National Catholic Register


Battling by the Book: Just War Makes a Comeback

BY Joe Woodard

October 21-27, 2001 Issue | Posted 10/21/01 at 2:00 AM


WASHINGTON — In early October, Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote to President Bush, praising the “wise, just and effective” manner in which he was waging the rapidly developing war on terrorism.

“This necessary response is directed at those who use terror, as well as those who assist them, and not at the Afghan people or any particular religious group,” Bishop Fiorenza said. And he renewed the call of the U.S. bishops to the American military, that their actions be guided by “the traditional moral limits on the use of force.”

Since the commencement of the U.S.-led air campaign against terrorist chief Osama bin Laden and his Taliban sponsors in Afghanistan, Bush has insisted that it be waged with utmost care, sparing civilian lives to the greatest degree possible.

By doing so in a campaign against foes who appear to respect no moral limitations in their own attacks against American civilians, Bush may have signaled a transformation of the modern “culture of war.” At least initially, say experts, the U.S. response resembles the ancient Christian principles of the just war, codified by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

“The president's speeches have been carefully crafted to address all the criteria of a just war, hitting them one by one,” said retired Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis, vice president of policy with the Family Research Council.

During the 20th century, the world suffered under a theory promulgated by the German General Staff, that “nations in arms” must wage “total war.” This theory was repeatedly rejected by the Church, yet given the state of 20th-century weaponry — powerful yet inaccurate — the predompredominantly Christian allies in World War II apparently saw little choice but to act in accordance with it, attacking the economic infrastructures of aggressor nations.

With war cast as a contest between whole nations, factory workers became strategic targets, no less than front-line soldiers. So the British Bomber Command firebombed residential Hamburg, and the U.S. 8th Air Force innocuous Dresden, killing 50,000 civilians per raid, simply to keep workers from their factories.

Given that same thinking, during the Cold War the superpowers of the Soviet Union and the United States spent 40 years holding their own people hostage to a doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” under which both nations’ major cities were targeted for obliteration by the other side's nuclear weapons.

In fact, there was no more justification for “total war” in the 20th century than there was in the 13th, says Christendom College historian Warren Carroll. Medieval knights needed peasants’ fodder for their horses, just as modern armies need gasoline from refineries operated by civilians. Yet at the behest of the Church, European chivalry largely refrained from slaughtering their foe's peasant civilians.

And even this past century, total war was never proven necessary. The pulverizing of its cities never slowed Germany's industry, and the Japanese fought on despite being brought to the brink of national starvation by a shipping embargo enforced by American submarines. In both cases, given the assault on civilians in the already undemocratic aggressor nations, internal political opposition became virtually impossible. Given what seemed a choice between victory or annihilation, the German and Japanese people fought to the bitter end.

“I believe the demand for unconditional surrender was wrong; it made it much more difficult to end the war. And unlike most conservatives, I don't agree with the use of the atom bomb against Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” Carroll said.

“You don't use a weapon in a way that you know is going to kill primarily women and children. It's a basic principle of moral philosophy that the end does not justify the means. So you just don't do it. We carried it too far.”

A New Kind of War

Yet, now that the United States has taken up the gauntlet in the “first war of the 21st century,” the enemy in this war isn't a nation, but rather a narrow — and narrowly targeted — movement within Islamic civilization. This fact is apparently backing the American military out of the total-war mind-set, and into something much more like the ancient principles of the just or limited war.

The traditional Christian rules governing warfare were largely observed in Europe from the 11th century, ignored during the religious wars of the 16th century, but readopted in the ecumenical wars of the 17th and 18th centuries.

“Men being men, there were always violations in the heat of the moment, but the moral law really did make a difference in the violence of war,” said retired West Point military psychologist Lt. Col. David Grossman, author of the book On Killing.

“There tended to be more lapses when Christians were fighting non-Christians like the Turks” so it may be a little ironic that the just war strictures are being rediscovered in a fight with a terrorist Muslim faction, Grossman said. “But the experience of the 20th century seems to indicate that atrocities are counterproductive, and noble behavior can really be productive in the long run.”

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, in Nos. 2309-2317, war is legitimately waged to defend against an aggressor intent on inflicting “lasting, grave and certain” damage upon one's nation or the community of nations. Other means must be clearly “impractical or ineffective.” The means must be proportionate — “the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.” And only competent civil authorities “who have responsibility for the common good” can be responsible for the decision to go to war.

Incidentally, says Florida State University Islamic studies professor John Kelsay, the same principles were developed by Muslim theologians from the eighth century on, and likewise observed off-andon by Islam until modern times.

Family Research Council's Maginnis laid out the traditional Thomistic principles of a just war: a just cause (today interpreted only as resisting aggression); war as a last resort; a proper intention; authorization by a competent authority; a high probability of success; and a balanced goal.

In waging the war, every effort must be made to discriminate between combatants and noncombatants. And the damage inflicted must be proportional to the goal, the evil to be eradicated.

“In this new war, the goal is a little ambiguous,” Maginnis said. “In the near term, it's to suppress the Taliban and al Qaeda. But in the long term, if it's to eradicate terrorism worldwide, that's a little open-ended.” However, he added, “The cause is just — that's demonstrated by our invoking the U.N. Charter's Article 51 and NATO's Article 5.”

Continued Maginnis, “There are few noncombatant issues there; even when you drop the most sophisticated bombs, 2% or 3% of them are going to go astray. But the effort's being made.”

Precision Weapons

In fact, said the retired lieutenant colonel, it may be partly the new precision of military technology — electronic intelligence gathering, global positioning systems, thermal imaging, laser-guided bombs — that has given the tools of war something closer to the discrimination of swords, and made it possible to exercise more discrimination regarding noncombatants.

Msgr. William Smith, a moral theologian at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., said he can see “no realistic possibility of [the U.S. government's] doing other than they've now done.”

Msgr. Smith acknowledges that there has been no formal declaration of war, raising an issue about the “competent public authority.” However, the president has referred the issue to Congress. Further, a declaration of war is stymied by the fact that the enemy is not a national government; consequently, there is no one with whom a treaty could be signed, formally ending a state of war.

And in recognizing this fact by their comments supporting the military action, Msgr. Smith said the U.S. bishops’ conference is taking a salutary step back from the unbalanced pacifism of their 1984 pastoral letter, a letter “that bent over backwards to the pacifists,” he said.

Said Msgr. Smith, “This isn't a war simply to recover prestige or property. We're now dealing with people who have issued a fatwah, calling for the deliberate targeting of civilians. This is war as a last resort.”

Joe Woodard writes from Calgary, Alberta.