Of all the contributions Christian tradition has made to moral discourse regarding public policy and the behavior of nations, perhaps none has enjoyed such influence as the doctrine of the "just war." First articulated by Plato and Aristotle in antiquity, it was later united with a Christian theological worldview in the fifth century by St. Augustine in his magisterial "The City of God."
Augustine developed the theory in part as a response to a pastoral concern: is it ever morally permissible for a Christian to participate directly in armed conflict? For the first three centuries, the official stance of the church had been a nearly unanimous "no." Following the teachings of Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount," virtually all the early church fathers advocated pacifism as the moral standard for the church.
It was therefore a somewhat surprising when Augustine worked out a different position, based in large part on his paradoxical understanding of the human condition. According to that perspective, war could be understood as both the result of, and at times the remedy for, human sin. Augustine's position might be summarized like this (to paraphrase theologian Reinhold Niebhur): Man's inclination to injustice makes war inevitable; but man's inclination to justice makes war at times necessary.
If sin compels human beings to acts of aggression, barbarity, and injustice, human decency may compel us to meet such acts with a countervailing force for justice and peace. For those ends alone, said Augustine, war may at times be required to vindicate justice and therefore considered to be compatible with Christian morality.
Augustine's position reflected the church's new status after Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. Suddenly championed by the world's dominant power, the church was forced to rethink its relation to the political sphere.
The doctrine of just war has persisted as a moral touchstone through all the intervening centuries, a testament to its resilience as an ethical formulation. War has undergone sweeping changes, but nations and statesmen--even where Christianity isn't embraced--still use the theory to frame moral imperatives.
But applying just-war principles to concrete situations rarely, if ever, leads to self-evident conclusions. Criteria developed centuries ago, when war was conducted largely by mercenary forces in hand-to-hand combat, does not translate easily to modern warfare, with its vast array of lethal instruments, weapons of mass destruction, and impersonal war-fighting techniques.
Furthermore, pacifists on the left and so-called "realists" on the right regard the doctrine with suspicion. Christian pacifism pointedly asks whether any principle that justifies violence, especially the conditions of modern warfare, could be consistent with any of the major sacred traditions, let alone the teachings of Jesus.
"Realists," meanwhile, scoff at the very notion that war, as an extension of the political agenda of the state, can be placed under any moral constraint at all. War, once engaged, takes on a life of its own. The only imperative is to achieve victory as quickly and efficiently as possible. This is the logic of "total war," and usually implies that war itself legitimizes the use of any means to accomplish its ends.
Just-war doctrine stubbornly holds the middle ground. It argues that lethal force may at times be morally necessary, but only while observing the strictest tests of moral constraint.
It may be, however, that just war has become too malleable to be the moral center it has been. It has outlived its usefulness, and must be updated to address an entirely different set of historical and political realities like those we currently face in Iraq. A brief review:
Just cause: For nearly two years, members of the Bush Administration have sought to rally support from the American people and our allies for an invasion of Iraq. We have been invited to believe that the principal objective of an invasion will be to disarm a dangerous tyrant; at other times that the chief aim is "regime change"--to oust Saddam Hussein and his government and rid the Middle East of a dangerous leader and rescue the Iraqi people. The United States and its allies could then establish a democratic state in its place that could be a showcase throughout the Arab world.
At other times the president said attacking Iraq is necessary to protect American citizens from further terrorist attacks. (The strategy appears to be working. Though the administration disavows a direct connection between Hussein and the attacks of Sept. 11, The Nation's William Greider cite a recent survey indicating that 42 percent of Americans believe that Hussein was personally responsible for the events of Sept. 11-a truly Orwellian manipulation of public opinion).
All of the goals cited above are worthy, and based on the definition of just cause. But every so often we glimpse less idealistic motives that cannot be justified under the traditional conditions of a just cause. There are, for example, the motives hinted at in the vision of the so-called "New American Century Project," which argued that the United States should establish hegemony as the only legitimate superpower. In this scenario, Iraq is but the first act of a larger drama, a demonstration project.
A last resort: President Bush has repeatedly assured the American people and the world that the United States will attack Iraq only as a "last resort"--another device meant to place a war within a just-war framework. It's more accurate to say that the United States has been at war with Iraq since 1991. We've maintained "no-fly zones," bombed air-defense systems and levied economic sanctions that have severely deprived the country of resources, food, and medical supplies.
