Ted Grimsrud

A pacifist critique of just war thought

In Just War, Justice, Pacifism, Politics on June 17, 2012 at 8:48 am

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #C.7

[Unpublished paper, May 1986]

[Preface, 2012] This paper was written in the latter days of the Cold War. Hence, it has a context that is quite different from our contemporary setting. As well, it focuses on the generation of just war thinkers that came of age in the midst of the nuclear arms race and Vietnam War—most of whom have passed from the scene (though Michael Walzer and James Turner Johnson are still active).

Also, the paper does not, of course, take into account the recent flurry of writing on the just war: see, for example: Daniel M. Bell, Jr., Just War as Christian Discipleship (Brazos, 2009); Mark Allman, Who Would Jesus Kill?(Anselm, 2008); W. Michael Slatterly, Jesus the Warrior? (Marquette University, 2007); A. James Reimer, Christians and War (Fortress, 2010); J. Daryl Charles and Timothy J. Demy, War, Peace, and Christianity (Crossway, 2010); and Andrew Fiala, The Just War Myth (Rowman and Littlefield, 2008).

However, I believe the issues I address here are perennial issues and the perspective I offer remains relevant.

Historical introduction

From the time of Augustine until now, the so-called “just war theory” has been the more-or-less official Christian doctrine regarding involvement in warfare.  I say “more-or-less official” because the just war system does not begin as a system in the strong sense of a group of thoughts that hang together.  It was never adopted by a church council.  It was not until the Reformation in the sixteenth century that it is mentioned in church confessions, and then only in passing.  This is to say that the “just war theory” was the norm in practice for the vast majority of Christians, the assumed position.

Ambrose, the late fourth century church leader, was the first to articulate a Christian “ethics of war”–before him it was always an ethic against war.  He furnished two of the ingredients of the Christian theory of the just war:  that the conduct of the war should be just and that monks and priests should abstain from fighting.

What Ambrose roughly sketched, his student Augustine amplified.  However, he never systematized his thought on warfare.  There was no debate among the church leaders of Augustine’s time about a coherent proposal for a Christian ethic of war that could be either accepted or rejected.  Since this was the case, there was no official acceptance of criteria that could lead to a clear decision as to whether the war was justifiable or not.

Rather, what happened is that the events occurred, wars happened, and the church leaders followed along, responding in an ad hoc fashion.  The acceptance of war and of the just war tradition simply happened.  No individual or group of individuals ever directed it.  There was no debate, no votes taken.

So, it was not that Augustine provided the church with a clear system of criteria that must be met for a war to be considered justifiable.  Rather, he provided the theological justification for the move that had already been made regarding the acceptance of Christian involvement in warfare.  He also provided some specific, though random, ingredients that much later came to be included in the systemitization of the just war theory.

The theological justification included a somber view of human nature that saw peace on earth as being an impossibility.  Swords never had been beaten into plowshares and never would.  So pacifism is not a realistic possibility.  Also, outward violence could be justified because right and wrong were seen to reside not in acts but in attitudes.  Killing and love could the more readily be squared by Augustine because in his judgment life in the body is not of the highest importance.  What matters is eternal salvation.

The ingredients that Augustine provided for what later became systematized into the just war theory were mainly taken over from Plato and Cicero, with a few Christianizing additions.  But they were never stated in anything approaching a systematic fashion.  Rather, he mentions one criterion here and one criterion there, as they seemed appropriate.

The factors mentioned by Augustine included these:  the war must be just as to its intent–which is to restore peace.  The war must be just in its disposition–which is Christian love.  This is not incompatible with killing, because love and non-resistance are inward dispositions.  The war must be just as to its auspices–waged only under the authority of the ruler.  The conduct of the war must be just, and only those in public authority may take life.  Private citizens may not defend themselves because they cannot do so without passion, self-assertion, and a loss of love.

Augustine actually made no allowance for how these criteria might work in a negative way leading to the rejection of particular wars that violate the criteria.  He essentially tried to provide advice to the political leaders to help them decide whether their war would be okay.  Once they decided that it was okay (as they invariably did), the individual soldier was obliged to go along.  He had no responsibility to decide on his own.  When a soldier killed on order, he was not guilty of murder, and if he refused an order to kill, he was guilty of treason.

It was from within this just war tradition that the Crusades in the Middle Ages found justification.  The Crusades were not justified wars in the sense that they were intended to follow Augustine’s criteria, in particular the criterion that the conduct must be just.  But they were “just wars” in the sense that those who fought them believed they were fighting for a just cause.

The medieval theologians were not aware that the crusade had written a new chapter in the ethics of war.  They could accommodate the crusade to the doctrine of the just war, because by common assent the crusade was not fought to convert the infidel but only to protect the passage of pilgrims to the Holy Land.  This at any rate was the initial objective.  There was latent a fundamental difference, however.  The purpose was not to recover stolen goods nor to repel an invasion, but to vindicate a right of religion under a foreign jurisdiction.  This was after all a war of faith.  This non-rational sense of a direct calling from God to do battle is one which has surfaced often since then, but it never is articulated as part of the general Christian ethic of war.

