Oct/Nov 2001 Salon

Just War: Just Words?

by Paul J. Sampson

Two issues of this magazine ago, I published an essay on the late and unlamented Timothy McVeigh. Among other things, I called him "a self-recruited soldier in an imaginary army of a non-existent country. Only his casualties are real."

Now we are all reeling again from the attacks of more such delusional warriors. This time, however, it appears that the perpetrators are already dead, leaving our nation looking for someone still alive to punish. It seems likely we will find someone, and that we will end up at war with one or more actual nations.

Of course, given the nature of this kind of story and this kind of publication, the war may change from imminent to actual to over while this essay is still displayed as current. So my task is to try to find something to say that will remain true for more than a few days.

Since the news is continually slipping from underneath me, I'll resort to philosophy, the last refuge of columnists.

After the previous Eclectica piece about McVeigh, a reader sent me this: "Hi! Thanks for your essay. Thoughtful, eloquent. I am interested to know what you think of the phrase, 'Terrorism, the warfare of the poor.' Personally, I think the idea is one to be taken seriously."

Agreed. In fact, it's an idea that thoughtful people have been taking seriously for a long time. I first heard it advanced in reference to the terror campaigns carried out by the Algerians against the French during their war of independence, 1954-62. If you're past a certain age, you may remember the news stories. The term "plastic explosive," or "plastique," if you wanted to appear cosmopolitan, became part of everyone's vocabulary as bombs were set off in France and in French enclaves in Algeria. Restaurants were favorite targets. (I remember a grimly funny cartoon, which took a shot at the stereotype of the priorities of the French bourgeoisie: The restaurateur warns his patrons by shouting, "Messieurs et Mesdames! Les plastiqueurs! Pay your bills and run for your lives!")

In those days, much of the French intelligentsia (and in fact many people elsewhere too), realizing that the days of colonialism were ending, sympathized with or at least understood the aims of the Algerians. I do not remember anyone with a reputation for sanity advocating or defending their bombing campaigns, but I do remember rueful comments along these lines: What do you expect? World War II taught us that it's acceptable to bomb civilians. These rebels don't have an Air Force, but they do have fellows with bicycles who will deliver quite nasty bombs. Why do we think they won't do it?

So, from one point of view, the suitcase bomb, the truck full of fertilizer and fuel oil, or now the hijacked Boeing loaded with 23,000 gallons of Jet-A, are the Strategic Air Command, the ballistic missiles, of the Third World. They are weapons that are aimed at urban targets, certain to cause civilian casualties. If it's OK for us to have and use such weapons, runs the argument, why not them?

A better question, I think, is whether it's OK for anyone to have and use such weapons. God knows war is very old, and it has never been harmless, but it has always had rules. Read the Iliad: for all the brutality of the combat, it's clear that the warriors knew and followed codes of behavior. Achilles is interesting to Homer's audience partly because his anger is so excessive. He is not content to kill his enemy, Hector; insane with rage, poisoned with the desire for revenge, he desecrates his body as well. He is brought back to humanity by the plea of Hector's father, Priam, to be allowed to bury his son. Achilles, once again a "civilized" warrior, consents, and the story ends with the funeral games in honor of horse-taming Hector.

And all through history, which is often the lurid record of warfare, we can see that every people has made war, and every people has observed customs and laws of war. The fact that these laws have often been broken is not the point. The point is that even in the extremity of war, Man seems to be a law-making and even a law-keeping animal.

This impulse to regulate warfare evolved long ago into a tradition of philosophical inquiry that is now called the theory of Just War. Under what conditions, this line of thought asks, can a war be considered just? Once engaged, what actions in war are lawful, and what are forbidden?

I don't pretend to know the whole history of this tradition, but I can skim some highlights. Some of this I learned more than 40 years ago in philosophy classes in my Jesuit university. Some I found in that murky, disorderly, fragmented, and unreliable source, my memory, and some I mined from that murky, disorderly, fragmented, and unreliable library, the Internet. If I know the sources, I will credit them.

