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
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