However, two elements from the crusade remain in our inheritance in the West.  They keep the crusade model alive in our culture, even though it is not in our most careful thinking.  One is that a transcendental cause justifies downgrading the rights of the enemy.  If we are fighting for God, then the communists have no rights because their denial of the true God forfeits their claim to humanity.  That element from the crusade era remains in western thought about any big battle.  The other element of the crusade mentality is what you might think about yourself in regard to the absolute value of martyrdom.  It is meaningful to die, even to fail or to die defeated if it is in a crusade.

It seems to me that the main thrust of the just war theory in history is similar in some ways to the crusade idea in that it has more contributed to a mood or attitude toward war than provided a universally agreed upon set of criteria which has in practice been relevant to whether specific wars should be fought or not or how they should be fought.

Essentially, the idea of just warfare has been used to make it morally justifiable to fight wars after they have already begun.  And because of the church’s acceptance of the just war theory that make it okay for Christians to fight in wars, few Christians decide ipso facto that they will not fight.  And, in practice, it has almost universally been the case that Christians have considered any war their nation is fighting in to be a just war–even German Christians during the Nazi era.

However, since World War II, three things have happened that have made the just war theory, in North America at least, more than a convenient means of making it morally justifiable to fight in wars.  They are the development of nuclear weapons, the trials of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, and the Vietnam War.

With the advent of nuclear weapons, many people are becoming “nuclear pacifists.”  That is, they believe that it is conceivable that there could be a war that meets the criteria for a just war, but that it is impossible for a war fought with nuclear weapons to be just.  By definition, a nuclear war would violate the criterion of proportionality (or limited means).  A nuclear war would be too devastating ever to be just.  Therefore, nuclear war must always be opposed – as should preparation for nuclear war.  This is a use of just war criteria to say “no.”

The first actual war in which large numbers of people in the U. S. applied just war criteria and came up with a “no” answer was the war in Vietnam.  Many war resisters were not absolute pacifists, but rather selective conscientious objectors (that is, people who objected to a specific war).  This occurrence is significant because it marked the end of the assumption that if the nation’s leaders say a war is just the people in that nation are to agree.  The selective objection to the Vietnam War meant that people were acting on a belief that they had a different and more authoritative basis for determining the difference between a just and an unjust war.

The principle supporting this perspective was strongly articulated in the Nuremberg trials, when Nazi leaders were tried and convicted of “crimes against humanity” following World War II.  The people tried there were told that they should have told their government “no” and not been involved in a clearly unjust war.

So it seems that the just war theory has new life, that it is finally beginning to function in a critical way, in a way which actually leads people to say “no” to specific wars.

Just war thought and the nuclear threat

The general issue of the validity of just-war thought with regard to nuclear war is a dividing line between two quite distinct general approaches to just-war ethics, which I will call “realist” and “nuclear pacifist,” and helps uncover their diverse goals for the use of just-war thought.  The realists want to regulate war, including nuclear war, and the nuclear pacifists want to prevent and even eliminate war, especially nuclear war.

The realists, authors such as William O‘Brien, James T. Johnson, Paul Ramsey, and John Courtney Murray,[1] have the goal of applying just-war thought to the regulation of warfare.  They hold two assumptions inextricably together:  (1) war is inevitable (it is seen to be utopian and even dangerous to try to eliminate war itself–hence they reject pacifism) and (2) war must be limited, carried out according to moral rules (hence they reject the idea of total war and the goal of unconditional surrender).  John C. Murray’s famous quote represents this general line of thought:  “Since nuclear war may be a necessity, it must be made a possibility.”

The central goal is to apply just war thought to nuclear war and to make a “just” nuclear war conceivable.  These thinkers reject the notion that nuclear weapons make all conceivable wars utilizing them ipso facto unjust.  To think so is a failure of thought, not a recognition of inevitable reality.

These people would certainly believe that nothing in the modern world has changed significantly regarding causes for going to war (the so-called jus ad bellum – “just cause”).  What would make a just nuclear war inconceivable today would not be a change in the applicability of just-cause criteria, but a belief that just-action criteria (the so-called jus in bello – “just means”) of proportionality (that the damage done by the means of war do not cancel out the good the war is seeking to accomplish) and discrimination (that innocent people not be directly attacked) cannot help but be violated.  To make such war conceivable, therefore, requires much attention being paid to these criteria and sophisticated argumentation holding that they would not always be decisively violated by nuclear war.

It is an important move for people, such as O’Brien and Johnson, in this discussion to assert that the just war principles, while valid and essential to thinking morally about war, do not all have to apply at all times.  In his detailed discussion of World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, O’Brien underscores this when he declares American involvement in all these wars to be just, on balance, even though many rules were violated.  They also emphasize that while the criteria are traditional, they evolve.  Part of the underlying motive here is to make sure that the criteria are not overtaken by the means of modern warfare and thereby yield only an uncompromising (and therefore irrelevant) “No!” to modern war.

