Political experts are certain that war with Iraq is on the horizon, though there is some disagreement about how distant that horizon might be. The way the Bush administration and media pundits invoke the words “justice” and “just war” without actually calling attention to the historical criteria for a just war has been disconcerting. The apparent strategy is to saturate the airwaves with these and related phrases, to apply them loosely, and to trade on their different historical loadings, in order to justify present actions even when those historical meanings do not apply.
A large part of this misappropriation is connected with a phenomenon I would call the occult transference of virtue, an ideological false-consciousness by which the administration (secure in its righteousness) believes that its moral virtue is preternaturally transferable to all of its endeavors, no matter how bellicose. This magical transference of virtue finds its complement in the desperate need of many Americans after September 11 to personify their enemy. Osama bin Laden has been elusive. We need something accessible, concrete, and personal upon which to focus our resolve and to vent our indignation and righteousness, especially when both are so easily dissipated by a covert war conducted against a rhizomic terrorist network. Not psychologically prepared to fight a just war against postmodern political realities, we find it easier to fight a war of dubious justice against a familiar 20th-century-style dictatorship, even if that victory will have minimal impact upon Al Qaeda.
A truthful evaluation of the imminent war with Iraq requires an understanding of what just war really entails. The concept originated in Europe as a theory closely tied to issues of war, peace, order, and charity as formulated in Christian—specifically, Roman Catholic—moral theology. There have been other theological formulations of just war in the West—both the Judaic and Islamic traditions have proposed versions—but these have not been primary influences on any political theory of war nor on international law. Christian just-war theory has undergone four stages of development: the Augustinian, the Thomist, the Vitorian/Suarezian, and its most recent formulation, promulgated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Saint Augustine is generally credited as the originator of the first theological theory of just war in the West. There is no single place where he formulated it fully, but aspects of it are spread across the Augustinian corpus in such works as On Christian Doctrine, the City of God, On the Free Choice of the Will, various epistles, and Against Faustus. Augustine championed three criteria as characterizing a just war: First, it must be waged by a proper authority or public officials representing the good of the people; second, it must have a just cause or be waged out of “charity”—that is, it must be elicited by the charitable and self-sacrificial protection of the group whose lives and order have been threatened; and third, it can only be waged for the purpose of keeping the peace or restoring public harmony. Augustine believed that just purpose is negated if evil passions prevail and charitable self-sacrifice and the just end are forgotten. Atrocities committed in the heat of battle are morally damnable and, as such, sufficient to negate the justice of the war. In Augustine’s formulation, the personal rectitude of the combatants is inseparably intertwined with the justice of the cause.
St. Thomas Aquinas, unlike Augustine, does not think that the savagery of soldiers necessarily negates the legitimacy of just intention, since the intention is properly related to competent authority. Foot soldiers and their sinful passions are not the kinetic cause of the conflict but function as instruments at the service of the just will of a competent authority. Even so, they are morally culpable and temporally punishable for their less-than-defensive behavior.
During the Counter-Reformation, two theologians of the Salamanca school, Francisco de Vitoria and Francisco de Suárez, expanded the theological model of just war. The historical context for these additions was complicated. It included the colonial aspirations of the European powers and the experience of the preceding two centuries of bloody war, as well as an idealistic hope for the eventual establishment of world government. Both Vitoria and Suárez were among the earliest visionaries of one-world government and the establishment of a code of international law.
Vitoria and Suárez added two new criteria: First, a just war must be fought only as a last resort, after all other avenues of diplomacy have been exhausted; and, second—as a correction to Thomas’s theory—a just war must be prosecuted properly, recognizing that, even if the evil intentions of the common soldier could not be controlled, his actions could be. Also, just war must not produce a greater evil than the conflict that it was fought to correct.
In the last century, Pius XII (Function of the State in the Modern World, 1939, and Christmas Message, 1944), John XXIII (Peace on Earth, 1963), Vatican II (The Church in the Modern World, 1965), Paul VI (Development of Peoples, 1967), and John Paul II (Disarmament, 1988, and Gospel of Life, 1995) added to the earlier formulations a series of qualifications based on the experience of two world wars and numerous “police actions.” Among the moral qualifications that emerged from the experience of 20th-century war were the unconditional condemnation of total war, the unconditional denial of any state’s claim to a right to wage war, the unconditional denial of the justice of any war of aggression (and the questioning of all claims to preemption), the unconditional denial of wars of subjugation, the necessity of an international authority with the power to adjudicate international disputes, and, finally, the primacy of negotiated settlements, with just war reserved as a last resort.