The present campaign began with a belligerent case for aggressive action against Iraq, if necessary by unilateral action by the United States. It's not quite plausible to claim at this point that this war is a measure of last resort.
A legitimate authority: Just-war doctrine was compatible with the emergence in the 17th and 18th centuries of independent nation-states and the development of ideas about national sovereignty. But the tragic events of the 20th century brought about a reevaluation of nationalistic excesses. When the United States took a strong role in the creation of the United Nations, one of our stated reasons was to outlaw the very thing the United States now purposes to undertake in Iraq-a military attack by one sovereign nation upon another.
Some opposed to the war have pointed out that the Constitution provides that war may only be declared legitimately by the American legislature. (A provision overlooked since 1945.) Perhaps it's time to reiterate the challenge to national sovereignty that was implied by the charter of the United Nations. Considering the lethality of modern weaponry, we dare no longer let legitimate authority to wage war remain a prerogative of independent states. Legitimate authority ought to rest in a forum where nations can decide to act in concert. In a volatile world like ours, sovereign nations ought not act without the authority of a genuine international coalition.
The principle of proportionality: We can accept at face value the decency of the stated aims for armed conflict against Iraq. The problem arises not in the good that may be accomplished, but in the second part of the principle, the "evil of the means by which they are to be achieved."
A significant corollary of the principle of proportionality concerns the distinction between combatants and non-combatants. This condition may have had more force in earlier times, when combatants were forced to confront one another on discrete fields of engagement. Modern warfare pays scant attention to such distinctions, and technology has so increased the level of lethality that few escape the consequences. By the end of the Second World War the Allies initiated terrifying bombing raids upon cities like Dresden and Hiroshima without any pretense that these were "military targets." These were attacks upon civilian populations--similar to earlier attacks by the German Luftwaffe--with no further purpose than to create havoc and a demoralized civilian population. They were, in other words, state-sponsored acts of terrorism. The Christmas bombing of Hanoi and other North Vietnamese cities during the Vietnam War served a similar purpose.
If we're to believe recent Pentagon "leaks," the first 48 hours of a war on Iraq will bring a rain of fire-power upon Baghdad such as the world has never seen. War planners say 300 precision guided missiles will be launched in the first two days alone, intended to induce first "awe, then shock." The Air Force recently tested the largest non-nuclear device ever produced-a 21,000-pound Massive Ordnance Air Blast-that by all accounts was truly terrifying, and which was immediately and sardonically dubbed the "mother of all bombs." Presumably that too will be part of the arsenal intended to "awe, then shock."
Much has been made of precision-guided missiles (or PGM's)--an advance that enables us once again to make clear distinctions between combatants and non-combatants. In the face of the overwhelming firestorm we are threatening to unleash during the first several hours of war, the claims for the humanitarian advangtages of PGMs strain credulity. When used, at any rate, PGM's only enable our military to take out with great accuracy electrical grid, communication systems, transportation networks, water treatment plants, and medical facilities--such capacities upon which all civilian life depends.
In the end, just war is a set of guidelines, abstractions intended to provide moral conviction about an issue whose gravity can never be underestimated. In most cases, it is called into service to fortify basic positions that have already been arrived at by other criteria altogether. Both proponents and opponents of an invasion of Iraq draw freely upon the tradition of the just war doctrine to bolster their arguments.
War, on the other hand, and its powerful destructive forces ought never to be treated as a mere abstraction. Once we lose sight of the real consequences to real men and women and children, we have moved beyond the world we can cherish and slip into one in which it is all too easy to collude in the bringing upon ourselves and upon others a hell on earth.
President Bush's worldview tends to identify America as an innocent victim, the embodiment of goodness and decency in an otherwise cynical and jaded world. He speaks confidently about an "axis of evil," that he can identify, and of "evil-doers" who surround us. I hear him urging us to undertake, not a just war, but something more akin to a crusade, a holy war in which the forces of goodness and decency will finally triumph over the forces of evil and be vindicated. For a self-proclaimed Christian, his views reflect a Manichaean doctrine that sixteen centuries ago St. Augustine sought to expose for the dangerous heresy and threat to authentic Christian belief that it is. In such moments I feel far more at home with the simple utterance of another former president, Thomas Jefferson: "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just."