What Just War Theory Can Tell Us
America is at war, in many faraway lands. By normal definitions, we are now at war in Afghanistan, Iraq (until the troops leave), Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, and somewhere in Central Africa, at least. Perhaps we simply accept that as part of our lives. We are grateful for our soldiers’ sacrifices. But the wars go on. Iran and Syria, perhaps, will be the next arenas of American war—who would be shocked?
What if some of our wars are morally wrong? Sinful, to put it another way? No signed certificate from God tells us that is never the case for the United States. Even biblical heroes singled out by God for special service, such as Abraham, David, Peter, and Paul, fell into sin at times, so our country certainly could. If some of our wars are indeed wrong, thoughtless support or careless indifference would involve us, as citizens, in moral guilt. Going to war is a heavy responsibility for a country and its voting citizens, even if war does not touch most of us personally. It is the gravest decision a nation faces outside its borders. In the Christian tradition, killing human beings is an incredibly serious act. Can we do more than pray about whether our leaders are right? Yes, we can. If we have a solid idea about what makes a war right, then we can apply that idea to our nation’s proposed and existing wars, and to our voting. We can then back what is right, and resist what is wrong.
There are some competing ideas out there. The choice for Christians generally boils down to harsh realism, just war theory, or pacifism. Harsh realism means our interests outweigh concerns about right and wrong—but that is blindness to our own moral status as creatures capable of going wrong. Pacifism means all our wars are wrong by definition—but that does not do justice to our sense that some things are worth fighting for. I discovered just war theory as an Arabic-speaking American diplomat with almost 15 years of experience in the Middle East. As I applied the theory with great care to the U.S. war in Iraq, it became more and more clear to me that it answers the questions about war in a way that avoids the pitfalls of realism and pacifism—and that it is almost unknown to us. I will give a brief explanation of the theory, and to demonstrate its value, I will show how it should have been applied to our recent actions in Libya.
An ancient theory with classical and medieval Christian roots, just war theory is famous lately despite being unknown. President Bush’s speech announcing the start of the Iraq war in 2003 was heavily influenced by it. President Obama mentioned just war theory in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in December 2009, and claims to be guided by it. Prominent evangelicals such as Chuck Colson, as well as many prominent Catholic commentators, including George Weigel and Father Richard John Neuhaus (RIP), stated that the war in Iraq was just according to just war theory. Some have added that since an important part of the theory revolves around choices guided by prudence, only the political figures involved are qualified to judge whether a war is just. So mainstream politicians of both parties have used just war theory to certify the justice of our current wars, and well-known theologians, Catholic and Protestant, agree. Many of these theologians tell us, too, that it is not really our business as simple citizens to decide whether any particular war is just. So does just war theory either bless our current wars or tell us ordinary people to butt out? No. Sadly, much of this talk about just war theory abuses rather than honors it.
Thomas Aquinas was, for all Catholics and many Protestants and Orthodox, one of the greatest Christian teachers and thinkers ever. Aquinas first put the just war criteria into what was in effect one short article, which begins “in order for a war to be just, three things are necessary:” the authority of the ruler, a just cause, and a right intention that includes “the aim of peace.” Later writers added three additional “prudential” qualifications for a just war: proportionality of ends, reasonable chance of success, and last resort. These prudential criteria can be found in Aquinas’ thought on other moral uses of force, so it is appropriate to include them for war (as discussed in some detail here). The Catholic Catechism, which rephrases these criteria, says these “strict conditions…require rigorous consideration,” adding that they should be all be met, “at one and the same time.” Notice that this theory is not part of the Manichean world of our popular imagination, where we are basically Good and the other side is pretty much just Evil, so “whatever it takes” is fine. No, we are in the world of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who wrote that lying on his rotting prison straw in the Gulag, he realized that “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart.” (Chuck Colson loves this line, and deserves credit for popularizing it among evangelical Christians.) We are not completely good, yet it matters that we try to do good—and when we use force, we must use extreme care, or we are likely to slip into doing evil ourselves.
Note that in a completely defensive war, we could simply defend ourselves according to just war theory, unless we were being justly attacked. The aim of preserving a decent country that was not guilty of some grave offense from attack is enough justification, just as in the case of personal self-defense, which Aquinas strongly approves. It seems the just war criteria come into play the instant a country wishes to go beyond simple defense against invasion.
Let’s apply the just war criteria to our war in Libya, as just one example. Libya was certainly not attacking us, so we need to apply the criteria. Many writers start with “just cause,” but although there is nothing wrong with this, it can be a trap. We Americans tend to see “just cause” as the only important question, so we often stop after considering it. However, since all six criteria need to be met, at least substantially, for a war to be just, we have to consider all the criteria before reaching a “just” verdict. We can start anywhere we like. If we aren’t convinced on any of the criteria, we should stop, and refuse to support the war.
