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Why we still need just war theory

We need a just war tradition that is clear and attempts to regulate modern warfare (AP)

Does the just war theory have a future? This question was raised at a recent Vatican conference on non-violent peacemaking, hosted by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and Pax Christi International. Conflicts such as the ongoing civil war in Syria raise serious doubts about how violence can ever lead to peace, and modern weapon technologies engender questions about how war could be waged justly in the 21st century.

The conference participants appealed to Pope Francis to declare that the traditional just war theory is obsolete and that Christians should dedicate their efforts to nonviolent peacemaking. There are reasons to believe, however, that the just war ethic continues to have life, and that its traditional concerns with when armed force can be justified and how it should be used will remain crucial to promoting peace.

Before looking at how the just war theory continues to be relevant, it is important to recognise what the conference participants got right. In their final statement they claim that the moral legitimation of war has too often undermined “the moral imperative to develop tools and capacities for non-violent transformation of conflict”. Who could deny that peace would be better served if we devoted more efforts to peacemaking rather than war? The statement rightly appeals to Jesus’s own teaching and practice of nonviolence as a model for non-violent efforts at preventing and resolving conflict. The conference participants themselves were non-violent activists from Uganda, Colombia, the Philippines, Palestine, and other violent parts of the globe who could testify to the power of nonviolence.

In recent years, however, Christian just war ethicists have been making very similar points. When St Augustine developed the Christian just war theory in the early 5th century, he was clear that the government’s right to go to war was ultimately rooted in its duty to promote peace – the limited use of violence could prevent evils that posed a greater threat to peace. Over the centuries, however, this insight was obscured. The just war theory provided a set of tools that were helpful for evaluating the decision to go to war and how a war was conducted, but it left unaddressed the more important questions of what led to the war and how future wars could be prevented.

Contemporary just war theorists are seeking to recover Augustine’s insight that the pursuit of peace should be at the foundation of ethical reasoning about war. This means that Christians must put greater effort into identifying the causes of conflict before violence breaks out, and then find non-violent ways of resolving the conflict so that violence becomes unnecessary. Then, only in the gravest circumstances, can military force be used, as a last resort in seeking peace.

What just war ethicists have come to see, though, is that unless people put effort into establishing non-violent alternatives, war easily becomes the only resort.

Although the conference statement rightly points out that for several decades the popes have condemned war and called for its abolition, Church teaching has continued to affirm that violence remains legitimate in the worst situations. Pope Francis himself, in his letter to the conference, cited the Second Vatican Council’s statement that “governments cannot be denied the right to legitimate defence once every means of peaceful settlement has been exhausted.”

Just war theory does have a future in Catholic teaching, but as part of a broader “just peacemaking” ethic that gives greater attention to identifying the causes of conflict and to non-violent conflict resolution.

The rapid development of military technology also poses a challenge to the future of the just war theory. At least since the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Christians have had to ponder the question of whether modern technologies have rendered war inherently unjust.

Although technologies can be used in ways that make wars unjust, however, they can also help soldiers wage wars more justly, and therefore the future of just war reasoning must include moral discernment about these technologies.

Nuclear weapons and the more conventional, but no less deadly, method of aerial carpet bombing populated areas (such as Dresden, Germany and Tokyo during the Second World War) are both in almost all cases indiscriminate and disproportionate.

In just war reasoning, a military must always discriminate between military and civilian targets. The destructive power of nuclear weapons and carpet bombing makes it very hard, if not impossible, to make this distinction.

The just war theory does not absolutely prohibit civilian casualties in war, recognising that sometimes innocents are tragically killed in attacks on military targets. Civilian casualties, however, must be proportionate to the significance of the military target for achieving one’s military objectives. Because nuclear weapons and carpet bombing are designed to maximise civilian casualties, their use is almost certainly disproportionate From a 20th-century perspective, however, these “modern” weapons now appear crude. Since the 1970s, military weaponry has undergone a revolution – using computer, satellite, and robotics technologies – making them more precise and limited in their destructive effects. For example, precision-guided bombs and missiles use lasers or GPS technology to identify and destroy specific targets.

Looking to the future, the US Defense Department’s so-called Squad X technology would integrate small aerial drones or ground-based robots with infantry squads, providing them with precise information about the battlefield and helping them avoid costly mistakes. These technologies can help militaries fight wars that are more just, while raising new ethical questions of their own.