The Romans, who are remembered justly or not as lawgivers, were concerned with defining a just war. Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE), who picked the wrong side in the wars following the death of Julius Caesar, and was assassinated for his error, said that only a proper state could make war, and then only after proper warnings had failed and a proper declaration of war was made. He also held that there was a law that bound all humankind, not only nations. This idea would influence more modern thinkers, too. (This snippet of Cicero, and the following brief summaries of Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, as well as Hugo Grotius, are condensed from an article by Mark Edward DeForrest of Gonzaga University. It's available on the Internet. Including footnotes, it prints out to 21 pages, but it's a gold mine.)

As you would expect, the heavy hitters of the Catholic Church, which sometimes seems like a law school masquerading as a religion, have a lot to say on the laws of war. St. Augustine (354-430 AD), who endeared himself to subsequent sinners by admitting that he prayed in his youth to be chaste, but "not just yet," wrote quite a lot on politics. He seems to have been the first of the Church Fathers to write about what constitutes a just war. He is the first writer I know of to say that the purpose of war ought to be peace; it sounds like the sort of Newspeak we used to hear from politicos during the Cold War. (Remember the motto of the Strategic Air Command? "Peace Is Our Profession.")

Augustine required three conditions for going to war justly: lawful authority, the purpose of securing peace, and the absence of improper motives for making war. Specifically, "The desire for harming, the cruelty of revenge, the restless and implacable mind, the lust for dominating, and similar things"--these are not justifiable reasons for going to war. And once at war, the minimum force required to achieve peace is all that is permitted. You may not even directly intend to kill your enemy: "Let necessity slay the warring foe, not your will."

That would seem to take all the fun out of war, wouldn't it? That's a saint for you. Here's another: the great medieval philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas. The Angelic Doctor, as he came to be known, lived from 1225 to 1274. In that short life, he wrote mountains of theological and philosophical works, single-handedly bringing the works of Aristotle back from the dead and erecting the framework that supports Catholic theology to the present day.

He wrote about everything. Naturally, he had a neat summary of the doctrine on war. To be just, said Aquinas, a war must satisfy these three conditions: The war must be waged by a lawful authority, with just cause, and for the right intention. This last condition he defines as "to achieve some good or avoid some evil."

That's a bit more general than Augustine's formulation, which demanded peace as the objective, not merely doing good and avoiding evil; but Aquinas, the consummate logician, liked general statements that could be applied syllogistically to many cases. For certain, though, both of them required serious causes for a just war. Where Augustine specifically forbade such causes as revenge, Aquinas contented himself with the generic "just cause," presumably something proportional to the drastic response of war. Both of them insisted that only a legitimately constituted authority, what they would call a ruler and we would call a state, is permitted to wage war. And both of them seemed to require that the state be in actual danger before going to war; no pre-emptive first strikes were allowed.

Flash forward four hundred years, through the end of the Middle Ages, through the Renaissance, past the Protestant Reformation, past the grotesque wars of dynasty and religion that disfigured Europe, to the Dutch Protestant Hugo Grotius, the 16th-Century theorist who, DeForrest tells us, is sometimes called the father of international law. Grotius also imposed three conditions for a just war, which he bases ultimately on the right of nations to defend themselves. The conditions: immediate danger to the nation; force is necessary for adequate defense; and the force used is proportional to the danger.

Grotius added corollaries to his laws of war. A state must actually declare war, he said (we saw this requirement in Cicero's rules; no sneak attacks permitted). And warring nations must take care of the sick and wounded, military and civilian alike.

The idea of self-defense as a justification for war persists today in the Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. By now you will have heard that Article cited by half the politicians in Washington, even by those who until now had little use for the United Nations.

These are some of the highlights of Just War theory, at least as it pertains to legitimate reasons to make war in the first place. If you want to sound impressive, you can call this jus ad bellum, the law of causes of war. The law for behavior once war is under way is jus in bello. Don't spoil the impression of erudition by mispronouncing the Latin; the letter "j" is pronounced like the English consonant "y". That's a whole other subject, but its main concerns are proportionality of force and protection of civilians, neither of which has been of much concern to modern statesmen, let alone military commanders. When the German Condor Legion supported Franco's troops by bombing civilians in the Spanish Civil War, the world was shocked and outraged. Likewise when Hitler's Luftwaffe bombed British cities a few years later in World War II. When the Allies retaliated with bombing raids by waves of Lancasters and Liberators and Flying Fortresses, they were preserving civilization, not hastening its end, as when the dirty Nazis did it. And when the United States dropped not one but two atomic bombs on Japan, incinerating thousands of civilians and dooming more of them to an unpleasant death by radiation, we were saving lives. Everyone clear on that?

