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Taking Ramsey to Task on Just War

May 4, 2010 
I’ve been suspicious of Just War theory for quite a while now.  Some of it has to do with the pacifistic inroads Hauerwas and others made on my thinking, and some of it just has to do with the theory’s terrible historical track record.  The Just War theory has much more often served as a way of providing a justification for desired wars than as a criterion for refusing wars.  By reducing the requirements of justice in war to a convenient little list of criteria, the just war tradition has made it all too easy for politicians to spin the facts and stoke up the rhetoric so as to give a passable imitation of having met the criteria.  And so the most absurd prideful bloodbaths get whitewashed as “just wars”--the Civil War, World War I, the Iraq War.  

And so, as I said, I’d become suspicious, skeptical--not hostile, mind you, just dubious as to whether the theory actually enabled us to fight just wars and refuse unjust ones.  And so I thought, in all fairness to the tradition, I ought to hear its ablest defenders speak, and I planned to read Paul Ramsey’s The Just War and O’Donovan’s The Just War Revisited.  I haven’t gotten to the latter yet, but we were assigned portions of the former to read for class this past term.  I was, I am afraid, sorely disappointed--my hopes in the abilities of modern just war theorists to effectively challenge our warmongering societies were quite dashed.

Paul Ramsey, you see, chooses not merely to major on, but to pretty much exclusively deal with the ius in bello criteria, in my mind the less significant part of the just war tradition; ius ad bellum, in his mind, is essentially useless.
Let me take a moment to elucidate the distinction.  The criteria for just war that the theory has developed can be classified under these two headings, which may be translated as “justice toward war” and “justice in war.”  Under the former heading are the principles of just cause, legitimate authority, right intention, probability of success, last resort, and proportionality, principles that help us figure out whether a proposed or contemplated conflict can indeed be justly entered into.  Under the latter heading are the principles of discrimination--no intentional targeting of civilians--and (again) proportionality--using no means or targets that are likely to cause excessive suffering and death that far outweighs the envisioned benefits.  Without ius in bello, we’d be two pugilists whose friends restrained them from fighting 90% of the time, but who could haul out machine guns and chainsaws once they had a chance to duke it out.  Without ius in bellum, we’d be allowed to fight whenever we wanted, but would have to do it with one hand tied behind our backs.  Perhaps then I wouldn’t want to say that ius in bello is “less significant,” but certainly ius ad bellum has to come first.  
Why then does Ramsey want to leave it out of the equation?  O’Donovan explained it this way: Ramsey was fed up with the Church’s increasingly powerless naysaying.  By refusing to be pacifist, yet indignantly protesting every particular war that came up as “unjust,” the Church was just making itself look ridiculous.  Why?  Because the questions of ius ad bellum are hazy ones, that depend on weighing many different facts and interpreting them in ways that are ultimately somewhat subjective.  So the Church can come across as always just second-guessing the more well-informed politicians.  The questions of ius in bello, on the other hand (or at least regarding the first criterion), can be pared down to a rather sharp moral decision for every soldier and politician: “Will you intentionally target civilians?  Will you take all reasonable steps to avoid unintended civilian casualties?”  These questions the Church can insist on continuing to raise, and can hope to be heard--here, the Church has sufficient expertise to address the conscience, expertise that it cannot expect to have on the complex questions of international diplomacy surrounding ius ad bellum.  
Ramsey’s concern here is understandable, of course.  The Church can make a fool of itself when, without taking a principled pacifist stance, it instantly cries foul whenever a war is declared.  Even in a matter as important as war, we should not hastily rush to assume the worst of policy-makers, but should allow the possibility that they have accurately construed the situation, and it is one that justly calls for a military response.  
However, I am skeptical that this is really the biggest problem for us today.  In my background, at least, it is much more common for the Church to uncritically assume that the war is just than to uncritically assume that it is unjust.  But even if that were not so, Ramsey’s approach seems to leave a huge hole in our responsibility to witness Christ to our society; it leaves the Church as no more than a referee at a wrestling match, blowing the whistle whenever the combatants start fighting too dirty.  Do we really want to consign ourselves to the position of submissively nodding our heads whenever our politicians want to go to war, however unjust, and merely speaking up from time to time to try to keep the war from becoming too bloody?  Let’s look at the ius ad bellum criteria a bit more closely, with the Iraq War as a case study, to see if they are really as useless as Ramsey seems to think.  I will consider only just cause here, to try to stay concise; the other criteria, it seems to me (aside from legitimate authority), are the sort of thing that Ramsey could legitimately object that would be very difficult to judge, and on which we might to some degree have to just give our leaders the benefit of the doubt.  However, even here, the Church ought to ask hard questions of our leaders, rather than accepting vague reassuring declarations of justice--we should at least ask our leaders to make a convincing case to us that they are acting with the right intentions, as a last resort, with a high probability of success, and with proportionality--that is, a likelihood that the harm would not outweigh the benefit.  If they barely even try to make such a case, then we should immediately assume that something is not right.  
But now, let’s look closely at just cause: properly, just cause means innocent life must be in imminent danger and intervention must be to protect life.  It cannot mean merely a defense of national interest, or a defense of property, nor can it be simply for purposes of retaliation.  That is to say, the mere fact that someone else fired first doesn’t mean you can go after them with everything you’ve got--you have to be able to show that they continue to pose a threat.  The notion of pre-emptive strike is debated, but the general consensus is that pre-emption can only be just when the other party has literally pulled out theirs weapon and aimed them at you with clear and imminent intent to fire.  

