Thursday, April 27, 2006

Iraq: Three Years Later: Pt. 3: The Morality of War

By: UnrepentantNewDealer

When, if ever, is war justified?

This is a question as eternal as Cicero, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas, and as timely today as ever. There are actually three modes of just war philosophy: jus ad bellum (justification/motive for the war beforehand, also known as "Just Cause"), jus in bello (what is morally right and justified conduct during time of war), and jus post bellum (which involves a just peace and the meting out of justice to war criminals). I will confine myself here to discussing jus ad bellum.

There is no doubt that early Christianity was a pacifist religion. Not only does Jesus condemn using violence, he strongly criticizes Peter when he tries to use violence on Jesus' behalf -- "Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword," (Matthew 26:52) -- seeming to indicate some sort of divine punishment, in the next life if not this one. If violence against another human being is not justified to save the life of Our Lord and Savior, then it is surely never justified.

We also have the writings of Paul: "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.... Do not repay anyone evil for evil.... Never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'.... Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good." (Romans 12: 14, 17, 19, 21).

The root of my opposition to murder of any kind, be it individual or state sanctioned, capital punishment or war, is grounded on this notion: that as God is the only one who can give life, He is the only one who can take life. For anyone else to take a life is an usurpation of God's divine prerogitive, an attempt to stand on equal footing with God. Everyone from statesmen and rulers to subjects are subject to the same divine authority, so prohibitions against murder are also prohibitions against competitive organized state-sanctioned mass murder, which we quaintly call "war." Thus any Christian discussion of the morality of war must be based on the morality of murder. As the one is immoral, so must be the other.

Paul's words on submitting to state authority also seem to reinforce the inherent pacifist nature of early Christianity. This is not to preclude principled non-violent resistance to the state: Jesus' saying, "If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile," (Matthew 5:41) refers to the common practice of Roman soldiers forcing Jews to carry their packs for them. Roman law prohibited a soldier from forcing a civilian to carry their load for more than mile (or whatever the Roman equivalent was). "Going the extra mile" was thus a devious attempt at "killing with kindness." As Paul pointed out, Jesus said, "'If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.'" (Romans 12:20)

This all changed when the Emperor Constantine converted and Christianity went from being a persecuted faith to the official religion of the empire. Somehow, Christian pacifism had to be reconciled with the need for a state to go to war.

St. Augustine was the first to explictly develop the "just war" concept in a Christian context. St. Thomas Aquinas, drawing on Augustine's work, declared that a war is just if it meets three conditions: the warring party must be recognized as a sovereign with authority to wage war on behalf of his people, there must be "just cause", and the belligerents "must have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil.... For it may happen that the war is declared by the legitimate authority, and for a just cause, and yet be rendered unlawful through a wicked intention."

My problem with Aquinas' definition of a "just war" is how he, quoting Augustine, describes "just cause": "A just war is wont to be described as one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly."

Can you see the loophole in this Maginot line of logic big enough to send a Panzer division through? Virtually every nation that has ever gone to war has done so under the pretext of righting some past wrong, whether it be over Alsace-Lorraine or even at its most ridiculous, Slobadan Milosevich's rallying of his fellow Serbs from 1989-1999 to attack Muslim Kosovar ethnic Albanian civilians to avenge an ancient Serbian kingdom's defeat by Muslim forces in 1389! Any definition of "just war" that seeks to actually promote peace cannot be so vague.

I have for well over 8 years now had my own personal definition of "just war", though I didn't know the historical roots of the question. After reading Albert Einstein's The World As I See It in sixth grade, I agreed with Einstein that, just as murder is always evil, war is always evil. However, after consideration, I differed from him in that I thought that there were occasions in which war is less evil than every other alternative. As Jimmy Carter put it in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, "War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is always evil, never a good."

Keeping in mind that wars are always evil and never just but sometimes necessary, under what circumstances are wars necessary? Under what circumstances can a Christian support war? I believe that there are only three types of war that are necessary:

1) Wars of self-defense: Although it is contrary to Christian precepts, most of us would agree that a person has the right to murder in self-defense. A Christian argument could be made that a state has a duty to protect its citizens, and thus a duty to defend it against foreign aggression. A good example of this is America's involvement in World War II following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

2) Wars to help weaker nations defend themselves: Not all nations are able to defend themselves against all agressors. Just as a Christian has a duty to to intervene to stop thugs from beating up a weaker party, so a state also has the duty to come to the aid of a nation that cannot defend itself against an aggressor attacking it. Britian's entry into World War I to help defend Belgium against Germany is probably the textbook example of Tenet 2.