For the “nuclear pacifists” (here I refer to several contemporary Catholic moralists, bishops, and popes–not all admittedly overt nuclear pacifists, but all sharing a general line of thought–and Protestant moralists such as Robert McAfee Brown and ecumenical groups)[2] the purpose of using just-war thought is essentially to keep war, especially nuclear war, from happening.  There is some diversity here as to the potential for actually eliminating war from history, but the basic thrust, quite different from the realists, is toward keeping nuclear war from happening at all.  This is not, ultimately, an assertion that the conditions for just war thinking are no longer present, even though it might, in effect, be an assertion that the conditions for the actual waging of a just nuclear war are not present.

This way of thinking is using just-war categories of thought to reject nuclear warfare.  It is using the just war criteria to say no before nuclear war even starts, so in a sense it could be seen to be saying that the just-war criteria (i.e., the just-action criteria) are no longer valid for determining how nuclear war can be fought, since such a war cannot stay within the limits set by those criteria.

Both perspectives in general hold that it is at least theoretically possible to apply just-war criteria to conceivable modern conventional war.  All of these thinkers allow for national defense in theory, though there is great diversity over how possible it would be in practice to carry out such wars justly even if nuclear weapons are not used.

An example of this diversity can be seen in discussion of the Vietnam War.  For William V. O’Brien (and, in less detail, Paul Ramsey and James Johnson), a close examination of both just-cause and just-action criteria in conjunction with looking at what happened leads to the conclusion that the U. S. had just cause to fight and fought justly–all things considered.  It follows from this for these writers that other similar kinds of wars could be just.  They would all need to be regulated of course.

For Michael Walzer,[3] Robert McAfee Brown, and–ultimately–many United States Catholic bishops, the application of just-war criteria led to a rejection of the Vietnam War as an emphatically unjust war.  Walzer sees the existence of the just-war tradition as essential to the ability of the anti-war movement publicly to oppose the war and argue tellingly against it.  People had an awareness of right and wrong with regard to war.

There is, especially on Brown’s part, a concomitant suspicion that the U. S. could ever conceivably fight a just war.  The only kind of conceivable just war is a non-nuclear, totally defensive war.  Thus, the U. S. could not fight a just nuclear war, nor could we likely fight a just interventionist war elsewhere in the world in defense of our geo-political and economic interests.  And any chance of another country literally invading us is virtually nil.

Brown and J. G. Davies,[4] however, assert that while the U. S. as a nuclear imperial power could not conceivably fight a just war (and use just war thought to so argue), third-world revolutionists could conceivably fight just wars.  Both (Davies in more detail) argue that such wars must (and can, though not automatically) generally adhere both to just-cause and just-action criteria.

So, basically, the “nuclear pacifists” mentioned above are non-pacifists.  As such, they still accept some kind of just-war thought and use traditional criteria to argue for (or at least accept) the possibility of justifiable wars and the regulation of these justifiable wars.  Many also use just-war thought to reject certain (though not in principle all) wars.  The extent of the rejection ahead of time of certain wars is somewhat unprecedented in the just-war tradition, but this is only partly due to nuclear weapons.  It is also due to aversion to total conventional war as witnessed in our century and the growth of anti-imperialistic sentiment.  But it is undeniable that the spread of nuclear weapons has changed the way just-war thought has been used, even if such thought has not been seen as rendered invalid.

At the same time, several pacifist authors have argued that nuclear weapons reinforce their rejection of just-war thought (among this group would likely be several who would attribute their embracing pacifism to the reality of nuclear weapons).  But, at least for Gordon Zahn and John Howard Yoder,[5] one would have to say that nuclear weapons have not been decisive in their rejection of just war thought–though they indeed play a part in the arguments.

Both Yoder and Zahn perceive a general tendency throughout the history of just war thought for such theories to have little or no effect on the actual practice of militarism and warfare.  Zahn makes a special point of looking at Nazi Germany and the Catholic hierarchy’s failure to declare Hitler’s wars to be unjust as an example of how just war thought has little practical value.  Yoder bases his implicit arguments against just war thought in his book When War is Unjust on the tradition’s inability to say no or even to prepare ahead of time for the possibility to say no.

If the basic assumption of the just war tradition (as argued by both realists and nuclear pacifists) is actually against violence, it seems to Yoder that the burden of proof then would not be on the citizen who refuses to fight, but on the state that argues that war is necessary and truly a last resort.  And holders of just war thought would demand that the state convincingly prove its assertions or just-warriors would become conscientious objectors.  The fact that such a demand for proof that the war is okay does not happen renders just war thought suspect for Yoder much more than the recent advent of nuclear weapons.

Those who reject just war thought do not generally do so because of nuclear weapons, though they may refer to nuclear weapons.  Non-pacifists generally either reject nuclear weapons based on their use of just war thought itself (perhaps, as argued by some, thereby actually validating the applicability of just-war thought) or, using just war thought, attempt to regulate nuclear warfare.

Just war thought and the restraint of violence

The main expressed goal of William V. O’Brien (The Conduct of Just and Limited Wars), James Turner Johnson (Just War Tradition and the Restraint of Warfare and Can Modern War Be Just?), and Paul Ramsey (War and the Christian Conscience:  How Shall Modern War Be Conducted Justly?), as indicated even in the titles of their books, is that moral reflection within the context of the just war tradition and the application of that reflection to public policy serve to restrain modern warfare.  They all focus on the conduct of war and seek to argue for restraint on that conduct consistent with the main elements of the just war tradition.

