Challenging the Just War Tradition to Take Its Stated Values Seriously

Ted Grimsrud—October 5, 2011

[This paper was presented at a conference at James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA, commemorating the ten-year anniversary of the 9/11/2001 attacks. The focus of the conference was on the on-going relevance of the just war theory.]

Often discussion about the morality of warfare sets in opposition just war philosophy with pacifism. My intent in this paper is to challenge just war adherents to work within their tradition to overcome the scourge of war. I believe that the just war tradition, if vitalized, could become a powerful resource for overcoming the scourge of war. Though I am a pacifist myself, I believe that it is likely only through a vitalized just war approach that the power of militarism in United States society can be reduced.

“Blank check” or pacifism

In practice, in the West throughout the past couple of thousand years two views concerning participation in warfare have been prominent—pacifism (characteristic of a tiny minority) and what I will call the “blank check.” The “blank check” says it is the citizen’s duty to do what the state asks. If the state says go to war, the citizen’s job is to obey, essentially without question. The just war philosophy has existed in the gray area between these two other views. Just war has mainly been about the ivory tower-type discussions of moral philosophers, usually about particular wars after the fact.

Augustine himself, considered the father of the just war doctrine, actually also taught a version of the blank check. Only the nation’s leaders had the role of determining a particular war’s justness; for the citizen, the task was simply to obey and assume that the leaders will suffer the consequences if they are fighting unjust wars.

Much more recently, conscription and the options that have been allowed for soldiers have reflected this same dynamic—blank check or pacifism. In the United States, people who can demonstrate that they are indeed pacifists (opposed to all war in principle) are allowed the legal recourse of conscientious objection. Everyone else is expected to enter the military if drafted and then obey their leaders, leaving to the leaders’ discernment about the justness of particular wars. The United States has never allowed those who adhere to just war principles to say, “No, I will not take part in this particular war because it is unjust.”

Those already in the military also have been allowed no recourse based on adherence to a just war philosophy. If you have a total change of heart and can demonstrate that you are now a pacifist, you are allowed to leave the military are a conscientious objector. However, if you decide a particular war in unjust but you are not a pacifist, you are stuck. You still must offer the state a blank check and obey the command to fight.

These realities underscore the basic dilemma just war tradition faces—what can you do if you apply the just war approach and determine that a particular war is unjust? This dilemma tests a foundation of just war thought, the presumption against war. Following this presumption, one assumes that war bears the burden of proof—you don’t fight a war unless you provide clear bases to say that it is just. Historically, we have little evidence that this approach actually worked as intended in practice. As I said, in practice for almost everyone, the moral approach to participation in warfare has not been just war but blank check.

New developments in just war practices

However, the past 100 years, the “century of total war,” has seen some new developments in just war practices. Efforts have been made actually to apply this presumption against engaging in warfare. These efforts have led to a major divide within the just war camp, what I will call the “realist just war” over against the “critical just war.” The twentieth century (and now the 21st century) has seen an attempt to take a critical stance toward particular wars as they are happening and even before they happen.

For example, during World War II, several American Catholic moral theologians and, notably, Church of England bishop George Bell, wrote scathing critiques of the Allied use of saturation bombing on civilian areas in, first, Germany and then Japan. They claimed that these actions violated key just war principles such as non-combatant immunity and proportionality. With the use of nuclear weapons, large numbers of people asserted that they could not support a potential future war on just war (rather than pacifist) grounds. A new term was coined: “nuclear pacifism,” the belief that no war that used nuclear weapons could ever be just.

Out of the Nuremberg Trials of German war criminals, came the so-called “Nuremberg principles” that asserted (contrary to Augustine’s teachings) that indeed soldiers are to be held accountable for following unjust orders. Now, the idea gained currency that the locus for discernment about justice in war lay not only with the leaders but with each combatant—the implication being that soldiers now had an obligation to refuse unjust engagement (or at least could no longer use “simply following orders” as an excuse for unjust actions).

