My blog posts revolve around my interests and vocation as a historian: the intersection of history and contemporary church life, the intersection of history and contemporary politics, serendipitous discoveries in archives or on research trips, publications and research projects, upcoming conferences, and speaking engagements.
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My blogs on media in wartime are done. Now it is time to deal with the just war tradition and claims that it should be relegated to the dustbin of history.
The just war tradition is concerned with justice for war (jus ad bellum), justice in war (jus in bello), and justice after war (jus post bellum). Its aim is restraining violence by limiting targets to only military ones (usually called discrimination) and employing only enough violence necessary to bring about peace (usually called proportionality).
The just war tradition can be traced back to the world of antiquity, but is now under pressure by those who question whether or not it has any relevancy in the modern world. Its opponents argue that it should be jettisoned due to developments in weaponry, its misuse, and its lack of efficacy.
Putting aside for the moment the theological just war versus pacifist debate, my concern is whether or not those particular arguments are convincing.
One concern is that modern weaponry has made the notion of a just war irrelevant, for, it is argued, how can weapons of mass destruction ever be used in a way that respects non-combatant immunity? And how can such weapons be used that threaten the fabric of human civilization, and even humanity’s very existence? Concerns over the use of WMD are certainly valid, and no spinning of the argument can negate restraining principles such as non-combatant immunity.
For instance, the soul-searching debates among Catholic bishops during the Cold War reveal complex and nuanced deliberations over the use of nuclear weapons; deciding that the threat of nuclear retaliation against cities was necessary to preserve the peace, but the actual carrying out of the threat could never be defended on moral grounds. The threat was seen as a necessary bluff to preserve the world from a nuclear holocaust. Which it did.
But what about such threats today, with a growing number of nuclear states, not to mention the threat of terrorist use? And what about developments in lower yield nuclear weaponry? Or even the use of higher yield conventional weaponry, such as America’s GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (or the “Mother of all Bombs”)? While most nations have a “no first use” policy in regards to nuclear weapons, remember that the rationale for the policy is the restraint placed on such use by the just war tradition.
Warfare today is also both asymmetrical and conventional, necessitating a continued emphasis on traditional criteria of cause and means. An argument can also be made that developments in precision-guided weaponry have made the protection of non-combatants more possible, for, rather than carpet-bombing a city block to destroy a single building, a missile can be flown in through its front door. Not a pleasant thought, but better than the alternative.
Too Misused to be Trusted
It is a truism to say the church has missed the mark when it comes to the just war tradition. The example of French Catholic bishops who prayed for Napoleon’s successful invasion of Russia while at the same time Russian Orthodox bishops prayed for the successful defence of Holy Russia seems to make a mockery of the church’s relationship with the just war tradition. As does the example of Protestant and Catholic prelates preaching a holy war against each other in the nightmare wars of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. More sad and sordid examples are available, providing much ammunition for today’s New Atheists who argue that “religion poisons everything” and is the primary cause of all wars.
Suffice it to say that too often civil officials have used the church as a propaganda tool, too often the church has turned a blind eye to unjust uses of the sword, and too often “Christian” soldiers committed horrible atrocities in the course of what was deemed to be a just war.
But do such failures prove its irrelevance and/or impotence as a guide for the military’s conduct? That Christians (and humans of all – and no – religions) have failed miserably in living up to the ideals of the just war tradition is obvious. But in no way does that sordid history abrogate the validity of the criteria. As Oliver O’Donovan argues, such a response undermines even biblical injunctions ignored by sinful humanity:
"Various reasons could be alleged for persistent non-compliance [to the just war tradition], and a hard-nosed realist is free to say that the proposal was morally over-ambitious and therefore impracticable from the outset….But nothing more needs to be said about it, perhaps, than may be equally be said in relation to any of the commandments of the Decalogue or the Sermon on the Mount: sinful men and women do not keep any moral commandment all the time; men and women created in God’s image do not break any moral commandment all the time."
Humans fail in a veritable host of ethical realms, and failures to live up to the just war tradition do not negate the tradition; if anything, human sin is a poignant reminder of the need for the tradition in the first place. And let us not forget, there are positive examples of the just war tradition having an impact, and the church getting it right.
Does Not Work
It is sometimes stated that the just war tradition is a failure since it has not stopped collateral damage or the suffering of others. Stated bluntly, the “just means” associated with the just war tradition aim to mitigate suffering, to minimize damage, and to encourage a second-guessing of the use of certain weapons in order to aim for as little collateral damage as possible, but in no way is there the expectation that innocents will never suffer. They always do, for “war is hell” – but hopefully that suffering can be minimized by the judicious use of force.
The contemporary angst over the suffering of civilians in Middle-Eastern cities targeted by American, Israeli, Russian, Syrian, Saudi, Iranian, Iraqi, or other military forces is an indication of how the just war concern for non-combatants puts pressure on military forces to show restraint. Whether or not they do show restraint is another matter, but at least there is political and public pressure to do so – imagine the horrors of war without any such restraint!
The pressure on all governments – in the “Christian” West, or elsewhere – to act with restraint demonstrates the universal application of the just war tradition outside of merely a Christian context.
Modern taboos over the use of conventional weapons such as poisonous gas, land mines, blinding lasers, cluster bombs, and white phosphorus are all related to the category of just means. The United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (1983) provides details on such weapons, with the aim of mitigating the suffering of both combatants and non-combatants. While the temptation to use such weapons may be too great to resist, certainly the fact that any government faces international pressure to restrain using them is a good thing. The international outrage that would occur over any use of weapons of mass destruction – nuclear, biological, chemical, radioactive – is also a restraining influence that only benefits humanity. In that sense, the just war tradition continues to provide a service to humanity, and thus, in some way, however imperfectly, it “works.”
In conclusion, the just war tradition certainly has its faults. However, the alternative to the just war tradition is a world with no rules and no restrictions on the use of any and all weapons – and that is a world no one should wish for.
(This is blog post #5 in the series entitled “Christians, War, and Violence: Reflections on Possible Futures”.)
 For a good primer on the just war tradition, see Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, 5th edition (New York: Basic Books, 2015).
 For instance, see Laura Purdy, “Vitoria’s Just War Theory: Still Relevant Today?” In The Just War and Jihad: Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, edited by R. Joseph Hoffman (Amherst: Prometheus, 2006), 255-276.
 For reading on theological matters, see Daniel M. Bell Jr., Just War as Christian Discipleship: Recentering the Tradition in the Church Rather than the State (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2009); Lisa S. Cahill, Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Pacifism, Just War, and Peacebuilding (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2019).
 For rich and thoughtful material from the cold war era, see The Fostering of Peace and the Promotion of a Community of Nations in Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, 1965 (Vatican Two); The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, 1983 (American Bishops); Out of Justice, Peace 1983 (Joint Pastoral Letter, West German Bishops); Winning the Peace, 1983 (Joint Pastoral Letter, French Bishops).
 Sean Kay, Global Security in the Twenty-First Century: The Quest for Power and the Search for Peace (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006).
 Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2007).
 Oliver O’Donovan, The Just War Revisited (Cambridge: CUP, 2003), 12.
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