All three authors simply assume that war is necessary to protect certain central values.  This is so much of a given that none of them devote much space to elaborating on those values or explaining how it is that war protects and even enhances them.  With these givens, what is actually at stake is how war can be controlled in such a way that those values can be protected without disproportional and indiscriminate means being used.  These values are not protected by unrestrained warfare.  Because of the ultimate significance of these values and the fact that they are not protected by unrestrained warfare, restraint becomes a moral imperative.

O’Brien, Johnson, and Ramsey are pretty much totally in agreement on this discussion, especially as it relates to policy recommendations and judgments on recent American wars.

Just war thinkers (such as those described as “nuclear pacifists” above) who see the purpose of just war thought being that of preventing war rather than regulating it spend little time discussing restraint.  They seemingly hold that in practice war, at least nuclear war, is unrestrainable on the basis of moral strictures or at least if it can be restricted, such restrictions are largely academic given the extent of the damage done.  But I am aware of very little written on the subject by these people.  They focus on means of preventing war, not on whether and how it can be restrained.

In what follows, I will largely focus on O’Brien, because his work is the most thorough with regard to this issue and most directly addresses the question of the history of modern warfare—something centrally pertinent to the issue of whether in practice modern war can be restrained.  However, everything I say about O’Brien’s perspective is also largely true of Johnson’s and Ramsey’s as well.

O’Brien assumes, with regard to the question of restraint, that war must be restrained.  Because restraint is absolutely necessary, O’Brien assumes that it is possible.  He does not make a detailed argument based on cases that moral restraints have been a significant reality in modern warfare.  In fact, he seems to believe that modern war has not been restrained enough, which is why this discussion is so important.  O’Brien even admits that in the case of a particularly significant instance of morally problematic practices –e.g., saturation bombing of German and Japanese population centers and the use of nuclear weapons in World War II–just war moral concerns about proportionality and discrimination never even came up in the discussions of policy makers.

He emphasizes however, that none of these choices were inevitable.  Human beings have control over the means by which they will fight their wars, and if they have the moral fiber to choose to use just means they can.  This is where just war thinking can and must make a contribution.

It becomes clear in O’Brien’s discussion (more so than in Johnson and Ramsey because O’Brien is more historically-specific regarding American twentieth-century wars) that many traditional just war criteria have been relativized as the tradition has evolved and been applied to modern wars.  Some of the relativizations include:

(1) The need for a formal declaration of war has been more or less jettisoned.  This is the case because requiring such often gives the enemy the unfair advantage of being warned ahead of time.

(2) The overriding priority on self-defense, especially in a situation where one’s nation incorporates extremely just and significant values that would presumably be lost in event of its defeat, means that the need for there to be a strong probability of success before one fights is waived.  Just nations owe it to the world to resist aggression even if they have little hope of success.

(3) Proportionality is extremely difficult to determine.  It is virtually impossible to tell ahead of time whether our response to unjust aggression will cause more damage to humankind than our being defeated would.  Therefore, little accountability is possible here.

(4) Discrimination has become more of an ideal having to do with intent than with results.  What matters the most is that we not intentionally attack non-combatants.  The power of modern weapons is such that in practice it is impossible to avoid completely hurting civilians even when military targets are attacked.  Also, military targets have become so entwined with the civilian infrastructure of societies that they cannot be resisted without damage to others.  But, if such resistance is necessary (as it is, given the assumption regarding the necessity of warfare), then damage to civilians is inevitable–not that it should not be minimized as much as possible.

(5) The power of modern first-strike capabilities is such that a nation holding too strictly to the no-aggression rule will be at a disastrous disadvantage.  There has to be clear evidence that aggression is coming before a preventative attack can be launched, but one need not wait until one’s borders are literally crossed.

(6) The notion of last-resort, if literally followed, would lead the U. S. to be at the mercy of an ineffectual and biased United Nations.

(7) It is essential to discern the differences between political systems.  At the time O’Brien was writing, he and others argued that the likely effect of Soviet dominance of the world conditions much of the way that the U. S. would relate to just war criteria.  More recently, the concern for the potential world dominance of militant Islam has replaced the fear of Communist domination.

This list of relativizations of traditional just war criteria makes it clear that the priority on restraint is very general.  All three authors assert that only limited, restrained wars can be just wars and that when limited, restrained wars are fought for good causes they are by definition just.  But certain wars fought with little restraint but for a good enough cause (e.g., World War II) can still be just.

These writers assert, nevertheless, that the goal of just war thought is restraint.  The best way to insure that war will be restrained is to follow certain pre-war policies, making them an intrinsic part of our military system.

(1) With regard to nuclear weapons, following just war thought means to reject Mutual Assured Destruction as the centerpiece of our deterrent strategy in favor of counterforce weaponry.  It is immoral to intend to destroy our enemies’ civilian centers.  We should target military objectives exclusively.  Restraint as an ideal requires this.  We should also enhance our conventional military capabilities as a means of preparing to fight limited wars instead of all out nuclear wars.

(2) With regard to conventional wars, O’Brien asserts that we should emphasize the need for strict military discipline with leadership that is well-educated concerning the requirements of just-action and strongly committed to avoid atrocities and the like.

