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What Is a Just War?

Jus in Bello

The traditional theory of the just war covers three main topics—the cause of war, the conduct of war, and the consequences of war. Or, in the Scholastic tags: jus ad bellum, jus in bello, and jus post bellum. But most attention is given now to the middle term, the conduct of war. That is where clear offenses are most easily identified, though only occasionally reported and even more rarely punished. The two main rules of jus in bello have to do with discrimination between combatants and noncombatants, the latter to be spared as far as possible, and proportionality, so that violence is calibrated to its need for attaining the war’s end. The claims of morality here are recognized with difficulty in actual combat, and disputed when recognized. Why should that be?

In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Prince Andrey is an enlightened, humane, reforming, disciplined man. He has had experience in war without becoming embittered—he was badly (almost mortally) wounded at the Battle of Aus- terlitz—and has tried to improve the military system. But by the Battle of Borodino, even this estimable man has snapped. After riding past his destroyed estate, he ruminates:

I wouldn’t take prisoners. What sense is there in taking prisoners? That’s chivalry. The French have destroyed my home and are coming to destroy Moscow; they have outraged and are outraging me at every second. They are my enemies, they are all criminals to my way of thinking…. Playing at war, that’s what’s vile; and playing at magnanimity and all the rest of it…. They plunder other people’s homes, issue false money, and, worse than all, kill my children, my father, and then talk of the laws of warfare…. If there were none of this playing at generosity in warfare, we should never go to war, except for something worth facing certain death for…. The object of warfare is murder.1

Andrey has attained the state Clausewitz says is necessary to war—Hass, hatred for the foe. There is in all sane people a hesitation to kill, whether from timidity, disorientation, or scruple. That is why so many bullets are fired in war but not at the target, why so many bombs are dropped but not where they were supposed to be. It is the task of those in charge of war to override these hesitations, and the only sure way of doing that is to demonize the enemy, so that hating him is not only condonable but commendable.

Clausewitz says that war is fueled by emotion (Gefühl), which always outruns intent (Absicht). And once this begins there is a constant ratcheting-up (Wechselwirkung) of hatred. Hate produces atrocities, which provoke answering atrocities from the other side, and so on in a reciprocal upward spiral. This means, says Clausewitz, that war by its basic nature drives onward to extremes. Shakespeare was almost scientifically accurate when he had his Antony “let slip the dogs of war”—to outrun expectations and control.

Other students of war have their own versions of Clausewitz’s Wechselwirkung. Here is Thucydides:

War, depriving people of their expected resources, is a tutor of violence, hardening men to match the conditions they face…. Suspicion of prior atrocities drives men to surpass report in their own cruel innovations, either by subtlety of assault or extravagance of reprisal.

Abraham Lincoln’s version (predicting, in 1854, what would happen if the North and South went to war): “One side will provoke; the other resent. The one will taunt, the other defy; one aggresses, the other retaliates.”2

In war, the raping and robbing of civilians, the brutalizing and killing of prisoners, are not anomalies. War propaganda excites such extremes, with its emphasis on the vileness of the foe. That is why President Bush presents his war as a battle against evil itself. Hate is too valuable to be renounced. Often it is the only antidote to other emotions like cowardice or humanitarianism. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were, like Claude Rains in Casablanca, “shocked, shocked” at the idea that Americans could commit atrocities. But governments usually look the other way when their own provocations produce their natural result. When I was a high school student in the ROTC, the veteran sergeant instructing us, a man who had fought at the Battle of the Bulge, remembered being told by superiors to get rid of prisoners if they inconvenienced his own activity (“just pull the pin of a hand grenade and tell them to split it up among themselves”). In this atmosphere, what chance do reflections on justice have of prevailing?

