Philocrites : Liberal religion : Notebook | War reading 1.20.03

October 4, 2002

Two views of just war theory

Beth W. wrote:

A premptive strike, according to the council of Catholic bishops, violates the just war theory. It sets a dangerous precedent. The last time we attacked Iraq, Iraq retaliated by sending missles to Israel. If we really care about Israel, we should think carefully. Once we have attacked Iraq, is it not true that we and any of our allies are subject to attack?

These are important considerations. I share your concerns about the people of Israel, although no one really regrets Israel's preemptive strike against Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor in 1982. It also seems clear that attacking Iraq — especially without a lot more obvious U.S. commitment to rebuilding Afghanistan, helping resolve the Palestinian crisis, and supporting democratic reform and economic opportunities for average Muslims — can only heighten our unpopularity among Arabs and Muslims. These are real problems. I don't get the sense that Bush fully appreciates their importance, and that disturbs me.

I expect the U.S. to go to war with Iraq, but I have yet to reach much clarity about how to respond politically. Religiously, I will continue to pray for all victims of the choices human beings make, tragic or malevolent, and to try to understand what forgiveness and repentance mean in the context of war. I think Iraq represents a real problem, but I don't think the president has bothered to ask us to consider just how enormous and painful a project he is urging.

I too have been trying to make sense of just war theory. People on this list might especially be interested in David P. Gushee's article, "Just War Divide: One Tradition, Two Views" (Christian Century, August 14-27, 2002: pages 26-28). It's not on-line, but it is worth a trip to your public library to read. Gushee's basic point is that there are two competing interpretive traditions about just war theory.

Soft just war theory

The Catholic bishops, since 1983, have come to represent what he calls the "soft just war" stance, which he says is relatively new:

Soft just war theory is characterized by seven key components: a strongly articulated horror of war; a strong presumption against war; a skepticism about government claims; the use of just war theory as a tool for citizen discernment and prophetic critique; a pattern of trusting the efficacy of international treaties, multilateral strategies and the perspectives of global peace and human rights groups and the international press; a quite stringent application of just war criteria; and a claim of common ground with Christian pacifists.

I found this a helpful summary, since it allowed me to think through the components. Like most people, I'm horrified by war and assume that few things are worse.

Politically, I am not inclined to trust the Bush administration, but on a more fundamental level my skepticism competes with my loyalty to my country, where my fate certainly is bound up whatever I may think, and I expect the government to protect the interests of my country. I don't join the ranks of the "blame America first" Left: I'm willing to entertain the idea that Bush may actually be pointing to a real threat. I just wish he'd make the case rather than insult our collective intelligence.

I'm uncertain about the extent to which just war theory helps me answer the questions I need to answer personally: If my country goes to war, and I happen to oppose either the specific goals of the war (explicit or implicit) or the methods by which it is fought, but I don't oppose the use of military force in principle, what does just war theory suggest that I do?

As for trusting international law and multilateral strategies, well, I don't. I see international law as still in its infancy, still too weak, and still incapable of resolving many issues. I don't trust the UN more than I trust the Bush administration, although I believe it is a valuable institution that needs more U.S. support and participation.

As for Christian pacifism, I respect it, but I don't feel called to that witness myself.

Hard just war theory

Gushee's characterization of "hard just war theory," which he says is more consistent with the historic meaning of "just war" but which may not be adequate in the context of modern warfare, includes these components:

A presumption against injustice and disorder rather than against war; an assumption that war is tragic but inevitable in a fallen world and that war is a necessary task of government; a tendency to trust the U.S. government and its claims of need for military action; an emphasis on just war theory as a tool to aid policymakers and military personnel in their decisions; an inclination to distrust the efficacy of international treaties and to downplay the value of international actors and perspectives; a less stringent or differently oriented application of some just war criteria; and no sense of common ground with Christian pacifists.

Well, that's bracing! I feel limited support for the first component, in the sense that I think a fundamental purpose of the state is to hold a monopoly on the use of force and to exercise it with as much restraint as possible in order to maintain an appropriate balance between justice and freedom. (Ah, but how to define the balance?)

Is war tragic but inevitable? I think that conflict is inevitable, but the prospect of nuclear annihilation makes the need to strengthen the rule of law even more pressing. The trend internationally is toward fewer inter-state wars, but civil wars, unfortunately, are growing in number and in severity.

A tendency to trust the U.S. government? No. I do tend toward the "hard" view of the theory as a tool of military ethics rather than personal discernment, though, and I tend to distrust international institutions, but I don't share the right wing's automatic dismissal of multilateral solutions. Coalitions and treaties are a great idea: They just need to be enforced.

Again, I feel respect for the witness of Christian pacifists, even though I do not embrace it myself.

The challenge

So I feel torn. I also found myself chastened by one of his questions:

Hard just war theory can make American Christians too likely to support marginal or unjust wars and in general to be unreflective about our nation's activities in the world. Yet soft just war theory can weaken our moral clarity on those occasions when we must have sufficient resolve to fight truly just wars. Which is the greater problem today? A struggle against groups that fly jetliners into buildings requires the steely resolve that hard just war theory contributes. But if this occurs at the expense of peacemaking efforts mandated by Jesus that can get at the roots of global terrorism, or costs us the ability to think critically, we will go badly astray.

Which is the greater problem? I find this a very difficult question to answer.

UUCF-L 10.3.02

Back to Notebook | War reading
Philocrites | Copyright © 2002 by Christopher L. Walton | clwalton at