cause for the people. But we have no principles or analysis by which to apply criteria as to which wars we should or should not be involved in and have had none since the end of the cold war. While I felt the cold war was flawed, at least it gave us some standards. Also you can't convince anyone to set up a democracy. It's not a democracy if they don't choose it. In Libya we have to discern, is this really coming from the people, or is this just a fight between leaders of rival tribes?

I have no easy answers and I am hoping some of my readers can suggest some at least less difficult answers. 


  1. This comment was sent to me by Facebook Message by someone we shall call JFG

    I don't have much to say about your post because I have always been a bit puzzled by the moralist approach to politics. The reason is that I tend to view politics as belonging to this form of doing that Arendt calls action (praxis in Greek) as opposed to labouring (ponein in Greek) or making (poien in Greek). The category of ethics have a tendency to be approach praxis as poien. Let me give you an example to make myself more easily understood.

    To judge going to war along the criteria of the just war, you need to look at war as a thing you are going to 'make', i.e.: as a thing you can have a concept of from the start and determine whether it's good or bad, beautiful or ugly, like a statue you plan to sculpt, a house you plan to build, etc.

    There might indeed be such an aspect to going to war, but I tend to see more clearly another aspect to it, which is what Arendt called praxis (with its two modes of archein/agere --begin and undertake--- and prattein / gerere --to continue, to follow in the footsteps, to bring to fruition) and what Chesterton called adventure.

    Let me give an example. Going to war can also be understood as deciding whether to go on vacation to France or to Italy, or to go do one's B.A. at x or y university. These seem trivial examples compared to deciding to go to war, but they make clearly stand out some characteristics of the decision to go to war that clearly do not have any moral considerations easily attachable to it. There is an adventure aspect. A getting out of the conventional into unknown territory that risks changing not only the situation but even yourself. Of course nothing serious may happen. We may win a war as easily as the 1st Gulf war, and we more often than not go to vacation or to a particular college, without great changes happening to us that would make it really different to have made one choice rather than another. But then something could happen. If we could know the future ahead of time, we might realize that had we chosen one course we would have met the woman of our life or the goose that lay the golden eggs, and which we missed out on because we chose the other route, but this is speculation that is radically unavoidable to our decision making at the time when it counts.

    So I do I decide and judge. The answer is I don't know. The process is far more muddled than the approach you suggest we take, i.e.: you get in the polemics, you actually seek it as you do by asking for comments; and in order to start the polemics, you build an argument such as the just war argument; but you don't put your trust in the argument as such; you listen instead constantly for the ripples that are effected by the discussion launched by that theme and pray God you decide for the best.

    I am not sure if this all makes sense, but this is how I tend to approach such issues.

  2. Joe

    I have a hard time seeing the U.S.
    actions in Libya as much of anything besides a move to get rid of Gadahfy ( did we ever settle on the correct spelling of his name? ), to exert yet more influence in the Middle East, and of course ultimately regain control of the libyan oil supplies, all under the smoke screen of a U.N. resolution. Otherwise why wouldn't we be doing the same interventionist activities in other countries? That's my general opinion, anyway.Take care,

    -- Mike

  3. I'd have to say some elements of the fight seem just/ethical -- e.g., preventing a possible massacre -- while others don't, like say, killing these same civilians.

    On balance I'd also say this use of force is more justifiable than the current war in Iraq, for ex., which in my opinion was totally unjustifiable.

    But again, an un-nuanced either/or proposition isn't too helpful to me. I realize the real world presents us with a choice that is ostensibly black & white: to go to war or not. Yet there are degrees of involvement, from financial sponsorship to covert action to full-scale assault etc.
    I'm still thinking this through..
    David S.

  4. Thank you Mike for your views. I am still waiting for the swords to be beaten into plwshares. However I do see the evil of a tyrants rage on his people. Aquinas woould have justified such a rebellion and perhaps just war theory allows aiding the rebels. Certainly we needed the aid of the French fleet to win the final battle of our revolution.
    And David S. I have the same quandry. We need a nuanced view to apply just war, but in the real world we need to decide pretty quick: war or not. That'as why Hart felt we need to have a policy ready in advance by which to judge quickly, a national concensus. What say the rest of the readers?