(3) In general, the principle of restraint demands that we seek to discern ahead of time how to fight restrained wars and that we be prepared to do so.  This is a positive focus:  we must prepare for war and we must prepare for fighting just, i.e., restrained, wars.  Here we, of course, can see again the big difference between these “realists” and “nuclear pacifists” who see the goal of just war thought not that of preparing for war but of preventing war.

Ultimately, though, O’Brien’s discussion of recent American wars indicates that in reality restraint is a secondary characteristic for him, as it must be anyone who asserts that war is inevitable and that it is essential that our nation win.  The unrestrained war against Germany and Japan and American violations of the just-action in Korea and Vietnam do not over rule the justice of our cause in those wars, and O’Brien considers all three to have been just wars.  So just cause takes priority over restraint when the rubber meets the road, especially when we discern between political systems and determine ours to be necessary for the world’s wellbeing.  O’Brien’s admits that “moral” restrictions that hinder one’s ability to win the war can be overridden.

This tension between restraint on the one hand and the need for a (that is, our) just cause to prevail on the other puts into question the assertion that the main focus of just war thought must be on the need to impose moral restraints on warfare and reject total war.  These restraints cannot mean that the just side be forced to lose to the unjust side.

So, to say the least, O’Brien, Johnson, and Ramsey have not shown that modern war can be restrained.  Johnson, for one, admits that restraint on tactics has in the past largely been based on inherent limitations on fighting capabilities, not moral strictures.  He asserts that now the only possible restraints on the destructiveness of war are now those set by purposeful human choice.  That may be true, but it in no way is evidence that it is conceivable that this will happen.

To say that since war must be restrained, therefore it can be, is not really much different from saying (as “utopian” pacifists do) that war must be eliminated, therefore it can be.  Little, if any, evidence exists of overt just war morality having a role in restraining modern wars.  Theoretically, perhaps it can.  But it could be argued that once the necessity to win at war is assumed (as it surely must be if people are to pay the price that war demands), then restraint becomes expendable and just war thought becomes every bit as utopian as pacifist thought.  Maybe in this situation, just war thought is more utopian and more dangerous in assuming that after allowing for war, it can then impose rules which might beep a nation from winning.  These rules are sure to be disregarded, and just warriors are left with nothing but an unjust war they helped bring about with their (albeit, qualified) initial “yes.”

Just war thought and nuclear deterrence

In Nuclear Ethics, David Hollenbach describes two perspectives on nuclear deterrence that he uses as extremes between which to situate the middle of the road perspective of the U. S. Catholic Bishops and other “nuclear pacifists” such as himself.[6]  These are the perspectives of total pacifism and what I have earlier called “realism.”  While I am not totally in agreement with Hollenbach’s use of these categories, I do find them useful in mapping the current debate.

Hollenbach, like most typologists who set up two extremes, opts for a middle, mediating perspective which, in his view, recognizes the complexity of historical existence in a fallen world while at the same time not jettisoning Christian morality.  Without accepting the superiority of Hollenbach’s own position, we can still agree that he has made a helpful distinction, one that highlights not only differences regarding deterrence, but also even more fundamental differences regarding the meaning and usage of just war thought in general.

For the total pacifists who discuss deterrence (e..g., Raymond Hunthausen and Gordon Zahn), both principle and pragmatism enter into their rejection of deterrence as a legitimate moral stance with regard to nuclear weapons.  On a general level, it is seen simply to be wrong to threaten to kill millions of people and to develop the capability of doing so.  It would seem that all people who think morally about modern war would agree, though pacifists also reject the idea that other wrongs might make this wrong a lesser one.

Namely, for these pacifists no potential loss of freedom or violation of human rights is as bad as killing millions of innocent people (or “guilty” people either, for that matter).  This is why these pacifists reject war in general and why rejection of deterrence is part of a broader rejection of war and just war thought altogether.

On a more pragmatic level, for Hunthausen, the risks of unilateral disarmament are less than the risks of the present balance of terror which deterrence imposes on the world.  He does not really elaborate much on why he might think this.  Zahn, however, sees anti-communism as an American idolatry used to justify evil and unnecessary armament buildups.  For him, the view that unilateral disarmament is less risky is at least partially based on a view that the Soviet threat is overrated.

For these pacifists, like the realists (though with very different consequences) but unlike the nuclear pacifists, the possession of nuclear weapons cannot be separated from the intent to use them.  Both are evil and both totally rejected.

This position is used mostly as a foil by people in the other two camps.  However, it is the logical conclusion for the nuclear pacifist who both rejects all use of nuclear weapons and thinks that it is wrong to threaten to do that which is wrong in itself to do.  The reason that many nuclear pacifists do not go all the way in absolutely rejecting all possession of nuclear weapons is, partly, due to fear that unilateral disarmament would lead to war and/or loss of freedom and human rights (this fear being predicated on the assumption that the Soviet Union needs deterring).  Another reason is fear on the part of nuclear pacifists that if they went this route they would become marginalized and lose any potential for influencing public policy.