One recent technology that has spurred vigorous debate is the use of unmanned aerial drones. Drones can provide reconnaissance or a means of attack in terrain inaccessible to human soldiers, and can precisely strike specific targets while minimising collateral damage. Nevertheless, it is often difficult for the remote drone operators to distinguish civilians from combatants, and there have been hundreds of civilian casualties from US drone strikes in Pakistan, for example. Critics of drones point out the depersonalising effects the technology can have on operators, making life and death decisions in front of a computer screen thousands of miles away from the target, as if playing a video game.

The opposite problem is raised by the possibility of lethal autonomous weapons, drones programmed with artificial intelligence sufficient to make targeting decisions themselves. Supporters of lethal autonomous weapons claim that they would remove factors such as emotion and fatigue that lead humans to make ethical misjudgments, but their opponents argue that robots are simply incapable of making the sorts of ethical judgments needed in life-and-death situations. Organisations such as Human Rights Watch have urged a ban on such weapons, as has the Vatican’s Permanent Observer to the United Nations.

Although military technology can be used for good and ill, it is important to consider that the amount of ingenuity put into inventing new weapons far outweighs what we have dedicated to finding alternatives to war. The Church’s ethic of war and peace is not fundamentally about using technology in the right way, but about devoting our energies to promoting peace, even if that means that in the worst situations we resort to arms. The just war theory of the future will have to deal with robots and satellites, but it will also have to include everyday Catholics bringing people together around a table to talk.

Matthew A Shadle is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. He is the author of The Origins of War: A Catholic Perspective (Georgetown University Press).


Charles Guthrie: The perils of pacifism

The recent conference jointly organised by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and Pax Christi was important, and its goal – the abolition of war – is a noble one, which all should support.

The great majority of Christians over the centuries have felt bound to recognise war as an unavoidable reality in human life, and to accept the necessity sometimes to take part in it.

The task for moral thinkers and teachers on questions about war has been to analyse and establish why and under
what limiting conditions war might be regarded as tolerable. Many famous figures – St Augustine of Hippo in the 5th century, St Thomas Aquinas in the 13th, and others – have given their minds to these problems, and the cumulative product of their work was what we now know as the just war tradition.

The reality that had to be faced was the pervasive factor of armed aggression and oppression in human affairs. The onset, for example, of Attila and his Huns invading Europe from the east in the 5th century, or the Moors spreading Islam by the sword through the Mediterranean and up across Spain into France in the 7th and 8th centuries. The fact was that Christians had to decide what to do about them. And the just war theorists believed that its simply could not be right to lay down as a moral rule that armed resistance to Attila and his like was forbidden.

Warfare has changed, weapons are more terrible, but it must be right first to counter genocide, to protect the innocent, and to strive for a better world – and sometimes armed resistance is the only way to do this. It is no good claiming that we can always bring about peace through diplomacy and dialogue.

Of course warfare is a very bad thing, but there are surely times when the alternatives are even worse.

It must be right to have a just war tradition which is clear and attempts to regulate war in some ways. It cannot be right that in a war anything goes. The tradition has a range of tests – criteria – that must be satisfied if war is to be morally just. The criteria fall into two groups: “right to fight” and “how to fight right”. The first group, often referred to collectively under the Latin phrase jus ad bellum, concerns the morality of going to war at all. The second group, referred to as jus in bellum, concerns the morality of what is done within a war, how it is to be fought.

Before committing to war, politicians and the military should be clear about the just war tradition. Too often, this has not been the case. Furthermore, there are many occasions when the just war tradition is deliberately ignored.

One should respect all who seek the end of war. But the world remains a very dangerous place. Of course, we should do all we can to avoid war and violence, but surely some pacifists have a naive view which is unlikely ever to be accepted by all.

The Second Vatican Council made it clear that war was evil and wrong, although the Council recognised that, since war has not been eradicated from the human condition, governments cannot be denied the right to legitimate defence, once every means to solve situations has been tried and exhausted.

It may seem strange to follow a tradition which is many hundreds of years old. But surely it is better to have some laws and a tradition which regulate the wars and unfortunately inevitable violence which will continue to happen for the foreseeable future.

Field Marshal Lord Guthrie was Chief of the Defence Staff from 1997 to 2001.

These articles first appeared in the April 29 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here.