I am struck first by the fact that the last four of the criteria, because of the “aim of peace” included in “right intention,” all require a detailed idea of “success.” That idea must always include more than “getting rid of a tyrant.” Getting rid of a tyrant such as Saddam or Qaddhafi might or might not lay a foundation for peace, but it doesn’t achieve peace. Surely everyone who has ever thought seriously about Iraq can agree on that! In order to go to war with “the aim of peace,” we must realistically define “success” in terms of a stable, better, peaceful outcome that we hope to achieve. After all, if you don’t really know what you are trying to accomplish, you cannot say if you have succeeded. Success in ordinary life needs a definition: when you go to college you want to get a bachelor’s degree and some real education; when you get married you want to achieve a life of love and sharing that doesn’t crash and burn, when you start a business you want to be able to sell a specific product or service and turn a profit for some years, and so forth. In terms of these examples, “getting rid of the tyrant” is like getting into college, or getting married, or making your first sale—it is just a condition of success (a “necessary but not sufficient” condition). No one who has not publicly defined “success” in some detail in terms of a hoped-for, peaceful outcome can credibly claim to have met a single one of the last four criteria.
“Right intention” means we, and especially our leaders, truly desire that outcome of a new, stable, peaceful situation that we have defined as carefully as we can, and are taking the concrete steps needed to achieve it. “Proportionality of ends” means the damage we are likely to cause with a war we are starting (which will continue until success is achieved), long term as well as short, will not be worse than the damage the tyrant is causing. That means calculations, which ought to be public. “Reasonable chance of success” means, as in going to college or getting married or starting a business, that you have the qualifications to achieve your aim, you have made serious plans to do so, and you are likely to achieve it—not perfectly, but substantially. You are not likely to flunk out or get a divorce or go broke in a few months, with all the harm those things will cause to others (and war causes far more harm). This “reasonable chance” should be demonstrated with realistic plans, which build on the definition of success. “Last resort” means that you have carefully considered how to achieve your aim (your defined “success”), and only war will achieve it. Because war is a grave choice that always involves the death of at least some innocent human beings, it is never an option if there is another way to achieve the desired and just aim.
To repeat, each of these criteria requires a detailed description of “success” and a credible showing of how the criterion will be met.
Did anyone see any of these calculations being discussed in public in the United States before we started fighting in Libya? Did anyone see a detailed definition of “success” that went beyond getting rid of Qaddhafi—not just a vague hope for democracy but a realistic plan for getting a new and better government? Did anyone see a discussion of the damage the fighting was likely to cause, or the likelihood of a better ruler arising after Qaddhafi was gone, or even the likelihood that the rebels could agree on one of their number to be the ruler, in light of the absence of any Western-style democratic tradition in Libya, a largely tribal society? Did anyone see serious estimates of Qaddhafi’s death toll over the years, carefully considered to see if they were reliable rather than someone’s propaganda, compared to the likely deaths in a civil war? Or a discussion of the fact that many Libyans backed Qaddhafi (often on a tribal basis), and actually felt represented by him as a leader? Of the possibility of a civil war continuing after Qaddhafi was gone? Of the possibility that we would trade rule by one tribal leader for rule by another? What about our commitment to the people of Libya to fight until success was achieved?
I saw precious little of any of this in the mainstream media, and none from the United States government—certainly not the 50-page white paper on the subject that I would hope for at a minimum. Instead, I saw Manichean discussions of a leader who was more or less the embodiment of evil, so that the calculations that just war theory calls for were just not needed. I have seen no indication that the White House made these calculations, and I know that there was no declaration of war, something the the U.S. Constitution takes for granted will be the start of a war that is not a defense against an actual sudden attack on U.S. forces or territory.
There is no indication, then, that in the spring of 2011 the war should have been considered to have passed the last four just war criteria: right intention, proportionality of ends, reasonable chance of success, and last resort. If it failed one, it should not have been supported, and it appeared to fail four—whether the cause was just or not. If there were secret discussions in the government of all these things, then the war still failed to be a just war insofar as we are a democratic society charged with a voice in major decisions—the very point of the Constitution’s placing the power to declare war in Congress, not the Presidency. Perhaps it passed the “just war by an absolute monarchy” test—but we do not even know that, as there is no evidence available. Looking ahead, we have assumed responsibility for an outcome, the overthrow of a tyrant, with no idea what the consequences were likely to be for the people of Libya. “We came, we saw, he died,” Secretary Clinton guffawed over the juxtaposition of her arrival in Libya and Qaddhafi’s death. But what about Libya? What will happen to all its people over the next two to ten years? Our media, as we know, have moved on to focus our attention on the next sexy issue—Libya is already basically forgotten.