Then came the Vietnam War, unpopular and widely perceived as unjust by soldiers and potential soldiers. In an unprecedented way, masses of people inside a warring country actively opposed the war—largely on just war grounds. By the early 1970s, extraordinary numbers of draftees were applying for CO status, perhaps as many as 50%. It is doubtful very many of these CO applicants actually were pacifists; they were taking the one avenue available for those who concluded their particular war was unjust. According to draft laws, CO applications from just war objectors should not have been accepted; but many were. The glut of COs played a major role in the breaking down of the Selective Service System and the ending of the draft.

A final example, with the American movement toward war on Iraq after 9/11, a large protest movement emerged prior to the actual war. As it turned out, the protests did not stop the attack. However, it should still be noted that a large movement grounded, rhetorically at least, in just war thinking, opposed an actual war before it happened.

So, what we see in the past 70 years is an unprecedented application of the presumption against violence and use of the just war criteria to actually oppose wars while, and even before, they happen. This development has underscored that there really are two different kinds of just war approaches.

A second kind of just war approach

Alongside this “critical” approach I have just illustrated is a quite different approach that does not actually share the presumption against violence. Many of the prominent writers on just war in the past couple of generations (Catholic moral theologians William O’Brien, George Weigel, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and Protestant ethicists Paul Ramsey and James Turner Johnson) have argued that just war thought is best applied to the restraint of war, not war’s prevention or abolition. This “realist” view accepts the inevitability and, at times, necessity of war and seeks to manage these “necessary” wars so their damage is limited.

In the event, though, each of these moralists has supported whatever war the United States has engaged in—from World War II through Korea through the Cold War through Vietnam through the war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua through the first Gulf War with Iraq through the post 9/11 wars on Afghanistan and Iraq again.

So, one might wonder whether the “realist just war” approach is not actually mainly a rhetorically more moderate version of the blank check. These realist just war moralists assert strongly that the violation of just conduct criteria in World War II with the saturation bombing and use of atomic weapons did not render that war anything less than the paradigmatic just war. If the war is necessary, in practice any means required to win are justified.

In fact, the realist just war thinkers systematically have rewritten the application of just war criteria in light of the phenomenon of modern war. The need for a formal declaration of war had 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.

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. Discrimination has become more of an ideal having to do with intent than with results. What matters 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 engaged without damage to noncombatants. But if such resistance is necessary (as it is, given the assumption regarding the necessity of warfare), then damage to civilians is inevitable—though it should be minimized as much as possible.

Though these “realists” argue for the necessity of restraint in the conduct of wars (and such arguments have surely had some effect), their stance toward the actual wars of America show that restraint is a secondary concern. The main concern is to win these various “necessary wars”—a concern that looks an awful lot like giving the state a blank check.

Can the just war tradition actually reduce militarism?

It may be that the actually dividing line in the morality of war is between these two approaches that draw on the just war tradition. If the realistic just war approach is very close to the blank check, it could be that  “critical just war” approach is not that far from being a rhetorically more moderate version of pacifism. It would be a near-pacifism arrived at on pragmatic grounds more than principled grounds, based on the view that actual war in history can no longer satisfy the just war criteria (examples of such thinkers could be Jonathan Schell and Noam Chomsky). Here, the presumption against violence leads to a rejection of just about all actual wars.

So, this is the divide: traditional just war approaches would provide pretty strong evidence against the justifiability of modern wars (for example, over the course of the 20th century the proportion of civilian casualties to soldier casualties changed from 10% civilians and 90% soldiers to just the opposite, 90% civilians and 10 soldiers). This leaves the just war advocate with a choice—do you change the criteria so you can still try to have some impact on restraining war? Or do you keep applying the same criteria and assume they do work—in the sense of providing the moral imperative of rejecting the moral legitimacy of war?

Should just war adherents commit themselves rigorously to applying the criteria and then actually saying no to warfare, some major moves away from militarism in our society might be possible.

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