Abraham Lincoln would not have been shocked to hear that Americans commit atrocities. He described, in the year of Gettysburg, the immoralities of the very war he was directing:

Thought is forced from old channels into confusion. Deception breeds and thrives. Confidence dies, and universal suspicion reigns. Each man feels an impulse to kill his neighbor, lest he be first killed by him. Revenge and retaliation follow. And all this, as before said, may be among honest men only. But this is not all. Every foul bird comes abroad, and every dirty reptile rises up. These add crime to confusion. Strong measures, deemed indispensable but harsh at best, such men make worse by mal-administration. Murders for old grudges, and murders for pelf, proceed under any cloak that will best cover for the occasion.3

Admittedly there are some checks on savagery, but these are less frequently moral than pragmatic. Mistreating the other side’s prisoners can lead to the mistreatment of one’s own prisoners. Calculation of that sort underlies the Geneva Conventions. But this reflects the “realism” that just war theory is supposed to improve on. So how useful are the arguments of jus in bello when one is actually in bello?

Jus ad Bellum

If war, once embarked on, will of itself drive toward extremes, overriding concern with justice, then the real use of just war theory must rest mainly on the decision whether to go to war in the first place. The traditional norms for such a discussion are said to be competent authority for declaring war, as well as just cause, proper intent, last resort, and expectable success. When the norms were framed in the Middle Ages, most discussion turned on the authority for declaring war, since there were many competitors for that office—popes, bishops, feudal lords, kings, margraves, etc. With the rise of the nation-state, that debate faded away, since it was assumed that national leaders had the power to initiate war. This left the emphasis mainly on the just cause for war. But how useful was that norm in determining whether a just war was launched in Iraq?

The Vatican, reputed to be a principal custodian of the just war tradition, said repeatedly and emphatically that such a war would be unjust so long as inspections were still taking place under the aegis of the United Nations. John Allen, the Vatican correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter, writes that “the Holy See opposed the US-led war in Iraq with a ferocity that few issues in the recent past have aroused.”4 Vatican publications, Church diplomats, religious congregation heads, and the Pope himself all said that just war theory forbade the Iraq war. John Paul II sent Cardinal Pio Laghi, his personal peace representative, to make a last-minute appeal to President Bush on March 5, 2003.

But right-wing Catholics in America were certain that just war theory called for war. Michael Novak, of the American Enterprise Institute, said the war was not only defensible but mandatory. He went to Rome, summoned by the United States ambassador to the Vatican, James Nichollson, to convince the hierarchy of the need for war. When he failed to change the Vatican’s mind, Novak blamed this on “anti-Americanism.” A group of Catholics who are normally subservient to the Pope—Novak, Jean Bethke Elshtain, John Richard Neuhaus, George Weigel—became the defenders of a “just war tradition” they felt the Vatican had abandoned.5 It was even said that the Pope had turned pacifist—though the Vatican approved of the intervention in Kosovo and the invasion of Afghanistan. One may well ask, what use is just war theory if people supposedly steeped in it could reach such positive conclusions on opposite sides of the Iraq invasion? In truth, the criteria of a just war—the product mainly of late Scholasticism—have little power to determine an outcome. In fact, solemn talk of a just war “tradition” is misleading, since its history is full of anachronisms and contradictions.

The Tradition”

The great names invoked in the tradition are Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas. But Augustine never wrote systematically about war, his ad hoc comments were severely limited by the issue or person he was addressing, and his comments have been widely distorted.6 He began from the gospel texts against returning violence for violence, and denied the right that many make the very basis of just war argument—the right of personal self-defense.7 That would be an act of self-love, which is always evil in Augustine. But if one sees one’s fellows threatened by violence, one can defend them out of love—so long as one loves the aggressors, too.8 The latter condition means that any war driven by Clausewitzian Hass is unjust for Augustine. Also, even when defending others, one cannot act “on one’s own hook,” which might also come from selfish motives. One must wait for legitimate authority to command the action, and then one must not kill the innocent, or torture or kill prisoners.9

Augustine’s most extended discussion of war is in five long paragraphs of his Answer to Faustus. There, in opposition to Manichaean attacks on the Jewish patriarchs, he defends the morality of Mosaic and other wars by saying that they were directly ordered by God. One must obey a command from God, even if one does not understand it—as Abraham obeyed the command to kill his son.10 In today’s circumstances this teaching is better fitted to the jihadist “other side”—to those who wage holy war.

