A few years ago I marked GCSE Religious Education examination papers. This was part of a philosophy and ethics paper. One of the questions was on Just War Theory. One candidate was minimalist in his answer. He simply wrote: “Just War is just war, nothing else”. As an exam answer it did not attract many marks because he didn’t demonstrate his grasp of the topic or the ethical issues. As a philosophical statement he may have been making a valid point. Can war ever be just or is it just war? Is war always by definition the departure of justice and morals? To a pacifist, the answer is clearly one of agreement. War is never justified and you don’t solve one wrong by inflicting further wrongs and destruction. Nonaggressive resistance and the power of love are the answer. If we search the gospels, this view can clearly find backup from Jesus about turning the other cheek (Matthew 5:39), if your brother wrongs you forgive not 7 times but 70 x 7 times (Matthew 18:21), his comment to Peter at his arrest to put away his sword (John 18:11). He did not call down legions of angels to defend himself from the death that was sure to come. Jesus did not lead an army in rebellion to liberate Israel from the Roman occupying power, and in this way he did not match the expected job description for the Messiah. In fact when it came to the cross he submitted to it. So there is a powerful argument for the minimalist exam candidate’s philosophical answer: Just War is just war.
However the trouble with proof texts for Jesus is that when we think we have him cornered he pops up somewhere else with a qualifying statement. So he drew on the image of a king going to war with another king and first calculating his chances of success. If he doesn’t think he’ll win with the resources he has he will sue for peace and see what terms the other brings. If he thinks he can knock out the opposition then off he marches (Luke 14:31). Jesus doesn’t include in this passage any hint that the king who goes to war was wrong or evil. He is pragmatic and reflects here how it is. He tells his hearers that he comes not to bring peace, but a sword (Matthew 10:34) and close family members will be set against one another in violent combat (Mark 13:12). He predicts the destruction of Jerusalem which came about in AD70 (Matthew 24:2) and tells his followers that there will be war and rumours of wars (Mark 13:7). He did not expect them to end. He took direct action by driving out the moneychangers from the Temple (John 2:15).
So a fundamental in assessing whether or not war can be considered to have justice and right on its side, which is what Just War theory is about, is whether or not war is ever justified. And as we have just seen if we are selective with our texts we can line Jesus up on either side, though it is arguable that he biases towards reconciling, building bonds and not going to war, while recognizing that it happens. There is a difference between a whip of cords to drive out corrupt traders and gunning them down. This relatively short talk is concerned with how we navigate a moral course when war happens, indeed is it ever actually right to initiate it. There is an ancient tradition which has taken the view that it can be. The Book of Revelation uses violent imagery, which it takes for granted, not least of war breaking out in heaven with the beast being slain. Ambrose of Milan and Augustine of Hippo in the 4th and 5th centuries drew on the Old Testament images of God requiring conflicts and battles, using them to bring about his change and justice. Augustine went on to say that war can be used in a limited way to protect the innocent under attack. This later extends to protecting the state, and therefore the population, from invading Germanic armies when the Roman Empire crumbled. It is the use of violence and force to protect and defend. Later battles between pagan and Christian kings realize that there will be battle and struggle because the violent are on the rampage. A Saxon king had to be a warrior. The abbey community here was wiped out by Viking raiders.
Around the beginning of the second millennium the problem arose about how to restrain the worst excesses of warfare among neighbouring kingdoms. The Council of Narbonne in 1054 set limits on when war could be waged – an open-season and closed-season approach reflecting the Old Testament passages such as ‘in the months when kings go to war’ (2 Samuel 11:1). Further approaches sought to protect noncombatants, so that the ancient accounts of slaughtering everyone in sight would be restricted to the battlefield. The Second Lateran Council in 1139 aimed to limit arms proliferation by banning crossbows, bows and arrows, and siege machines. We don’t need to know much history to know these attempts had limited affect. There was though a growing movement to codify a doctrine of restraint and limitation on just what the affect of warfare would be.
The 13th century saw this codifying being brought together and systematized under theologians like Peter of Paris and Thomas Aquinas. This focused on defining the right intention and the just cause for the war. Out of their work came 6 tests which need to be met if a war is going to be regarded as just or justifiable:
1. It needs to be legitimate, there needs to be right authority to wage the war;
2. There must be a just cause and right intention for waging war;
3. The use of force should be a last resort;
4. It should be proportionate to the evil to be remedied (the attempts to regulate weapons having disappeared);
5. There should be a reasonable expectation of success and it should contribute to a new state of peace;
6. and noncombatants should be protected from harm.
Legal, good reason, last resort, proportionate, expectation of success and protect the innocent; these six are the backbone of classic Just War theory.
The assumption behind these is a world where standing armies will form up, set a date, time and place where the battle will take place and then slug it out until one side lies dead or runs for their lives. The situation becomes very different as we enter the 20th century. The First World War was the last one to include mounted cavalry and these didn’t last long when confronted by machine guns. You can see that in the film War Horse, which was on BBC1 on Sunday night. Machine guns led to trench warfare. You need a bunker when the other guy can fire more bullets in a minute that the regiment can fire together. There is no let up because it just keeps going until it runs out of ammunition. Proportionate becomes what you need to meet the challenge. And then when we have airborne munitions with fighter planes and bombers and now guided missiles fired from miles away we enter a new scenario. What does it mean to protect noncombatants when we have indiscriminate bombing?
