Just War is a Deadly Lie

I, for one, am neither impressed nor reassured by President Obama’s personal study of and commitment to the writings of Augustine and Aquinas on just war to guide his own conscience and conduct of drone warfare and targeted assassinations. In a few words here, I will do my best to suggest why.

Just war theory is a dead letter. It was never more than a theory and at its worst it was a lie, a deadly lie. It promised at least the possibility of war without sin, war without criminality, war without guilt or shame, war in which men would risk their lives but not their souls or their humanity. At its headiest, it promised war in which men would win eternal life, and now, in the fullness of wartime, these same promises have been extended to women and children. Whether or not these promises were first or ever made in good faith is something we can never know, and it doesn’t matter. What we can know is that they have not been kept. We know this from experience, the experience of war, the killing lab in which the theory of just war has been tested for sixteen centuries. It is time to declare its death and to write its autopsy.

Some moments, in retrospect, seem to decide everything. When the two most towering minds and influential thinkers in the history of Western Christianity came to the conclusion that not all killing was murder and that not all wars were evil, they sealed away in silence one of the most profound and potentially transformative bits of “good news” at the core of that very faith to which they had confessedly dedicated their lives—that love is more powerful than hate and that it is better to die than to kill. They and those that followed them came to see the pacifism of the early Church as mere “passivism,” as doing nothing, as unrealistic, naive, and irresponsible. In arming Christians for righteous battle, they disarmed the radical challenge and alternative to war embodied in the early Christian community, whose own “heroes” gave their lives as willingly as any warriors, while refusing to take the lives of others.

Despite the official ecclesiastical adoption of just war, however, the Christian community has never spoken with one voice regarding war. There have always been those often lone and marginalized doubters and resisters who have questioned and decried the Church’s long affair with the god of war. In our own day, one of those voices of dissent was the late Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest who relentlessly confronted his country and his Church with their complicity in the lethal illusion of just war. As he saw it,

It came to something like this… One could undergo, as they had undergone, and their parents before them, the entire Christian induction, the seasonal rhythms of Christian worship, could receive the Christian sacraments; could be exposed year after year to elite Christian education. And still one would go off to war, in apparent good conscience.

In the course of the war, any war, vast numbers of the enemy, whether combatants or bystanders or the ill or aged or newly born, would be disposed of by slaughterhouse technique. There would occur also vast numbers of casualties on one’s own side.

And all this would be wrought and undergone in truly awesome good faith; a faith shored up and accompanied by the church’s blessing.

Further; this increasingly lax conscience with regard to mass murder—this could be expanded until it encompassed all the living. There would be no limits established, no end in sight. The nature of state violence was illimitable; persuasive reasons would be adduced for ending the human venture.

Nor would any limit be set by the church.1

And yet “just war” was from the beginning supposed to mean “limited war.” This was the explicit intent of its founding fathers and erstwhile advocates. But intentions are for God’s eyes only. Everyone else is left to stare at and live with consequences. And in this case the consequences have overstepped every limit imaginable.

Christian theologians and canon lawyers, from Ambrose to Vitoria, acknowledged that war, even just war, is fraught with matters of conscience, claiming that the Church, its clergy, and ultimately its pope are the proper and privileged adjudicators of such matters. Surely the history of “just” or “limited” war, however, has subverted that claim. The Church’s longstanding obsession with sexuality and complacency with war—still in evidence today—have all but disqualified the clergy and its hierarchy as the Church’s conscience in matters of making love and making war. Their canonical exclusion from the marriage bed and the battlefield has rendered most Catholic celibate clerics, past and present, personally inexperienced and professionally dubious as moral guides in those turbulent territories. Better to make a fresh start and to listen to those who know first-hand what they are talking about. When the reality in question is war, this means that we would do best to listen long and hard to combat veterans, as well as the correspondents who take notes at their side.

One such correspondent is Sebastian Junger. “The idea that there are rules in warfare,” wrote Junger, after spending fifteen months embedded with a single platoon at a remote outpost in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan, “and that combatants kill each other according to the basic concepts of fairness probably ended for good with the machine gun.”ii In fact, that particular idea must have ended much sooner, perhaps when mounted knights fell prey to the longbow or when the warriors of Asia first faced the Greek phalanx. Regardless, Junger’s observation is that “soldiers gravitate toward whatever works best with the least risk (and)

At that point combat stops being a grand chess game between generals and becomes a no-holds-barred experiment in pure killing. As a result, much of modern military tactics is geared toward maneuvering the enemy into a position where they can essentially be massacred from safety. It sounds dishonorable only if you imagine that modern war is about honor; it’s not. It’s about winning, which means killing the enemy on the most unequal terms possible. Anything less simply results in the loss of more of your own men.iii

In other words, combat is about killing without dying, however that can best be accomplished, whether with an ambush, an artillery barrage, a high-altitude bombing mission, or a predator drone. If this was ever not the case, that memory is all but lost and has no influence on policy or practice today. On paper, just war was to be all about proportionality and fair play. What made it irrelevant from the start was that it just didn’t describe war. War has its own rules and they don’t include fair play, moral limits, or an agreement that right trumps might. War as Bertrand Russell once memorably put it, never decides who’s right, just who’s left. It is, “a moral sewer”iv that can’t be cleaned up and whose waters never were and never will be morally potable. Just war theory is a dead letter. Our president should stop invoking it as if it has any legitimacy at all.

i. Daniel Berrigan, To Dwell in Peace: An Autobiography. p.108.

ii. Sebastian Junger, War, p.140.

iii. Ibid.

iv. William P. Mahedy, Out of the Night p.101.

PHOTO: PIER PAOLO CITO, ASSOCIATED PRESS / February 21, 2010. U.S. Cpt. Chaplain father Carl Subler, from Versailles, Ohio blesses U.S. soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, at the end of a mass service in an outpost in the Badula Qulp area, West of Lashkar Gah in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, Sunday, Feb. 21, 2010.

Author: Bob Meagher

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