Just-War Illusions

Shrouding Brutalities with Theological Euphemisms
In the early weeks of September 2013, when it appeared likely that the United States would launch missile strikes on Syria in retaliation for its use of chemical weapons against civilians, Commonweal published two opinion pieces responding to the Obama administration’s case for going to war. George Hunsinger rejected U.S. bombing on the grounds that it would fail to satisfy classical “just war” criteria; Commonweal editor Paul Baumann, in a dissent from the magazine’s editorial position, supported strikes by appealing to the same principles. We are now faced with a discomforting reality that should cause us to critically examine not the validity of the arguments presented by both writers so much as the stage on which those arguments played out: the just-war tradition itself as it has come to be understood by many Christians in debates about U.S. foreign policy.
Ultimately, it was not the just-war debate, nor any refined moral calculus in the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas or Hugo Grotius, that determined the actual course of U.S. policy. It was, rather, self-interested maneuverings on all sides and particularly by Russia that simultaneously extricated Obama from the political corner he had boxed himself into, elevated Russian President Vladimir Putin’s status as a diplomatic power broker, and rescued Bashar al-Assad from a significant military blow, even as his regime continues to commit war crimes and atrocities. In this light both Hunsinger’s and Baumann’s arguments from the just-war tradition have a somewhat surreal quality. Taken together, their articles leave us with the impression that policy-makers are actually listening to what Christian moral theorists have to say—and that standard just-war language is the only language left to the church in the face of violence. 
But this is not the case. One option that went unconsidered in Commonweal (although Hunsinger’s article came closest to it) is a stance sometimes referred to as “just-war pacifism.” Just-war pacifists may or may not be “absolute pacifists”; their position does not require that they deny the legitimacy of force in extreme scenarios. Nor do they hold any great optimism regarding our ability to end all wars or sway political outcomes through marches and petitions. Rather, the just-war pacifist begins with a thoroughly realist assumption—that foreign policy is seldom if ever guided by rigorous just-war precepts. It is difficult to imagine what a U.S. foreign policy and military posture guided by just-war principles would look like, so stringent is the tradition. Widespread inability among “Christian realists” to discern the tension, if not outright contradiction, between “realism” and just-war criteria is itself a deadly brand of idealism.  
A realistic assessment of U.S. foreign policy since World War II would speak, for example, not of the Niebuhrian “irony” involved in the exercise of U.S. power, but rather of our persistent use of violence in pursuit of “the national interest”—what Martin Luther King Jr. soberly described during the Vietnam era as “the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments.” Realism demands that we pay close attention to the sheer power interests, often cloaked in idealistic rhetoric, underlying the Pentagon’s estimated nine hundred military bases and installations in every corner of the globe, our staggering military budgets, and events such as Washington’s installation of dictators in countries like Greece, Vietnam, Guatemala, and Iran in the 1950s; its overthrow of democratically elected leaders in Chile and Brazil in the 1960s; its relentless “pacification” campaign in Indochina and “secret” carpet-bombing of Laos and Cambodia in the 1960s and ’70s; its “green light” for Indonesia’s genocidal invasion and occupation of Catholic-majority East Timor in the ’70s; its sponsoring of right-wing death squads in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador to prop up corrupt oligarchies (even as they murdered priests and nuns calling for justice for the poor) from the ’50s through the ’80s; its channeling of billions of dollars of military aid to Turkey and Colombia as they escalated atrocities against their own populations in the ’90s; and the invasions, renditions, torture, and assassinations of our new surveillance state in the “war on terror” since 2001.
To say that these facts are not aberrations but windows into the nature of U.S. power is not to say that the policy-makers responsible for them have always been motivated by self-consciously Machiavellian considerations. The just-war pacifist is less interested in the personal psychology of leaders than in the institutional constraints, the systemic forces, and the structural pressures under which they operate—pressures that often blind individuals to their own roles within vast complexes of unjustified privilege, violence, and war or threat of war. The president is as incapable of fundamentally altering the character of the empire as the well-meaning CEO of an oil company is capable of turning the corporation—through token philanthropy and gestures of social consciousness, welcome though these may be—into something other than a competitive, extractive, self-interested, and profit-maximizing system.
The just-war pacifist is also keenly aware that even on those rare occasions when the “national interest” happens to coincide with the global common good, humans are unable to contain, control, or foresee the results of the violence they unleash. Many of the wars the United States has waged in the name of “just cause” have ended in crimes against humanity, from the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo to the free-fire zones of Vietnam. Allegedly “limited” and “proportionate” uses of violence have often led to even greater violence, sometimes decades later, in the form of “blowback.” An unsentimental view of history should lead us to a deeper questioning of our moral passivity and complicity in violence—not to shrouding these brutalities of the nation-state in theological or philosophical euphemisms.
