I mentioned yesterday that the sound of war drums in recent weeks had made me think a lot about "just war" theory, and I linked to some resources on the topic. The truth is, I'm far from an expert on the subject, and logically, I think I ought to wait until I bring my ideas into semi-coherent form before writing about them. Most liberal Christians are either pacifists or devoted to just war theory, but I've never been entirely comfortable with either approach. I draw on both traditions, and learn from them, but I can't entirely accept either one. I'm feeling around in the dark for what I believe, and that makes it hard to write.
Maybe it's because I'm a storyteller, not a philosopher. I'm not good at reasoning about abstract ideas because I've never been able to separate them from the real world, from people's lives. Flannery O'Connor once said that the difference between writers and normal people is that writers are slower. It takes us longer to figure things out. And I think the reason that's true is that we don't tie our thoughts up in neat boxes and put them on the shelf so that we're ready to pull out an opinion whenever one is called for. We deal with human beings, and people's lives are messy and confusing. Human chaos makes it harder to find things like abstract ideas.
One of the reasons I'm not entirely comfortable with just war theory is that I'm old enough to have heard the words used many times to justify things that seemed to me unjustifiable. The first time I heard the phrase, in fact, was in eighth grade, which was 1967 -- not a good year to try to justify war. We learned in school about Thomas Aquinas's insistence that a just war could be waged only by a legitimate authority, a "sovereign," to use Aquinas's disturbingly regal term. That made the Vietnam War right in the eyes of God, I was taught, because the Viet Cong were fighting against the authority of the South Vietnamese government, and the US was right to help the Vietnamese authority hang on to its legitimate control. (I realize that even at the time there were Catholics who rebelled against that idea, but I had to leave the Church to hear about them.)
Even at fourteen, I thought there was something grotesque in that -- locking people into power systems that oppressed them. At the time, my mother was a couple of years out of a marriage that required her (and, for the last year or so, me) to be a punching bag. The Church told her she had made that choice and was stuck with it. What the Church told my mother and what it told the people of Vietnam seemed to me all of a piece -- the status quo is God's will and you're just going to have to live with it.
Most people I know who drifted away from the Catholic Church did so because they didn't like the Church's positions on gender and sexuality. I grew disenchanted because I could no longer bear the language of morality being used to hurt people.
The irony, of course, is that the Church was building on a tradition stretching back to St. Augustine's noble attempt to make the horrible less horrible, to put moral brakes on an amoral chaos, but it was using the letter of that law to make people's lives worse.
But my problems with just war theory are not just problems of experience. I suppose when you come right down to it, I admire the spirit and the tradition while choking on some of the details. I'm enough of a realist to acknowledge that wars will happen no matter how hard we work for peace. And I think there is a tendency once war begins to say all rules are off. I think Augustine's reminder that all rules are not
off is one of the high points in human history. The spirit of Augustine's writing on just war is that life is precious and therefore you can't wage war for reasons that are either capricious or predatory. Finishing what your daddy started is not a good reason, and neither is your craving for oil. And, according to Augustine, the need to keep moral law in mind doesn't end just because you have a good reason for going to war. I love Augustine's specificity on this topic:
The passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, an unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt, the lust for power, and such things, all these are rightly condemned in war.
Augustine had an astonishingly detailed and psychologically acute understanding of what comes to seem natural and reasonable to people once they go to war. Natural, reasonable, and horrible.
The best thing you can say about just war theory is that it places civilians out of bounds. Centuries of tradition in just war theory have emphasized that you can't kill civilians. Unfortunately centuries of ass-covering tradition has also added unless it's an accident
. It's always an accident.
I'm uncomfortable, too, with the emphasis on authority. I don't like it when it's used to rule out wars of rebellion and I don't even trust it when its used, as it was recently by Richard Harries,
Bishop of Oxford, to argue that since the UN is a higher authority than any individual nation state, the US would need to seek a UN mandate before going to war with Iraq. I think the need to seek international consensus is a good thing, a check on arrogance, and I would love to see the UN evolve into a higher authority, but it's still a very weak institution. We're in trouble if we look to it for moral authority.
I'm also ill at ease with the notion, stretching back to Augustine that "a just war is wont to be described as one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly." Setting things right is one thing. Stopping an aggressor is legitimate. But avenging wrongs seems to me a dangerous business. Maybe we're more aware of that danger in our time than Augustine had the opportunity to be (I'll leave it to someone more knowledgeable about history than I am to decide if Augustine was a child of his times or just a damn fool), but today there's no excuse for failing to recognize the evil that results from endless cycles of avenging wrongs. In the Middle East no one on either side really believes any more that their actions accomplish anything. As Yossi Sarid
says, in a heartbreaking piece in today's Ha'aretz:
The war being waged at this very moment is the cruelest war there is, because it is senseless. People have even stopped saying "may this be the last victim," because everyone knows that there will be plenty more. It's become a kind of routine. Despair and stupidity have reached such depths that all we are left with is vengeance: Murder for murder.
Who is talking these days about plans, strategy, peace, security? The name of the game is revenge. We act today not to deter or prevent, or even to punish, but solely to pay them back, to inflict pain. The Palestinians take revenge, we retaliate, and vice versa, "and God of retribution appears" (Psalms 94:1). They have lost hope that their murderous deeds can achieve anything, and we have lost hope, and we take comfort in blood revenge, like two tribes of savages.
I suppose Augustine foresaw that result when he said that you can not have a just war without a reasonable hope of success, that fighting for lost causes is a waste of lives. What he didn't say is that when you begin with vengeance, you end up without hope of success.
And all of that adds up to why I can't run through the list of requirements for a "just war" -- legitimate authority, last resort, just cause, proportional response, reasonable hope of success -- to decide if the standards have been met. I know the people who do it mean well, but it seems coldly inhuman to me, and likely to let you off the hook of making real moral decisions in any case.