Thomas Aquinas is not much more helpful. He has three main norms for permissible war—declaration by competent authority, just cause, and proper intent.11 The last is defined as acting “to promote good or prevent evil”—a thing that can justify war as a tool of social engineering (e.g., to spread democracy and rebuff tyranny). It is not surprising then that Aquinas approved of the social engineering of his day, the Crusades (to spread Christianity and rebuff Muslimism)—which again is more useful to current jihad than to a secular democracy.12

The most relevant of the just war theorists is less cited than Augustine or Thomas since he is less known—Francisco de Vitoria (1486–1546), a Spanish Dominican who bravely protested his countrymen’s conquest of the Americas. It was he who focused especially on discrimination and proportionality.13 But even when he is counted in the “tradition,” there is little more than a checklist of items to be ticked off, with some items as broad and vague as any warmaker could wish. That is why the tradition has had so little impact on the actual waging of war. Is just war theory, then, a meaningless exercise? Not if one is to believe Michael Walzer and the arguments of his new work.

  1. 1

    Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, translated by Constance Garnett (Modern Library, 1994), pp. 885–886.

  2. 2

    Abraham Lincoln, speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, October 16, 1854, in Speeches and Writings, edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher (Library of America, 1989), Vol. 1, p. 335.

  3. 3

    Abraham Lincoln, letter to Charles D. Drake and others, October 5, 1863, in Fehrenbacher, Speeches and Writings, Vol. 2, p. 523.

  4. 4

    John L. Allen Jr, All the Pope’s Men: The Inside Story of How the Vatican Really Thinks (Doubleday, 2004), p. 372. Allen assembles (pp. 313–378) an impressive chronology of Vatican statements opposing the war in Iraq. Sample: Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, asked if this could be a just war, answered: “In this situation, certainly not.”

  5. 5

    See Jean Bethke Elshtain, Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World (Basic Books, 2003).

  6. 6

    For the ad hoc nature of Augustine’s comments on war, and the mistake of making them the foundation for a “tradition,” see R.A. Marcus, “Saint Augustine’s Views on the ‘Just War,’” in The Church and War, edited by W.J. Sheils (Blackwell, 1983); Marie-François Berrouard, “Bellum,” in Augustinus-Lexikon, edited by Cornelius Meyer et al. (Schwabe, 1986); Frederick H. Russell, “War,” in Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, edited by Allan D. Fitzgerald et al. (Eerdmans, 1999).

  7. 7

    Augustine, On Free Will 1.5; Epistles 47.5; Answer to Faustus the Manichaean 22.70; The City of God 1.21.

  8. 8

    Augustine, Epistles 138.14.

  9. 9

    Augustine, The City of God 1.21; Epistles 189, 220, 229. Letter 229 has his famous statement, “Better to slay war with words than men with swords.”

  10. 10

    Augustine cites Cicero in one place (Quaestionum in Heptateuchum 6.10) as saying that wars are “usually” (solent) justified as “avenging wrongs” (ulcisci injurias). This is often falsely cited as Augustine’s own summary teaching on the matter, though it is just the first step in an a fortiori argument saying that wars are surely more justified if they are commanded by God, “with whom there is no iniquity, and who knows what is owing to each party—in which war the people conducting armies are not to be considered as initiators of the war themselves but as his agents.”

  11. 11

    Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II 40.

  12. 12

    Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II 188.3. For Thomas’s approval of the Crusades’ papal authorization, of crusader vows and of crusader indulgences, see Scriptum super Sententiarum 4.32, 38; Quaestiones de Quolibet II 8.2, V 7.

  13. 13

    Francisco de Vitoria, Political Writings, edited by Anthony Pagden and Jeremy Lawrance (Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 314–326. There are seeds of Nuremberg law in Vitoria when he says that aggressors can be punished for the wrongs they have done.

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