On the basis of these teachings, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (The Challenge of Peace, 1988) further expanded the classical model, adding “relative justice,” or the recognition that the party justly prosecuting war cannot claim absolute righteousness in the cause but has to recognize that the offending party also possesses just claims that must, eventually, be addressed. They also added the criterion of proportionate results—a kind of cost-benefit analysis that prohibits any conflict in which the righting of wrong is won at too dear a measure of either lives lost or the diminution of the quality of life. This is connected to a final criterion: the reasonable hope for success, stipulating that entry into a war that is probably interminable (or unlikely to be won) should be avoided. The bishops distinguished these ad bellum (going to war) criteria from two additional in bello (in war) criteria: first, the discrimination of noncombatants and dire consequences; and, second, the reckoning of proportionate results at all points in the conflict.
The classic Roman Catholic model—chiefly in its Vitorian and Augustinian forms—directly shaped the development of international law in Dutch Arminian Hugo Grotius’ Law of War and Peace (1625). Grotius freely simplified the idealistic precepts of the model to make them fit the self-interest of nations. The results of this adaptation can be found in the language of the charter of the United Nations and that of the Geneva Accords.
Just war is only one theory about the conditions under which war may be waged. Radical pacifists consider the notion of just war sufficiently oxymoronic to place it among the ranks of such other apparent contradictions as no-fault divorce, political correctness, socialist economics, and postmodern philosophy.
Radical pacifism itself, however, is merely an extreme on the spectrum of possible positions. In any civilized political system, the opposite of pacifism is war realism. In contrast to the radical pacifist stance, which allows war under no circumstances, war realism stops short of war barbarism by limiting the ongoing prosecution of war while remaining interventionist in the extreme. Just-war theory falls between the fuzzy borders of pacifist theory and war-realist theory.
In their moral or theological formulations, each variety of théorie de guerre is coupled with a theory of value complementary to it. Generally, pacifist approaches are absolutist with respect to the sanctity of life, while war-realist approaches are utilitarian and consequentialist in the extreme, often subordinating the shedding of blood—according to some cost-benefit calculus—to political and material gains. A state’s adoption of war realism as part of its foreign policy can be a symptom of a totalitarian turn that diminishes the value of individual lives and rights. Just-war theories are more complicated than pacifist and war-realist theories and are usually connected to a hierarchy of values grounded in natural law, while retaining a cost-benefit analysis negotiated in terms of the values of that hierarchy.
In the real world, a moral asymmetry lies at the heart of the political theory of just war. When two nations go to war with each other, it may well be that neither recognizes natural law or a common moral standard, or that one recognizes natural law and the other does not. Under such circumstances, there is no basis for the administration of justice in the midst of the conflict. In the case of two belligerents without common law or morals, the conflict may be interminable, or vastly superior technology possessed by one may mean the annihilation of the other.
The moral asymmetry of nations going to war was one of the implicit theoretical and historical reasons for the establishment of international law. A system of positive laws is required as a guarantor and common standard of justice. International law, especially as it defends sovereign right, has been designed to protect the self-interest of states (without which no state would submit to such regulation), but any such system must back its laws with some means of enforcement. Historically, however, when the moral-theological theory of just war appeared to frustrate the legitimate exercise of a state’s power on the international scene or to interfere in the domestic affairs of the state, it was deemed repugnant. The political theory of just war arose as a compromise. In contemporary discourse, however, much confusion is caused by the collision of two notions of just war—one highly theological and idealistic and the other fundamentally political and practical.
According to the moral theory of just war, the injustice done to the innocent under a tyrannical political regime may be just as worthy of consideration as grounds for war as the injustice done to those outside of it. Once just war is subordinated to natural-law criteria, the option of interventionist actions becomes viable, providing the other criteria are met. Generally, it is international law, not natural law, that discourages these interventions according to a narrow application of the symmetry of consequences. “Do unto others what you would have done unto you” is interpreted here as “Don’t meddle in the internal affairs of other nations unless you wish them to meddle in your affairs.” This application promotes a dim view of regime change. Natural law expands the same principal according to universal values. From the point of view of natural law, as long as interventionism is just in its defense of the innocent (and it meets the other criteria of just war), it should be attempted. A moment’s reflection is sufficient to remind us of the many ways in which the political and moral theories of just war have collided. Think of some of the historical circumstances in which there was a moral clarion call to intervene in the affairs of other states. Stalinist Russia, the holocaust, Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia, and the gassing of the Kurds in Iraq were real occasions for outside interference in the domestic affairs of barbaric states, but intervention was ultimately prevented or limited by political considerations beyond innocence and justice as defined by natural law.