3) Wars to stop a genocide: This is probably the most controversial tenet of my own Just War Theory. Tenets 1 and 2 both deal with violations of another nation-state's sovereignty. But if a Christian has an obligation to defend the weaker party in a contest between sovereign nations, does he not also have an obligation to defend the weaker party inside a country during time of persecution, when the contest is between a sovereign nation and at least some of her citizens? I would say yes, that arbitrary state borders should not impede justice.

This argument could also be expanded to include any mistreatment of citizens by their government, but this would lead to endless war. As long as there are despots on Earth, which will probably be as long as the urge to wield absolute power over others is part of the nature of this peculiar human animal, there will always be some abridgement of human rights. Is it worth going to war against every nation that infringes on human rights? Some of these nations have nuclear weapons, so going to to war against them would almost certainly have negative costs (nuclear winter, Armegeddon, dead numbering in the millions-to-billions range, etc.) that would far outweigh the positives sought (free speech, freedom of religion, etc.). Even for those abuser-nations without nukes, for the sake of world peace, the sword must be sheathed in favor of diplomacy. Even Churchill thought that, "Jaw-jaw [talking] is always preferable to war-war."

But there are some human rights abuses so egregious that any means taken to end them is not merely necessary but a moral duty. Such is the case with the most egrious abuse of all, the worst crime imaginable: genocide. Failing to swiftly and harshly punish the perpetrators of genocide only encourages other would-be-genocidal madmen to think they can get away with it. Under the cover of World War I, the Ottoman Empire organized the mass murder of over 1 million Armenian men, women, and children. Nothing was done; 20 years later, when Hitler was asked by his cronies why he thought he would be able to get away with his "Final Solution," his response was chilling: "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"

Would the Holocaust have still happened if the world had done something to stop the Armenian genocide? Would it have lasted as long as it did? For those still skeptical of my third tenet, consider that stopping the Holocaust is not permissible under the first two. If not for Hitler's monumental folly in declaring war on America after Pearl Harbor, America would not have been at war with Germany at all. Thus we would not have been able to intervene on the Continent until after Germany eventually did declare war against America after subduing Russia and Britain, by which point it would have been too late for the Jews of Europe.

Tenet 3 seems to me the most noble reason to go to war. It is also rare in human history for a nation to go to war solely to stop a genocide. In fact, it has occurred exactly once: when NATO forces bombed Serbia in 1999 to stop Milosevic's genocide against the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo province. Despite the fact that I consider war immoral, I have never been more proud to be an American than on the day the first bombs fell on Serbia.

Now, for the obvious question: Does the Iraq war meet the standards I have set to be called a "just war"? Going down the checklist, it fails to meet the first qualification, self-defense: In 2003, Iraq did not attack America, nor has it ever done so. Number 2, defending others: Iraq had not attacked any of its neighbors. The 1991 Gulf War was justified to help defend Kuwait from Iraqi aggression; from 1991-2003 there was no similar act of Iraqi aggression against its neighbors.

On the third count of genocide, there was no genocide going on inside Iraq in 2003 (perhaps one could say Saddam’s draining of the swamps of the Marsh Arabs counted, but that might be a bit of a stretch.). However, Saddam did conduct a genocide in the late 1980s against the Kurds. Intervention then would have been appropriate, but Iraq was then engaged in a war against Iran (a violation of Tenet 1), and the Reagan-Bush I administration viewed the matter through a simplistic “enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend” approach. Not only did our government not stop the genocide, it defended the Iraqi regime, blaming the attacks on the Iranians, long after the international media had established the truth. Throughout the “Anfal campaign” of gas attacks against Kurdish villagers, the spigot of American monetary and weapons support stayed open, with the U.S. even passing satellite data and other sensitive materials to the Iraqis to use against Iranian forces.

So, the current Iraq War fails to meet the standards required of a just war. Ergo, the war is unjust, and it is the duty of all Christians to oppose it. Or is it? There is one type of war I have not yet addressed: preemptive war. Can a preemptive war be a just war? My conclusions on that, plus the Bush team’s sorry record on nonproliferation, the jus ad bellum of this war, will follow in my next post.

In peace,

Michael J. Smith