Monday, May 09, 2011

Just War Theory

Just War Theory is the primary doctrine which permits Christians to participate in armed conflict.  It is useful to apply these criteria to the on-going so-called War on Terror.

Virtually all students of early church history agree that early Christianity was essentially pacifist in belief and practice.  As Christianity moved from being counter-cultural to being the established religion of the Roman Empire, church leaders adopted and refined what has come to be known as the Just War Theory.  This legal and moral code delineates for what cause and under what circumstances war may justly be waged by nation-states.  It was first articulated by the Roman statesman Cicero (first century BCE) but has roots in earlier practice. 
St. Augustine of Hippo (late fourth – early fifth century bishop) developed the theory from a specifically Christian viewpoint.  His work was expanded and refined by the thirteenth century philosopher and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas.  The early seventeenth century Dutch jurist and philosopher Hugo Grotius, regarded as the father of international law, restated the theory in specifically Protestant and secular terms.
The theory was accepted essentially as stated by these three great thinkers until after the close of the Second World War, when the reality of nuclear weapons and mass extermination of peoples led to a revised and expanded articulation in the Charters for the Nuremberg Trials and the United Nations.
As generally accepted today, the Just War Theory requires the following: a war to be justly waged must be declared (1) for a just cause, (2) by a competent authority, (3) with right intention, (4) as a last resort, and (5) with reasonable expectation of success.  As commonly accepted, just cause includes self-defense, defense of a neighboring nation which has been attacked, and prevention of an imminent attack.  A competent authority is deemed to be the legitimate government of a nation, acting within its own laws governing the declaration of hostilities.  In regards to right intention, Augustine held that the only just reason for waging war was the desire for peace.  Wars for revenge, for aggressive domination of others, and for seizure of property belonging to another nation are explicitly forbidden. 

            Just war theory requires that all non-violent options must be exhausted before hostilities are begun.  Diplomatic solutions to conflict must first be sought diligently and in good faith.   Finally, the nation engaging in war must have a reasonable expectation that it can conclude a successful campaign within a reasonable length of time.  Damage and deaths inflicted and sustained in a hopeless cause are not just.
The principles for conduct of war are concerned with discrimination and proportionality.  That is, only combatants and infrastructure directly related to war-making are legitimate targets, and the force used against them must be strictly proportional to the objective of returning society to a state of peace.  Civilians are never legitimate targets, and every effort must be made to preserve the lives of non-combatants. 
As President Bush and his advisors escalate their rhetoric trying to convince the American public to support war against Iraq, it is good for Christians and non-Christians alike to analyze what we are hearing in light of the Just War Theory. 
We need to consider if the stated goals of effecting a regime change and preventing the use of weapons of mass destruction by Iraq against its neighbors constitute a just cause.  We need to ask if all diplomatic means short of armed hostility to achieve these goals have indeed been pursued fully and in good faith.   In an interview on the radio program CounterSpin!, produced by FAIR, former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter described how the U.S. in 1998 manipulated the inspection process by pressuring Richard Butler to break a United Nations agreement concerning inspection of sensitive facilities, thereby provoking a confrontation with Iraq over permission to enter certain facilities. 
Ritter states that the Iraqi response was, “If you’re going to break the agreement, you’re not welcome into the facility,” whereupon the U.S. ordered inspectors out of Iraq and commenced bombing, targeting facilities identified by the inspection process.  He continued his description by saying, “The United States demonstrated that the inspectors had in fact been tools of espionage acting on behalf of the United States: a total contravention of their work that they were supposed to be doing in Iraq.  Think about it: Why would the Iraqis allow inspectors back in who have been so egregiously misused by the United States?”
If “success” in a war with Iraq is defined as deposing Saddam Hussein while preventing him from using whatever weapons of mass destruction he may still have in his arsenal, and installing a democratic government which would restore peace to the peoples of Iraq, we need to give careful consideration to the question of whether we have any reasonable expectation of achieving those goals.  New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman points out that it is essential to ask, in any enterprise of nation building, what raw material we would have to work with.  He opines that, “Iraq's last leader committed to the rule of law may have been Hammurabi — the King of Babylon in the 18th century B.C.”  Given the lengthy history of bloody conflicts, assassinations, and coups among the Kurds, Shi’ites, and Sunnis who comprise Iraq’s primary population groups, there is reason for substantial doubt as to the possibility of any successful outcome to the forcible overthrow of Hussein.
Those who belong to the historic peace churches will, of course, oppose on principle any attack on Iraq, for whatever reason.  For the rest of us, the Just War Theory is a useful analytic tool as we evaluate our response to the belligerence issuing from Washington.  In light of the reasons stated above, and additional considerations, not least of which is substantial doubt as to our military will and ability properly to protect from harm innocent civilians during the high-powered bombing raids which have become our preferred means of attack in modern warfare, I personally must oppose any move on the part of the United States to mount an attack against the nation of Iraq.

Update: 8 May 2011 - While the overthrow of Hussein was accomplished, I remain unconvinced that the war in Iraq can in any way be justified under Just War Theory.  Harm to civilians has been considerable and ongoing.  And the proximate reason given - that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was about to use them - has proven to be a lie. 

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