War & Peace 1 – The Just War TraditionSaturday, 08 December 2007
Growing up, I was taught – or perhaps more accurately, I assumed my parents’ view – that war was evil but, that at certain times, it was a necessary evil reluctantly used for the greater good. Nazi Germany epitomised the sort of enemy which could only be suppressed by military force and World War 2 was held up as the ultimate just war. Over the years my thinking has changed.....
I have become increasingly opposed to all war but realise that most of my convictions are based largely on my emotional revulsion to the horrors of war. It’s not that such reactions are wrong – far from it – but I wanted to read what greater minds had to say. So I did and here’s the first instalment of what I learned.
My investigation started with a visit to Waterstone’s in Coventry* where I bought two books. The first was Just War (the Just War Tradition: Ethics in Modern Warfare) by Charles Guthrie and Michael Quinlan and its subject will form the basis of this article. The second was Non-Violence – The History of a Dangerous Idea by Mark Kurlansky which I intend to consider in a subsequent article.
Just War is a painfully slim volume (the start of a fashion for ‘size zero’ books?) and cost £10 but, despite the provocative price, I refused to pick a fight with the bloke serving me as I was holding Non-Violence in my other hand. Slim the book might be but it’s succinct too. In under fifty pages, the authors manage to: explain the origins of the just war tradition; set out the main reasons for going to war; describe the two main considerations in waging war; and even take time to apply it all to some modern conflicts like Iraq. Appendix A deals with “the ethics of war in Islam and Judaism” and Appendix B has some suggestions for further reading.
One of the authors was in the armed forces between 1959 and 2001 when he became General Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank and the other, Sir Michael Quinlan, was a civil servant for thirty-eight years, with thirty of them in posts concerned with defence.
THE ORIGINS OF THE JUST WAR TRADITION
The authors assert that, although the just war tradition developed from the thoughts of some early Christian thinkers, the Bible itself does not give an unequivocal message about war. This alleged scriptural neutrality is in direct contrast to the attitude of the early Christians who were predominantly pacifist until the disastrous coming together of church and state following the ‘conversion’ of Emperor Constantine in the fourth century AD. After that, it was left to specific groups like the Quakers to insist that ‘thou shalt not kill’ extended beyond civil murder to warfare itself. Looking back at history, it is sad to say that it would be difficult to question the authors’ statement that, “the great majority of Christians, over the centuries, have felt bound to recognise wars as an unavoidable reality in human affairs.”
We can look into that debate in more detail in the next article, but here we will focus on the just war tradition as the attempt “to analyse and establish why and under what limiting conditions war might be regarded as tolerable.” Despite the considerable Christian roots of the tradition, the authors also suggest that nothing in it should be alien or repugnant to any other group (Muslims, Jews, people of other faiths or non-believers in religion). They support this argument with the fact that the recent and widely-recognised guidelines to review “threats, challenges and change in world security”, put forward by a High-Level Panel set up by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2004, closely parallel the content of the just war tradition.
The book also differentiates between a just war tradition and a just war doctrine because the latter suggests something “handed down from on high or fixed” rather than something which is “a living and evolving body of thought, undergoing modification and enriched by addition as understanding widens under the impact of changing circumstances, the challenge of debate, and collective learning from varied new experience”.
REASONS TO GO TO (JUST) WAR
- Just Cause - protecting the innocent, restoring rights wrongfully denied or re-establishing just order. Revenge, punishment or a nation or ruler’s prestige are deemed inadequate reasons.
- Sufficient & Proportionate Cause - there must be a reasonable expectation that the outcome of war will outweigh its cost.
- Right Intention – the aim must be to create a more just and lasting peace.
- Right Authority – the decision to go to war must be made by someone with proper authority.
- Reasonable Prospect of Success – we must not take up arms if the likely result is death and suffering without making things materially better.
- Last Resort – we must try, or have good grounds for ruling out as likely to be ineffective, every other way of securing our just aim.
One of the main problems with the just war tradition is the interpretation of these principles. No doubt some clever Dick or George from the White House could try to apply all six to the invasion of Iraq but many people would disagree. Was there a just cause of destroying weapons of mass destruction or an unjust cause of establishing control of oil supplies? Was the war a success? Was the real aim a just and lasting peace or an unjust and lasting US dominance? Did Bush and Blair have right authority without UN backing and, in Blair’s case, taking into account the opposition of the majority of British citizens? Were all other avenues to a solution investigated or had the decision to go to war been taken already? It’s easy to see how some fine sounding principles can be overridden, especially when the aggressors are assuming the role of the good guys against some shadowy enemy.
HOW TO WAGE (JUST) WAR
- Discrimination – we must not deliberately attack the innocent.
- Proportionality – the principle of not using more force than is necessary.
If the revised aim of the Iraq war, once it was established that there were no WMDs, was regime change and the removal of Saddam Hussein, were the US and UK actions proportionate? Were civilians ever targeted to warn them against siding – even emotionally – with the Iraqi military? Was US action in Fallujah only against the military or armed opposition? Proportionality was, of course, a hot topic during the Israeli assault on Lebanon in 2006 and, for many years, the Allied bombing of the residential areas of Dresden was discreetly swept under the carpet. The latter is almost impossible difficult to justify under these principles as it deliberately targeted civilians and seemed completely disproportionate (even before considering the fact that the war was almost won). And let’s not talk about Nagasaki and Hiroshima until next time.....
The authors, while admitting that they have not had the time or space to address such issues as nuclear weapons and the role of international law, feel confident enough to conclude that the just war tradition is “still valid and valuable”.
From my point of view, I remain unconvinced about the just war tradition and tend to agree with Edwin Starr's simple conclusion when he sings, “War – what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” However, in true TTRP fashion, rather than just criticise one apparently negative philosophy, I’d prefer to propose a positive alternative. Hopefully I’ll be able to do that by the end of the next article, tentatively and rather creatively titled.....er.....War & Peace 2.
*two things worthy of note here – firstly, I had to go to Waterstone’s because there are no longer any independent bookstores in the city. It was the same store in which I visited the biography section to track down something on Bobby Kennedy - with no success. There were, however, at least two books about Wayne Rooney’s girlfriend. Enough said. Secondly, it seemed fitting that my search should start in a city which probably suffered one of the real evils of ‘modern’ war – the blanket bombing of civilians - more than any other English city with the exception of London.
This article was prepared to the sound of the Alarm, the Magic Numbers and the Maccabees.