It is for this reason that George Bell, Bishop of Chichester during the Second World War, condemned the allied bombing of Dresden and the deaths of thousands of civilians. Noncombatants were clearly being endangered. However we enter another question as to what it means to be a noncombatant when the munitions are not produced by camp followers – arrowmakers and blacksmiths, carpenters and lead shot workers – but by a war effort with munitions factories on the Kent marshes and in Scotland as in WW1 and in the WW2 factories in Coventry making planes and weapons. Where do we place nuclear weapons which by definition are disproportionate to the war? Rowan Williams argued that it was morally questionable that we could ever justify using Trident and other weapons of mass destruction. The force involved is grossly disproportionate.
It complicates further when we ask about a world of international terrorism. Terrorists from Northern Ireland to 9/11, 7/7 and others argue that they are bringing the fight to our doorsteps. No longer can we sit protected at home supporting our boys (and girls) as they fight on foreign shores because the fight is brought to the corner of the street, to buses and trains. No one in the eyes of terrorists is a noncombatant because support for the bullet-makers, as well as being the bullet-makers makes us all equal to the bullet-firers. Indeed we are part of the political system which they see as being the problem. However the aim of Just War theory is to restrict the scope of the battle and bring restraint where passions might run uncontrolled. Terrorists often fail the legitimate authority test, though that is a political judgment itself questioned by them. But classic Just War theory becomes more complex when it is not clear where the battleground is or who the combatants are and when we try to consider what an appropriate response might look like. It is even more confused when the aggressor is not from outside but from inside, homegrown and our neighbour. There was deep shock in Leeds when a classroom assistant, respected and liked, turned out to be someone with a dark secret that he was one of the 7/7 bombers. Who can you trust when people you have trusted turn out to be against you?
These questions mean that we need to assess the principles of Just War in a new light. But the principles still have relevance.
The idea that there needs to be a proper authority for an invasion or action against another is seen in the United Nations security resolutions. The UN is a body which brings nations together and by having a resolution it implies that a higher good than just one nation’s expansionism is being advanced. Nations have the right to defend themselves against an aggressor and treaty agreements mean that other nations may come to their aid, thus risking a far greater conflict. Proper authority means a group needs to have legitimacy, speak for the people. That raises questions about legitimacy itself.
This has led us into another area, that of there being a moral cause to be advanced. War for war’s sake is immoral. War to invade and seize territory for megalomaniac purposes is immoral. However, land is grabbed for strategic reasons and if we apply this retrospectively then Gibraltar is only held because it commands the entrance to the Mediterranean. We have territory abroad which is not really ours to hold. Hong Kong was returned to China when the lease ran out and there was no way we could justify its continuance as a British territory. Where do we place securing oil and commodities we rely on so heavily on the scale of moral causes and goals?
The last resort test means that everything else has been tried. War is not to be rushed into. Sue for peace; try to resolve by other means. It is only to be used when everything else has failed. And for this reason Robert Runcie used to refer to war as always being a sign of human failure.
Proportionate is a challenge. What does it mean when technology makes possible what was previously impossible? Is it proportionate to refer to some people’s deaths as being ‘collateral damage’ – in other words they were in the wrong place at the wrong time and their deaths are regrettable but inevitable in the greater good of defeating the enemy? Such deaths often serve as a recruiting sergeant which becomes counter productive in itself. That said a surgical strike is better than carpet-bombing which will catch anyone without any look at efficiency. Given the costs involved it makes economic sense to target the firepower. And the costs, which run into £billions, are a whole new challenge to the proportionate use of resources being expended. One missile costs £millions and it doesn’t take much imagination to ask about how else that money could be spent. There is a clear obscenity involved here. Kings in the past have been crippled by financing expensive wars.
War always needs an exit strategy. That means there needs to be not just a sense of being able to achieve the goal, to win, but also we have to work out what comes after. The fifth test, that there is a reasonable chance of success, means that we think through what removing Sadam Hussein means before we topple him, and it is arguable that we didn’t. Who will come after Assad and who follows Gadhafi? The rise of ISIS is partly the consequence of removing vicious dictators who kept the lid on some very violent places. Is the world better without them? To my mind the jury is still out.
Finally noncombatants need to be protected. The trouble here is that who is and who is not a combatant has become blurred when the battlefield is not clearly defined nor the day of the fight. But the principle of restraint and not assuming everyone is a target has benefits for building peace and minimizing death, and preventing building resentment which makes building peace more difficult, even stirs up future conflict. There is a pragmatic side to the moral case.
So, this has been brief and much more could have been said, but we are back to my year 11-student exam candidate. Is there such a thing as a Just War or is war just war? War is always a sign of failure and never a good to be celebrated. If it comes it is to be regretted because it brings us into a morally compromised place and one where the smoke of the battle makes right and wrong hard to distinguish at times, certainly it brings us into a place where we find we are deciding between scales of wrong rather than clear good vs evil. But decide we must in the hope that a moral good will be advanced and Just War theory still provides some clear principles which can help prepare for the peace that must follow: legal, good reason, last resort, proportionate, expectation of success and protect the innocent.
Talk given to Wedensday at One, Peterborough Cathedral, 19th November 2014