Just War Doctrine Question

A reader asks:

Was pondering something a while back with our third War for Freedom, or to Save Civilians lives, or something ... and I was wondering:

Is Just War Theory “binding” in the sense that the Resurrection is “binding” on the faithful? I wondered, given that it is Just War “Theory” after all. I don’t ask lightly or to look for a way to deny it (a moral theory that is 1,700 years old probably has something going for it), but I was curious as to where this falls on the spectrum of De Fide vs. pious opinion.

Just War Theory is a synthesis of the Church’s best good faith effort to apply the basic principles of its moral teaching in a fallen world. It is not de fide and thus not binding in the sense that all must absolutely order their lives according to it. However, when we say that, we must be extremely cautious in our words. For it does not mean, “Commit genocide during war if you like since Just War Teaching is not de fide.” The basic moral principle, “You shall not murder,” *is* de fide and the act of genocide is, by its nature, the act of indiscriminate slaughter of innocents (i.e. murder).

What I mean, rather, is that the Tradition leaves room for those who come to the conviction that War may be just in theory, but never in practice and so embrace pacificism via conscientious objection.

2306 Those who renounce violence and bloodshed and, in order to safeguard human rights, make use of those means of defense available to the weakest, bear witness to evangelical charity, provided they do so without harming the rights and obligations of other men and societies. They bear legitimate witness to the gravity of the physical and moral risks of recourse to violence, with all its destruction and death.

There have been Catholics on both sides of the fence down through the ages. Many early Christians saw no reason to kill for a pagan Caesar and his wars of conquest and so refused to serve in the legions. As the Empire became Christian and civilization became Christianized, this attitude changed and many Christians (notably during the Crusades) came to conceive of warfare as a legitimate defense against injustice. Just War theory emerged out of the tension felt between the cruelty and violence of war and the necessity of defense of innocents from violent aggressors.

The difficulty we face these days is that war is once again largely the province of secular states which undertake it for all sorts of dodgy and dubious reasons and achieve their ends by whipping the populace into a froth of fear and self-righteousness. One need look no further than the Iraq War for a textbook example of this, with the double whammy of the spectre of “mushroom clouds over America” and (when the WMDs failed to materialize) the sudden denial that the Administration had ever claimed an “imminent threat” coupled with the sudden rationale that the war was all about liberation and not WMDs.

This sort of sleight of hand is common in war and is easy to accomplish because, once a misbegotten war is launched, nobody wants to think that all the death and sacrifice and suffering was predicated on a falsehood. Just War teaching is ordered, in part, toward preventing such tragic jiggery pokery from the state before launching a war by setting up criteria (rooted in the tradition) that make it very hard to go to war. All the criterion must be met before a war is just. So, for instance, our most recent adventure in Libya doesn’t even get out of the gate since it is, after all, a civil war and there is no lasting, grave and certain threat to the US, just as there is no lasting, grave and certain threat to us in the Ivory Coast. I will leave it to you to discern the subtle, slippery (one might even say, “oily”) difference between our sudden interest in Libya and our disinterest in the Ivory Coast. 

Other criteria (e.g., competent authority, serious prospect of success, just means, likelihood that war will result in something better than enduring the aggressor) are also designed to make it hard, because the bias of the tradition is toward peace. So approaching Just War criteria as a sort of starter pistol—where we “get” to go to war if we can just cock our head to one side, squint just so, and pretend hard that we have met the criteria—is all tommyrot. When Michael Novak went to make the case for our unjust war in Iraq the response of Cardinal Ratzinger was the response of the Tradition: “Pre-emptive war is not in the catechism.” He was not laying down a dogma, but simply pointing out the bleeding obvious common sense that the very first criterion of a Just War is that you can’t undertake it on the supposal that rumors you strongly would like to believe are true. In addition, if you are going to appeal to the UN (as we did by citing UN 1441) as the competent authority in the matter, then you have to listen to the UN when it says, “Don’t attack Iraq.”

All this is water under the bridge now, but my point is that Just War theory, while not de fide, is one of the best tools we have for moral guidance in this difficult area. The main difficulty facing it in our bellicose, neo-pagan age is that it may rapidly be reaching a point where technology will make war even harder to justify than it already is. That’s not a measurement of the inadequacy of Just War Theory. It’s a measure of the inadequacy of our barbaric age. The room temperature attitude of the pagan in warfare is not “eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” It is life for eye, life for tooth, life for hand, life for wound, life for burn. The fact that our comboxes here swell up and burst every August with people eager to try to square the incineration of Japanese children in their beds with Just War teaching is a measure of how de-Christianized our civilization is.

Still and all, I regard myself as a Just War theorist. I’m just increasingly skeptical that any postmodern conflict we are currently engaged in fills the bill. Even our adventure in Afghanistan, which began as a perfectly just reaction to 9/11, has drifted into some meandering exercise in building the Great Society in a corrupt and failed Narco-state. Rather than trying to square our Empire with Just War theory, I think it would be far wiser if we stopped the project of maintaining a military presence in over a hundred countries. Here’s the big fact everybody is studiously ignoring as we fret about the immense debt into which we are spending ourselves:

If we let those allies for whom we currently act as Globocop take care of their own defense, we could chop all that out of our budget. But war has a momentum of its own because Defense Corporations—the original Welfare Queens—have been fastened to the teat of federal spending for 70 years and, between them and the check writers in DC, there is no intention of cutting off the mutually beneficial (for them) gravy train. This is what the Church warns of when she says:

2315 The accumulation of arms strikes many as a paradoxically suitable way of deterring potential adversaries from war. They see it as the most effective means of ensuring peace among nations. This method of deterrence gives rise to strong moral reservations. The arms race does not ensure peace. Far from eliminating the causes of war, it risks aggravating them. Spending enormous sums to produce ever new types of weapons impedes efforts to aid needy populations; it thwarts the development of peoples. Over-armament multiplies reasons for conflict and increases the danger of escalation.

2316 The production and the sale of arms affect the common good of nations and of the international community. Hence public authorities have the right and duty to regulate them. The short-term pursuit of private or collective interests cannot legitimate undertakings that promote violence and conflict among nations and compromise the international juridical order.

2317 Injustice, excessive economic or social inequalities, envy, distrust, and pride raging among men and nations constantly threaten peace and cause wars. Everything done to overcome these disorders contributes to building up peace and avoiding war:

Insofar as men are sinners, the threat of war hangs over them and will so continue until Christ comes again; but insofar as they can vanquish sin by coming together in charity, violence itself will be vanquished and these words will be fulfilled: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Sooner or later, cold, hard, economic reality will force us to face the mountain of debt we have created for ourselves and, sooner or later, part of that Day of Reckoning will involve admitting that we have no business at all spending oceans of money maintaining the defense of Japan, Germany, Korea, Saudi Arabia, the UK, France and over a hundred other countries who should do it for themselves. But, at present, the Gravy Train is still quite skilled at keeping a Paris Hilton people preoccupied with “Dancing with the Bread and Circuses.”