Realists (e.g., Michael Novak, James Finn, James C. Daugherty, James T. Johnson) also reject (or at least strongly question) deterrence based on Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), that is, based on threats to bomb population centers.  They do so largely for two reasons:  just-action considerations and the belief that such deterrence might not work.

The just-action concerns stem from an assumption that nuclear weapons might indeed need to be used.  This is part of their general assumption, much different from the nuclear pacifists, that the purpose of just war thought is to make just wars possible.  However, massive intentional destruction of cities is immoral and irrational and cannot morally be done.  So we need a different kind of deterrence that would be morally possible.

The goal for these realists is not disarmament but “justice.”  “Justice” here has to do with freedom, human rights, democratic political structures, all the various things which make our system morally superior to the Soviet’s and which make it worth fighting a nuclear war for.  But a MAD-kind of nuclear war would not serve those ends.  It would be out of proportion even to these almost transcendent values.  In order to save those values, we must figure out how to fight a non-MAD kind of nuclear war.

For these realists, like the total pacifists, possession of nuclear weapons cannot be separated from the intent to use them.  Thus they have to be usable in a limited way which would not decisively violate the just-action criteria.

And they have to be usable in a way that will effectively serve as a deterrent.  Deterrence, in Johnson’s view, is based on perceptions.  If the threat is utterly irrational, then it loses its force.  It is not useable and thereby rendered ineffective.  Novak asserts that there is no credible deterrent without the realistic threat to use it.  Thus, the attempt to justify deterrence as something that must not actually be used is rejected.  The threat must be useable to be credible.

A credible threat is needed because the Soviet threat is so strong.  The Soviet Union is perceived by these realists as an embodiment of power-imperialism which must be effectively resisted or it will conquer the world.  MAD turns out to be only a bluff which if called would effect disastrous consequences.  An alternative is needed, or the Soviets might not be resisted effectively enough.

Therefore it is necessary to consider a limited and discriminatory use of nuclear weapons in the face of this ever-present danger of massive totalitarian aggression against democratic societies.  Deterrence strategy needs to be based on a limited-war fighting capability.  The goal of deterrence is most decidedly not disarmament.  As Finn puts it, the presumption of just-war thought is not first of all in favor or peace, but first of all in favor of justice.  In a fallen world, there can at best be but partial peace.  More specifically, as long as the Soviet Union exists, justice demands force—i.e., an effective, useable deterrent.

A limited-war capability is necessary to strengthen deterrence by showing our adversary that we are serious about keeping it at bay, that we will fight if necessary and not just emptily threaten to blow up the world.  Such capability is also necessary for our nuclear weapons policy to adhere more closely to the just-action criteria of proportion and discrimination–something MAD does not do.

In response to this perspective, nuclear pacifists are very skeptical of whether any nuclear war can be limited at all.  However, even if some could be limited, they would still be seen to inevitably surpass the just-action criteria.  They could not be limited enough.  Too many innocent people would be destroyed.  The realist approach goes exactly counter to the nuclear pacifist goal of disarmament in its attempt to make nuclear war fighting possible.

Nuclear pacifists (e.g., David Hollenbach, Richard McCormick, the Bishops’ Letter, to some degree Michael Walzer – who sees deterrence as totally wrong, but provisionally acceptable as a kind of “supreme emergency” until something better able to prevent nuclear war comes along) are not trying to be totally logical.  They recognize a fundamental paradox that is only bearable because, unlike the other two perspectives, they assert that one can separate possession from intent to use.

Hollenbach admits to logical inconsistency since, in this position, intention (nuclear war prevention) goes in the opposite direction from action (preparation for nuclear war).  The only way this paradox can have even interim validity is if the fundamental commitment is to disarmament and deterrence serves only to preserve peace until multi-lateral disarmament becomes a reality.

The ultimate goal (hence nuclear pacifism) is total abolition of nuclear weapons.  They cannot under any circumstances be used morally.  The key point in this position is that until abolition occurs, nuclear war must be prevented.  From this follows the conditional acceptance of deterrence since it is seen to contribute to that prevention.  The implicit assumption, of course, is that the Soviet Union would attack if we disarmed.

Pacifists and realists would question whether this fundamental commitment to disarmament in fact does, or even could, exist.  Nuclear weapons were built for a reason–and it was not disarmament.  For the realists, they are said to have been built for protection against the intrinsic Soviet will to power.  In the eyes of many pacifists, they were built as instruments of American world dominance.  Neither would be convinced that these motivating forces are now non-existent.  It seems likely to me that nuclear pacifists are going to have to choose which story is more believable and move out of the middle of the road.  And to a large degree this will depend upon their view of Soviet intentions.

The nuclear pacifists’ dilemma is that of holding to both an extremely negative view of nuclear weapons and of the Soviet Union.  One view must change.

The only way I see of resolving this dilemma is to ask more critically if we genuinely have anything to “deter.”  It might be more possible to think that we do not if we look at what other factors might have fueled our nuclear buildup.  This would necessitate a historical look at how U. S. decisions regarding nuclear weapons construction and deployment have actually been made.  Such a look might indicate that politics and economics were much more decisive than any genuine need to deter the Soviet Union.[7]  Even if this suggestion is true, unilateral disarmament would be risky.  But the threat would not come from the Soviet Union, it would come from those in our country who profit too much from things as they are now to let peace break out.