Now, to be sure, it can be very difficult to ascertain for certain when there is in fact just cause, since, for example, it may look like we have been attacked first, when in fact our leaders secretly incited the other party to attack.  So we should be hesitant to ever affirm just cause without reservation.  But there are many times when we can be quite clear that there is not just cause, and the Church is responsible to speak up in such situations.  It should generally be fairly obvious to the citizens of a country whether or not they are under attack, or under the threat of imminent attack, by a hostile foreign power that is determined to kill them.  It should have been clear at the time, for instance, that the US had no just cause to engage in World War I, and it shouldn’t have required any detailed inside information to make that judgment.  World War II is a more difficult case, and I can understand Christians at the time who thought the US was just to engage.  Vietnam was obviously fought without just cause; so obvious that it’s remarkable to me that Ramsey, writing on just war theory during the Vietnam War, did not see any opportunity for Christians to speak against this failure of ius ad bellum.  

In the age of the War on Terror, this criterion has been deliberately obfuscated.  We are told that we are not dealing with hostile nations anymore, but with hostile groups of individuals who hail from many different nations and derive their support from many different nations, and who are liable to attack us at any moment.  It thus becomes a matter of secret intelligence, rather than visible reality, as to whether our lives are imminently threatened, and if so, by whom.  Christians should know enough to be suspicious about claims made in such murky waters.  But even if we had to withhold judgment, and trust our leaders to do right whenever there was uncertainty (and I can’t see where Christian citizens are called upon to give their leaders such a huge benefit of the doubt), there was still ample basis to call the invasion of Iraq unjust.  For one thing, there was the constantly shifting story as to why we were supposed to attack, with multiple conflicting rationales being thrown around.  This should’ve been an obvious red flag.  If there was a compelling just cause, it should’ve been focused on, to the exclusion of other issues.  

What were some of the reasons given?  1) Saddam was killing innocent Kurds and his own people.  2) It would be beneficial for the nation, and for the region, to have a democratic government.  3) They had harbored and possibly funded Al-Qaeda members at various times, possibly the same ones as had attacked us.  4) They were developing weapons of mass destruction, that they might someday use against us, or give to someone else to use against us.  Let’s cross-examine these.  

What about #1?  Assuming this was happening, and to some extent we would have to take the word of our leaders on this point, though we have a responsibility to look at other sources as well, does that constitute just cause?  Well, just possibly, if you believe that defending other people’s innocents, not merely your own, can be a just cause.  This is a debatable point, but I am inclined to say that it may be in situations where the situation is dire, and the innocent and the murderers are clearly discernable--the only situation like this I can think of off the top of my head is the Rwandan genocides.  90% of the time, though, either the plot is much too thorny to justly and successfully intervene from a distance (both sides are at war and guilty of atrocities), or else the murder and oppression is on too limited a scale to justify invasion and the horrors of war, which would kill at least as many innocents as they would protect (here, the criterion of proportionality comes in).  In Iraq, I think both of these ambiguities were clearly operative, which should have made us deeply skeptical that #1 could constitute just cause.  