In spite of the cynical tone of my last paragraph, I fully admit the dreadful moral ambiguity of the bombing campaigns of World War II. The Allies did not invent the concept of total war, but they responded to it with grim enthusiasm and ultimately carried it out more thoroughly that did the Germans and Japanese high commands. Where does blame lie? To what degree? These are still legitimate questions, I think, but of course the winners of wars write the histories, and the ethics books too.

Today it is extremely hard to conceive of limited war in which civilians can be isolated from combat. Alex Mosely, PhD, in an article on Just War Theory in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a reference work which is less spurious than it sounds, writes of some of the difficulty. "Whilst the principle of discrimination argues for their immunity from war, the practicalities of war provoke the need for a different model. The doctrine of double effect offers a justification for killing civilians in war, so long as their deaths are not intended but are accidental. Targeting a military establishment in the middle of a city is permissible according to the doctrine of double effect, for the target is legitimate. Civilian casualties are a foreseeable but accidental effect. Whilst the doctrine provides a useful justification of 'collateral damage' to civilians, it raises a number of issues concerning the justification of foreseeable breaches of immunity, as well as the balance to strike between military objectives and civilian casualties."

The "doctrine of double effect" mentioned by Dr. Mosely is this: An action may have more than one effect, one of which is intended, the other neither intended nor desired. The first effect is legitimate, while the second would not be allowed if it were the only outcome of the choice. The examples in the ethics books tend to be horrific. For instance, a dam is about to burst. If it goes, it will destroy your city. If you open the dam, you will save the city, but you will destroy other towns downstream. What may you do?

Well, the usual answer is that you may open the dam, taking whatever rescue measures you can, even though you know that there will be casualties downstream. You intend the good result of saving your city, and you accept the regrettable bad results elsewhere.

You can see how this can be applied to warfare. I hope you can also see how easily it can be applied cynically and brutally, and I leave it to your imagination and your knowledge of history to supply examples.

So then: Assuming that we place any stock in the theory of Just War, can we make any moral sense of the war we are apparently now entering? Well, I think we can say a few things without too much uncertainty. First, the terrorists have no moral standing under any of the traditional doctrines of Just War. Not only are these people not a state, they have none of the traditional aims of warfare. They are not acting in self-defense, even under the most far-fetched definition. They have no interest whatever in proportionality of force and necessity. Their "struggle" is for its own sake, and has no conceivable end point save annihilation. Nothing they can win or we can give them will satisfy them. They are the unappeasable, and they have their counterparts everywhere these days.

And what about us, the injured party? The Just War theorists certainly allow us to defend ourselves, and we will presumably do so vigorously. But we had better watch ourselves, if we hope to keep something resembling justice on our side. Our use of force has to be proportional to the objective, which is self-defense. And (this is the hard part) we have to learn that revenge is not a legitimate reason for war.

That sounds insanely idealistic, but I'm afraid I must insist on it. We are entering what promises to be a long and particularly vicious war. Our national mythology shows us as virtuous warriors defending high values like Freedom and Justice. Very well, let's live up to the myth, let's deserve our self-congratulation. Let's wage war, if we must, as morally as we can. That means no casual acceptance of civilian casualties as "collateral damage." It means restraint, a concept that commanders and troopers alike find difficult to master.

Many admirable people consider warfare as inescapably wrong. I am not so admirable. I can conceive of instances in which war is the lesser evil in situations where to abstain from action is to consent to evil and enable it. For all its unspeakable horrors, World War II was such a situation. I get a bit impatient when pacifists are said to hold "the moral high ground." The terrible complexity of the moral landscape in time of war makes it hard to see where the high ground lies. It is hard to find ground higher than the sacrifice of one's life for others. That is what soldiers swear to do, and all too often, they do it.


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