Let’s draw a parallel: the execution of a fellow citizen. We know from all our history that this decision cannot be left up to faceless bureaucrats in a government—that way lies totalitarianism and tyranny. There needs to be a trial, presentation of evidence, and an unbiased weighing of it. So would we be concerned if a man were arrested, if we heard a lot of propaganda about what an evil man he was, and we were then shown pictures of his body after the execution, with no word of a public trial? Of course we would, if we were at all concerned about justice in our own country. A war is clearly like an execution of one man, only 10,000 times more serious. Yet as a country we did not take this war in Libya as seriously as March Madness.
Take this discussion of Libya and apply it to our drone strikes in Yemen and Somalia and Pakistan, to our overthrow of Saddam, to our long-term armed nation-building efforts in Afghanistan, and to our new, small war (trainers only, so far) against the Lord’s Resistance Army in Africa, to calls for war against Syria and Iran—how much death and destruction have we caused, how much more seems likely. Yet, are we being morally serious? Have we defined success? Have the calculations been made? Or are we living in a Manichean world where we are Good and from time to time we identify an Evil that we “must” attack, whatever the long-term costs for the people who live far away? I believe the answer is obvious. Just wars exist, but our current wars don’t fit the bill. That is true even in Afghanistan: the Afghan war began, I believe, as an effort of national self-defense with a just cause, but it quickly grew into a “nation-building” effort: an occupation of a foreign country by force (with no set time limit), something very different from a defensive war, and one that required the full just war criteria to be satisfied. As long as we intended to remake Afghanistan in some way, rather than simply respond to a real but not unlimited threat, it seems unlikely the criteria could have been met in that much-invaded, long-suffering country.
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Let’s deal with two likely objections before concluding. First, are these various conflicts really wars? Let’s clarify that what would qualify as an act of war if committed against the UK, or the U.S., is an act of war. A foreign cruise missile intentionally flown into a house in a town in any state in the United States would be considered by all Americans as an act of war. Soldiers of a foreign country coming into the U.S. on a helicopter and killing someone would be the same, whatever the justification in either case. So when our government forces commit these acts, let us call them acts of war. And how about sanctions? If a country, say Iran or Russia or China, persuaded the United Nations to impose sanctions on our country, Americans would consider that an act of war—so let us consider it an act of war when we persuade the UN to impose sanctions on another country. Fair is fair.
Next let us consider the point made by some theologians about who is qualified to decide if a war is just. For Catholics, this is related to section 2309 of the Catholic Catechism, which states concerning the criteria for a just war, “the evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.” In articles in First Things, Father Neuhaus substituted “political leaders” for that last phrase, and George Weigel suggested that political leaders have “the virtue or moral habit of responsibility” for such decisions—but the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes (see paragraph 74) makes it clear that each member of a political community has some responsibility for the common good). Political leaders will of course make these decisions as long as there is any kind of government, but all citizens have the right to consider the question, advocate for a point of view, or vote someone out of office based on a decision they believe was wrong. This goes not only for the basic question of the justice of a war (which is a matter of judgment), but also for the prudential criteria I have dwelt on: political leaders are not gifted with infallibility, and the fallible judgments of ordinary citizens also have value in such questions, more or less value depending on their experience, knowledge, and wisdom. Often enough, if we look at history, this appears to be greater for many citizens than for the leader making the choice. (See here for further discussion of the flaws in the reasoning that simply dumps such decisions in politicians’ laps.) Finally on this point, the question of war is much like other questions decided by courts and legislatures and presidents, such as those concerning abortion or criminal penalties. Do we all have a right to an informed opinion on such issues? I am firmly pro-life (although I believe we need to rethink the mechanism for getting closer to our goal), but let us not be hypocrites: let all those who advocate for the special responsibility of political leaders in war add the same proviso concerning judges to their every published opinion on abortion: “let us remember that ordinary citizens and theologians have limited expertise in legal matters. Judges have the ‘moral habit of responsibility’ for such decisions, and they must decide legal cases.” This is almost precisely equivalent to the quibble about “our leaders having a special responsibility to make decisions about war.”
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So why is this essay called a Christian voter’s guide? I trust that is obvious too. For every citizen concerned about justice (which should include all of us), the question of whether a politician is willing to “rigorously apply” the “strict” principles of just war theory should be one extremely important consideration in whether that politician gets our vote. There aren’t many politicians who qualify—consider restricting your vote to one of them. (I can think of one without even trying.) Such a vote is a moral act, and the opposing act, of voting for someone likely to involve this country in an unjust war, involves the voter in this grave injustice. With all the immoral wars our forces appear to be fighting, this is crucial. Mainstream opinion in both our major parties appears to be in favor of Manichean rather than just wars. But if enough of us vote on just war grounds, our country could change.
Craig White is the author of the book Iraq the Moral Reckoning and the booklet PEACE & WAR in Today's World: What the Catholic Church thinks and why (published in the UK). A retired United States diplomat, he is currently a PhD student in political science.