#2 doesn’t even make an attempt to satisfy just war criteria, and seems to stem from the school of thought that treats war as “politics by other means”--a useful tool for accomplishing any beneficial purpose, not a means of last resort for preventing mass murder. 

#3 has a vague aura of justice about it, but when you look closely, this aura disappears.  Nowhere in just war theory does it say that anyone who has at any time been friendly to an enemy of yours is a just target for invasion, and I can’t imagine how one could begin to justify such a broad rationale.  Even if it were conclusively shown that Iraq had directly and intentionally aided those who carried out 9/11 attacks, that wouldn’t suffice for just cause, since just cause does not mean retaliation, but protection.  The Bush administration would have had to show that Iraq was currently offering direct and significant support to people who were currently attacking, or imminently planning to attack, innocent Americans.  I don’t even recall them trying to claim this, and even if they had, we would’ve then turned to the criterion of proportionality, and so it’s hard to imagine how such support could have justified a massive invasion.

#4 also has a vague aura of justice, since it makes it look like we’re defending ourselves.  But this strains the notion of pre-emption well beyond the breaking point.  So far as I recall, not even the wildest rhetorical excesses of the lead-up to war tried to show us that they were clearly armed and preparing to attack any day--it was all based on foggy fears about the future.
Now, what are we to make of this?  Of the four criteria, #2 could not possibly comprise a just cause, while #3 and #4, although lying in the general neighborhood of a just cause, could not themselves, as they were presented in the lead-up to the war, comprise just causes.  Only #1 could have, in theory, comprised a just cause, though it seems almost certain to have failed the test of proportionality, and, in any case, would have failed utterly to move public sentiment to war. 
All of this suggests that, leaving out the benefit of hindsight and considering what was publicly known at the time, there was ample cause for the Church to stand up and say, “This appears to be an unjust war; as it stands now, Christians cannot support it.”  This would be no pouty pseudo-pacifist naysaying of the sort Ramsey derides, but an objective, principled, thoroughly defensible stand that could have prevented a great deal of evil.  I would thus suggest that, if we are to revive the just war doctrine, it is both crucial and practicable that we revive, and insist upon to the best of our ability, ius ad bellum, rather than merely trying to referee the brawl after its already started, as Ramsey would have us do.



Two questions.

1. Have you applied your criteria to the Afghanistan war?

2. Did you feel this way about the Iraq war while you were at NSA? If so did you speak publicly about it? If so, what was the general reaction?



May 4, 2010 at 10:56 PM  


Have you read Daniel Bell's new book, _Just War as Christian Discipleship_?

May 5, 2010 at 1:33 AM  

1. Not in writing, but I did think about it a bit as I was writing. It seems to me that, with Afghanistan, the primary argument was that of "harboring terrorists"--terrorists attacked us, and they had planned their attacks from within Afghanistan with the implicit support, or at least the non-intervention, of the Taliban. This, we said, justified our treating the Taliban as an enemy that had to be destroyed. The problem is that this argument only works if the Taliban refused to stop harboring terrorists, and instead gave the appearance of continuing to support the terrorists in any further offensive actions they might take. I don't recall the details of the lead-up to our invasion, but if I remember right, the Taliban weren't really given the option of handing over the terrorists or prosecuting them in order to demonstrate non-aggressive intentions; rather, they were simply declared to be implacable foes who had to be destroyed. Noam Chomsky talks about this in his book 9/11, and I need to double-check what I read there, but I think he made this point--that the Taliban were not even given an ultimatum to hand over terrorists.

2. More or least once I started thinking about it, which wasn't till the latter half of my time there. "Speak publicly about it"? What would that look like? Standing up in Disputatio and saying, "Dr. Atwood, I think the Iraq War was unjust. The school should pass a resolution to that effect."? Actually, as a matter of fact, there was a disputatio on the Iraq War and I was called upon to present, but it was specifically in response to the documentary "No End in Sight" which is more relevant to ius in bello than ius ad bellum; I believe I did point out some of the ius ad bellum issues in passing, and there seemed to be general agreement, or at least receptiveness, to what I was saying. In terms of talking about this stuff among friends, it really depended who you were talking to; I think a majority of people I talked to agreed with me, but that's because we shared a lot of assumptions...certainly some friends of mine (and teachers?) still seemed to want to defend the War on Terror.

No, have you? Tell me about it.

May 5, 2010 at 4:21 PM  

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