Theological assumptions and just war ethics

I will focus on three viewpoints in this section.  J. G. Davies articulates a theology sympathetic to justifiable revolution close to liberation theology.  Paul Ramsey writes as a Christian realist, being heavily influenced by Augustine, Luther, and Reinhold Niebuhr.  David Hollenbach operates out of a natural law framework.[8]

In discussing these three thinkers, I will focus first on their differences and the theological roots of those, and then look at a few areas of agreement.

In a broad sense, these three thinkers are very different.  They come to significantly different policy conclusions and, while all three accept the possibility of just wars, each sees just war applying to significantly different situations.  Ramsey is very sympathetic to the possibility of a country such as the U. S. fighting just wars of intervention as well as defense.  Hollenbach sees national defense as virtually the only possibility for any one’s just war.  Davies would implicitly see the U. S. as incapable of fighting a just war; the only kind of just war the U. S. could be part of would be one where Americans were on the side of the unjust oppressors.

More specifically, for Ramsey God is on the side of political order.  War is just when it is fought, using just means, against threats to this order–especially aggressive threats from the outside but also internal subversive threats.  Ramsey’s God sanctions status quo wars.  For Ramsey, unlike other “realists,” theological realities are very applicable to the public realm.

Davies’ God, on the other hand, sanctions primarily wars that overturn an unjust and oppressive status quo.  His God is on the side of the poor and oppressed.  The motivation for wars is not maintaining public order but establishing justice and liberation for oppressed and poor people.  Davies shares with Ramsey the notion that God is a political God having direct relevance for the public realm.  But these are two very different Gods indeed.

Hollenbach’s position, typically for an overt natural law orientation, has little to say about God and God’s relevance for public life.  To talk about public policy, Christians must talk general, natural law language and not bring their God into it.  More than earlier natural law thinkers, he does emphasize the place of theological virtues and Christian conscience in shaping the attitude and actions of Christians–but these do not have an overt place in the public realm.

Thus, for Hollenbach, the major virtue at work in just war thinking is justice, not love as it is with the other two.  Justice is a lowest-common denominator kind of virtue in a pluralistic society.  It is to uphold justice in the context of mixed motives and wills to power that the exception to the norm of nonviolence is made and justifiable wars are fought.

Davies equates love and justice and sees them together as the bases for Christians’ support for just revolutions.  Love in history means caring about those who are victims of oppression.  Thus it takes the shape of justice for these people, that they get what is due to them as human beings.  Love for oppressors also takes the shape of justice for the oppressed, since it is only when the oppressed receive justice that the oppressors are truly liberated and enabled themselves truly to be humanized.

Ramsey holds a unique perspective in arguing that the basic motivation for Christians fighting just wars is love, not justice.  It is not some “rigorous alien natural-law principle drawn from some source outside Christian morals,” but rather love itself.  This love leads Christians to act on behalf of their innocent neighbors who are victims of unjust aggression.  It is love for neighbors that accepts the validity of public defense, even while rejecting private self-defense.  And it is love even of enemies that leads to limitations on the means of warfare.  The Christian hates no one, but fights with a clear conscience, knowing that serving the public good through justifiable warfare is a true reflection of God’s love.

It follows from this that Ramsey, distinct from the others, sees fighting in just wars a positive good.  Fighting in just wars is an act of love, not an exception in which the call to love is suspended due to the need to defend justice.  It is not the lesser of evils, but a good thing in and of itself.  There is no presupposition toward nonviolence in Ramsey–the presupposition is toward the good of the neighbor, the public good, which by definition includes the morally good possibility of just wars.

On the other hand, Hollenbach strongly emphasizes the notion that war is the exception and is never morally good.  It is only the lesser of evils.  His notion of the state of nature is apparently one within which violence is not intrinsic.  Violence does not cause good to happen, it only prevents greater evil from occurring.

Davies basically agrees with Hollenbach here.  Violent revolution is justifiable only when the potential evil of war is outweighed by the existence of an even more evil unjust status quo.  It is not a good to fight, though it may be the right thing to do if it is truly the least of evils.  Davies does agree with Ramsey, though, in seeing justifiable violence as in some sense a potential act of love–love for the oppressed people needing justice and even love for the oppressor needing release from that state.  But the actual killing of an oppressor is never an act of love for the person killed.  It is always in that sense an evil, albeit at times necessary, act.

As already mentioned, Hollenbach sees nonviolence as the norm for Christians, the basic perspective from which exceptions must be made.  He admits that natural law thinkers have not always emphasized this truth, but he asserts that it is at the very heart of the Catholic tradition.  Thus, the goal of just war thought for him is the abolition of nuclear weapons and even of war itself.

Ramsey, of course, rejects that notion.  He follows Luther in seeing nonviolence as only personal.  I should not violently defend myself, at least when no one else is depending on me.  But as a citizen, a neighbor, perhaps a parent or spouse, I have no legitimate recourse to nonviolence.  It is wrong-headed and even dangerous to see the elimination of war as a goal.  What is needed instead is war that is possible, that can be regulated to be just.

