By | August 14, 2010

Assuming that we have not completely become moral zombies, we should be prepared to question the moral justification for our government’s policy of carrying on foreign wars. Today it is our continuing military presence in Iraq and our incursion into Afghanistan which should concern us. Eight to nine years ago (2003), it was the invasion of Iraq which occupied our thinking about war. At that time at a meeting of local humanists in Orange County, California, I conducted an impromptu, informal survey which showed that most attendees felt that the United States’ participation in World War II was morally justified, whereas our country’s involvement in the war in Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s was not justified. The results of my un-scientific survey suggested that many of us have a rough idea of what constitutes a “just war,” whether we articulate it or not.

Furthermore, in the past decade we have often heard references to the just-war idea. In the period preceding our attack on Iraq (2002-3), GW Bush administration spokespeople often invoked the idea that war against Iraq would be a morally justifiable war. Much of the accompanying debate on our government’s war policy touched on the idea. For example, following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the New York World Trade Center and the Pentagon, an LA Times published an article entitled “Catholic Church Debates ‘Just War’.” In this article (9/30/01), the writers reported attempts by Roman Catholic theologians and philosophers to evaluate the U.S. war against terrorism on the basis of the just-war criteria. The article summarized the Catholic teaching that war may be declared if the cause is just, if it is led by a legitimate authority and not guided by revenge, if the results do not produce more evil than the good sought, if it is waged as a last resort, if there is a reasonable chance of success, and if the goal is peace.”

In a similar vein, an October LA Times article (10/13/2002) entitled “Bishops Dare to Dissent” reported that U.S. Roman Catholic Bishops issued a statement against the Bush administration plans to carry out war against Iraq. The writer stated that “Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, writing on Sept. 13, 2002 to Bush on behalf of the bishops …, expressed grave doubts that an American invasion of Iraq could meet the just-war criteria and urged the president to “step back from the brink of war.” He also stated that

“… one of the key tenets of just-war theory is probability of success. The loss of innocent life in war cannot be justified if, after victory, the status quo ante is quite likely to remain unchanged. But will Al Qaeda not remain a threat after victory in Iraq, just as it has remained a threat after victory in Afghanistan?”

Gregory also raised the question whether force would succeed in thwarting serious threats or, instead, provoke the very kind of attacks that it was intended to prevent?

We see then that the just-war concept, insofar as it asks whether a nation is justified in going to war, is not merely an abstract, philosophical concept but applies whenever people deliberate about the morality of war. Maybe some of the participants in my informal survey mentioned above had in mind some of the criteria of a just war and found that U.S. participation in WWII was justified, but that the U.S. war in Southeast Asia (Vietnam) was not.

Most people who give any thought to the question of moral justification of war have some ideas about the criteria that justify a nation’s entry into war. Consider some of these (jus ad bellum) criteria:

A nation has a just cause for entry into war when it must:

1. Defend against an attack by an aggressor.
2. Resort to war for survival as a nation and to defend a way of life.
(Here few question a nation’s right to fight a war; a nation must fight or surrender.)

In addition, many argue that a nation is justified in resorting to war in order to
3. stop an aggressor/oppressor from killing, torturing, oppressing innocent victims; or
4. restore a just order (e.g., re-establish democratic, humane form of government).
(Here war is discretionary or optional, and thus a debatable proposition.)

The following tests are often applied to cases in which war is optional or discretionary:

a. War must be the last resort; all attempts to find peaceful remedies have been exhausted.
(In light of the UN and international law, this is a vitally important condition.)

b. Those declaring the need to war have legal, constitutional authority to do so.
(Revolutionary and civil wars can present special problems here.)

c. The ultimate object of the war is a just and lasting peace.

Some accounts include this fourth test:

d. A “cost-benefit analysis” has been done in which these questions have been answered.

• Is there a high probability of success, i.e. high probability of winning the war?

• Do the predicted benefits of waging war outweigh the cost (death, destruction, suffering)?

[This is often posed as a question of “proportionality” of means (the war) to ends (political or national objective). Obviously, this is a very difficult requirement, calling for predictions or projections about future events and consequences.]

Besides the criteria for a just entry into war, the just-war theory also includes discussion of just conduct of war (jus in bello), sometimes referred to as the rules of warfare. These can break down into two general questions:

a) What kinds of military actions are justified in achieving our end?
b) Who or what are legitimate targets of our military actions?

With reference to the first question (What kinds of actions are justified?), the just-war theory categorically rejects the claim (often heard) that once a nation engages in a war anything its military forces do in that war is justified. On the contrary, there are institutionalized rules of war which spell out legal and moral limitations on how war is conducted. Some of these rules result from international treaties, such as the Hague Peace Conferences (1899, 1907) and the Geneva Conventions, and are spelled out in military documents such as Department of the Army Field Manual PM 27-10, The Law of Land Warfare.