The theoretical divorce between the moral and the political is a distinction that has not led to greater clarity in thinking about the conditions for war—quite the opposite. And yet, it is difficult to imagine all of the nations of the world accepting a common moral standard short of the emergence of a world civilization. Thus, we must negotiate the rhetoric of just war with the distinctions and standards we already possesses.
Would the impending war against Iraq be a just war? The answer would be partly determined by information we simply do not have. As citizens of the United States, we elect representatives who have access to the required information and who will ultimately make the decision for us. Two better questions are, Given what we know about how they are making their decision, is this a just war?; and, second, Are they using just-war criteria to make the decision to go to war? I think the answer has to be “no” on both accounts.
As a Roman Catholic, according to the teachings of the Church, I have two options: pacifism and just-war theory, the two historical positions of the Church on issues of war and peace. For Catholics, war realism is not an option, nor are the purely political interpretations of any of the theories.
Taking the theological criteria, then, it would seem that the Bush administration’s proposed war with Iraq would be disqualified on a number of grounds, even though Saddam Hussein’s barbaric treatment of his people and his threat to neighboring states and Israel would seem to constitute just cause. According to the political theory of just war, the mistreatment of citizens does not necessarily constitute grounds for war; the moral theory, however, is more idealistic on this point and thus more interventionist. The difficulty with respect to the criterion of self-defense is that neither the political nor the theological theory can accept intention as cause. Until Hussein’s direct involvement with Al Qaeda can be established, it is impossible to see action against Saddam as really defensive.
About competent authority there can be little argument. No one seriously doubts that this administration has the support of the Congress, allied nations, and the United Nations to wage war under prescribed conditions. And, except for a few disgruntled Gore supporters, no one questions this administration’s duly constituted authority.
With respect to proper intention, the issue is more complicated. The Christian must ask himself whether self-defense, the defense of allies, and the protection of innocent lives really constitute the aims of this war. Strategic advantage and oil may also play a role, and, given the obvious preemptive nature of the war, we can only wonder whether it is being driven by the latter concerns and not by any real threat. The political theory of just war allows the complication of intentions and mixed motives so long as defense is primary. Still, preemptive strikes have been judged unjust or questionable when the threat is not “clear and present.” (An example is Israel’s preemptive raid on Hussein’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981.) The moral theory does not allow for much complication and—in general—takes a dim view of preemptive strikes, viewing them usually as acts of aggression. The ability to apply the criteria of just war is radically curtailed by what may be called the temporal horizon of the circumstances, the unpredictability of future possibilities. The criteria are easiest to apply when there is a “clear and present danger.” They are most difficult to apply when the temporal horizon is distant and where the intentionality of the opponent is difficult to assess. In the present circumstances, there would seem to be no clear and present danger that would warrant a preemptive attack on the part of the United States. As of yet, we have seen no “smoking rocket,” as one pundit recently put it.
Military intelligence is of central importance when considering whether proportionate results will be achieved. Without access to the battle plans and the measures that will be undertaken to neutralize weapons of mass destruction, it is difficult for a citizen to apply this criterion, especially since its clarity might only be bought at the expense of many American lives. On the other hand, in the absence of this information, citizens have no way of knowing whether the costs have been counted recklessly or disingenuously.
As to a reasonable hope of success, no one seriously believes that the United States does not have the ability to prosecute the war against Iraq effectively, but effective victory does not dissolve objections based on the other criteria.
Finally and most importantly, it is clear that the U.S. war against Iraq can hardly be considered a last resort, either according to the political or the moral interpretation of just war, and this criterion is especially damning of the current U.S. ad bellum strategy. On this, a cloud of witnesses—many of them unlikely associates—are in agreement. Robert Harris, Rowan Williams, Michael Howard, Gen. Wesley Clark, Brent Scowcroft, Lawrence Eagleburger, Arlen Specter, Amr Moussa, and former president Jimmy Carter have denied any imminent threat or last resort. The strategy of containment and deterrence has not proved bankrupt, nor has the United States exhausted all of its diplomatic or military options. The Bush administration seems intent on engineering a last resort by using Iraq’s noncompliance with U.N. resolutions as a pretext for invasion, but war is not necessarily the only possible retaliatory action.
By the time this piece is published, we may be at war. In the intervening weeks, the Bush administration may have effectively dissolved all objections that make its war against Iraq politically and morally unjust. Many of the objections I have raised are based on the inaccessibility of information—information that either exists and is being withheld for purposes of security or does not exist and, thus, damns the injustice of the war with Iraq. However, if we are at war with Iraq and that war is unjust, there is still nothing that prevents the administration from limiting the use of force to the in bello criteria, thus making this war more just in its execution than it was in its inception.