Davies’ bottom line is neither violence or nonviolence, but liberation.  Nonviolence can certainly be a tactic for revolution.  In fact it is the preferred tactic when it works.  But violence is endemic wherever injustice and oppression reign, and an absolute principle of nonviolence can only lead to an implicit complicity with that violence.

Davies has a very strong notion of the kingdom of God.  The “hermeneutics of the kingdom” is to make the world a better place, i.e., to work for liberation.  A just and successful revolution, admittedly a rare thing, is a manifestation in history of God’s kingdom.

Neither Hollenbach nor Ramsey has a notion of the kingdom literally experienced in history.  Hollenbach simply does not allude to it at all.  For Ramsey, taking after Augustine, the kingdom of peace and justice is atemporal, eschatological in a totally future sense.  Ramsey’s realism leads him to reject notions such as Davies’ as utopian.

In questions of doing violence or not in the context of justifiable wars, the benefit of the doubt for Ramsey goes to the government.  This is only natural given his priority on public order and upholding the status quo.  Conscientious objectors must prove their case and even then, in effect, sue for exemption, something which is not theirs by right.  Individuals simply do not generally have the capability to discerning just-cause.  They should take their government’s word for it, secure in the knowledge that God does not hold them accountable for the wrong choices of their leaders.

Hollenbach would seem to place much more priority on the conscience of the individual Christian.  The benefit of the doubt, if one truly starts with the assumption of nonviolence, should go to the conscientious objector, unless compelling reasons are given for fighting.

For Davies, the benefit of the doubt goes to the poor and oppressed.  What ultimately matters is their need.  In practice, this would also tend to go toward the conscience of the individual, perhaps in conjunction with the discernment of the community of resistance regarding probable success and last resort.  Certainly, if the government is on the side of oppression (as is usually the case), then it is not to be trusted in claiming that resistance to the revolution is just.

This discernment process for Davies has a lot to do with human experience.  It is out of the experience of oppression that notions of the need for and appropriate tactics of justifiable revolution arise.  He recognizes the validity of the just war tradition for providing criteria for just causes and tactics.  But the initial step of hermeneutical suspicion flowing out of the experience is crucial.

Following Kant, Ramsey holds to the opposite.  “You cannot do morality a greater disservice than deriving it from experience.”  He focuses on principles, in particular the principle of noncombatant immunity and the general love command which determines everything for him.

Hollenbach focuses on reason tempered by conscience, with particular emphasis on reason in history.  His argument in favor of nuclear pacifism is that, while not totally logical, it corresponds best to historical realities.

Despite all these fundamental differences, these three thinkers also have significant agreements, agreements which could be seen as fundamental common ground for all people holding to just war thought.  These include the need for Christians to take responsibility for the public realm, seeking to act effectively in influencing the social order; the assertion that the conduct of war, to be just, must be controlled by just-action criteria; and the belief that “justice” (whatever exactly that means – for all it is in some sense a “secular” notion) is the prerequisite for peace meaning that the violence of war can serve the end of peace.

[Master list of Peace Essays]


[1] James T. Johnson, Can Modern War Be Just?  (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 1984);  John Courtney Murray,  Morality and Modern War  (New York:  Council on Religion and International Affairs, 1959);  William V. O’Brien, The Conduct of Just and Limited Wars (New York: Praeger, 1981); Paul Ramsey, War and the Christian Conscience: How Shall Modern War Be Conducted Justly? (Durham, NC:  Duke University Press, 1961).

[2] Robert McAfee Brown,  Religion and Violence  (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1973);  James E. Dougherty,  The Bishops and Nuclear Weapons:  The Catholic Pastoral letter on War and Peace  (Hamden, CT:  Archon, 1984);  Robert Heyer, ed.,  Nuclear Disarmament:  Key Statements of Popes, Bishops, Councils and Churches  (New York:  Paulist Press, 1982);  David Hollenbach,  Nuclear Ethics:  A Christian Moral Argument  (New York:  Paulist Press, 1983);  Philip Murnion, ed.,  Catholics and Nuclear War  (New York:  Corssroad, 1983);  Thomas Shannon, ed., War or Peace?  The Search for New Answers  (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1980).

[3] Michael Walzer,  Just and Unjust Wars:  A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations  (New York:  Basic Books, 1977).

[4] J.G. Davies,  Christians, Politics, and Violent Revolution  (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1976).

[5] John Howard Yoder,  When War Is Unjust  (Minneapolis:  Augsburg Press, 1984);  Gordon C. Zahn,  Vocation of Peace  (Baltimore:  Fortkamp Publishing Company, 1992).

[6]I use the term “nuclear pacifist” as a kind of shorthand term, following Hollenbach but recognizing that it is somewhat of a misnomer.  “Nuclear pacifists” reject any military use of nuclear weapons but are not total pacifists and often accept conditional possession of nuclear weapons.

[7]A popular level attempt to do this is Alan Wolfe’s The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Threat.

[8]Paul Ramsey, War and the Christian Conscience: How Shall Modern War Be Conducted Justly?  (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1961); David Hollenbach, Nuclear Ethics: A Christian Moral Argument  (New York:  Paulist Press, 1983); J.G. Davies, Christians, Politics, and Violent Revolution (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1976).

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