R.B. Brandt, in an essay entitled “Utilitarianism and the Rules of War,” informs us that the preamble to this Manual states that the law of land warfare “is inspired by the desire to diminish the evils of war by:

a. Protecting both combatants and non-combatants from unnecessary suffering,

b. Safeguarding certain fundamental human rights of persons who fall into the hands of the enemy, particularly prisoners of war, the wounded and sick, and civilians; and
c. Facilitating the restoration of peace.”

Other examples of rules of warfare listed in the army manual:

Military personnel are forbidden to kill or wound an enemy who, having laid down his arms, or having no longer means of defense, has surrendered….[also ] forbidden to employ arms, projectiles, or material calculated to cause unnecessary suffering. [And ..] The pillage of a town or place, even when taken by assault is prohibited.”

An obvious purpose of these “rules of war” is to prevent war atrocities, or at least minimize them. Some of these “rules of war” relate to the treatment of prisoners of war. Some are attempts to limit the violence and destruction of war to levels that necessary for achieving legitimate military objectives. Some are efforts to protect civilians and noncombatants from the violence of war.

Do warring nations and warring factions follow these rules? We’re probably too optimistic if we think that most of the time they do. Certainly fanatics and extremists (religious or secular) do not and, historically have not. These rules mean nothing to an Islamic fanatic bent on a suicide bombing of a busload of civilians, or the hijacking and crashing of an airliner full of civilians. Did these rules mean anything to the Nazis in WWII, or to the Allies who fire-bombed European cities, or to the Americans who justified, in some way, the dropping of nuclear bombs on Japanese cities? Yet, some of us hold that, at least in some cases, these rules have helped to reduce the barbarism and organized murder that we call “war.”

This brings us to the second general question of jus in bello: Who or what are legitimate targets of our military actions? Some discussions of just-war theory refer to the principle of discrimination, which prohibits direct, intentional attacks on noncombatants and nonmilitary targets. Most debates about the morality of war have focused on the principle of discrimination, and many who deny that modern war can be morally justified do so because they find that modern war, by its very nature, violates the principle against the killing of noncombatants. The following points outline the case against a just modern war.

1. At first glance, it seems that this should be an unquestioned moral axiom of war: you don’t attack noncombatants or civilian targets.

2. Historically, the “rules” of warfare limited combat to opposing armies or military forces. Civilians were not supposed to be legitimate targets. (In actual fact, these rules were not always followed, and civilians often paid the cost.)

3. With the advent of modern total war, this restriction was no longer observed. Since the American Civil war attacks on the means of war production, often in civilian centers, were regarded as legitimate military targets.

4. Soon modern-war tactics were aimed at breaking the will of the opposing forces, both on the battlefield and at home. Thus, air bombardment of cities, for example, has generally been accepted as part of modern warfare.

5. In this modern-war context: How does one define “noncombatants”? How does one define “non-military targets”? Wm. V O’Brien tells us that
“… well before the advent of weapons systems that are usually employed in ways that do not discriminate between combatants and noncombatants, military and nonmilitary targets, the wall of separation between combatants and noncombatants had .. broken down.”

6. Many, thus, conclude that the principle of discrimination is no longer a “meaningful limit on war.”

7. But some people reject this conclusion, arguing that the principle of discrimination is based on an absolute moral axiom “that evil may never be done in order to produce a good result.” Accordingly, killing noncombatants intentionally is always an inadmissible evil.

8. Others (e.g. O’Brien) reject this moral absoluteness and argue for “a more flexible and variable international-law principle of discrimination,” which attempts to balance a general rule limiting attacks on noncombatants with the needs of modern military operations (which sometimes call for military action that results in civilian deaths.)

10. This “flexible, variable” principle will likely involve the concept of double effect in one form or another.” According to this notion,
“ — the unintended killing of noncombatants is allowable in some cases as “tolerable, concomitant, unintended effects” of military action —- ‘collateral damage’ in contemporary terms.”

11. But “…this distinction between primary, desired effect and secondary, concomitant, undesired by-product” is very questionable. It is not obvious that the secondary effect (the killing of civilians) can be legitimately seen as merely an unintended “by-product” of one’s primary action, when one knows that the action will likely cause the death of civilians.

12. Hence, it is doubtful that the moral principle prohibiting the intentional killing of noncombatants can be reconciled with the tactics of modern warfare. Consider, for example, our tactics in Afghanistan and Pakistan of using remote controlled air-droids to fire missiles at targets, which are selected as “insurgents” or “Taliban” by ‘analysts’ situated thousands of miles away. Thus, some people conclude that one cannot defend modern war, with its air bombardment and remote controlled missile attacks on cities and villages, as morally justifiable.

In any case, the just-war theory should play a central role (sometimes controversial role) in discussions and debates relating to our government’s war policy, given that our citizens and Congress have not become so lazy and complacent that they won’t even consider the question of the morality of their government’s war policy.

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