ACCORDING TO JAMES FREDERICKS (“American Innocence: Niebuhr and the Ironies of History,” January 24), Obama’s tactics in the “war on terror” reveal “the self-conscious, existential irony of a man who knows he must act in history.”
The existential irony of Obama’s policies may be lost on the families of the Yemeni civilians who, according to an October report by Human Rights Watch, were killed “indiscriminately in clear violation of the laws of war” by U.S. drones—just a few of the likely hundreds of innocent persons executed in distant lands, and under a veil of secrecy, since Obama took office. Realism requires that we name these facts for what they are: not “tragedies” but atrocities, ones that would immediately be recognized as such if the missiles were landing in American towns and cities. As Hans Morgenthau wrote in 1966, when scholars enter the realm of politics, they abdicate their role as seekers of truth and come to serve as apologists for power, but the “genuine intellectual tells the world what it doesn’t want to hear” and “speaks, in the biblical sense, truth to power”—a view that predictably earned Morgenthau vicious attacks from the Johnson administration. Power, realism tells us, always protects itself.
Finally, just-war pacifists in the Christian tradition remember that in a world of violence and war, the church’s primary calling remains that of modeling a radically different kind of action, and of community. Inevitably in the discussion of how to respond to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons and its other crimes against humanity, the question arises: “What should we do if not strikes?” Such questions assume a very particular “we”—a “we” that possesses all the tools of violence and must decide when and how to use them. They invite us to imagine ourselves equipped with missiles and drones, and to work out our ethics from the position of the state’s monopoly on violence. Yet to ask “What should we drone operators do?” or “What should Obama do?”—or even “What should we Americans do?”—is not the same as asking “What should we members of the Body of Christ do?” The irony of “Christian realism” is the tragedy of misplaced pronouns.
The church, as Stanley Hauerwas reminds us, does not have a foreign policy or a politics; rather, the church is a politics, confronting the harsh realities of war as an alternative, even subversive presence in the midst of every society and every political order in which it finds itself. Christians must think and act accordingly, bearing creative witness to the New Testament story of Christ’s victory over the structures of violence—the “principalities and powers”—and we must do so with absolute realism about the nature of power and violence in the world in which we live. We must strive to create alternative social spaces that meet concrete human needs and transcend all national, ideological, and political differences. We must devote our energies to providing care for—and advocating on behalf of—the weakest and most vulnerable members of society, including refugees and other victims of wars without regard for what side they are on. And we must steadfastly refrain from participating in the violence of the nation-state—even for the sake of noble ideals. If we do on occasion speak in the language of “just war,” it can never be our native tongue.
The civil war in Syria has significantly worsened over the past three months, even as it has largely vanished from public discussion in the United States. While the destruction of Assad’s chemical weapons under international supervision moves forward, his forces continue to launch indiscriminate attacks on civilians with impunity, using relatively primitive techniques such as “barrel bombs”—explosive-filled drums, rolled out of helicopters—that on December 15 killed an estimated eighty people (including twenty-eight children) in Aleppo. According to rights organizations, opposition groups, many of them radical Islamists, are also committing escalating atrocities, including kidnappings, executions, bombings, and shootings, that rise to the level of crimes against humanity. 
The UN foresees that more than three-quarters of the Syrian population will need humanitarian assistance in 2014 and has issued a $6.5-billion aid appeal, the largest in the organization’s history. Yet with over 2 million Syrian war refugees to date—a number that could double this year—the Washington Post reports that as of last September, the Obama administration had permitted only ninety of them to settle in the United States. It is evidently far easier for our elected officials to consider bombing a country for the greater good of humanity than to welcome foreigners whose homes have been bombed. Under these circumstances, there is much that the church and individual believers can do, and must do, to work for peace.

About the Author

Ronald E. Osborn is an adjunct professor of international relations at the University of Southern California. He is the author of Anarchy and Apocalypse: Essays on Faith, Violence and Theodicy (Cascade Books), and Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (IVP Academic).



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Surprise ,surprise,we won't admit refugees.Of course not because as Sara Palin has said "let Allah sort it out". Nobody cares avbout the atrocities ,the war crimes being committed in syria. To be honest ,it is worse then not caring;people; are complicit  with a holocaust of muslim arabs. That is why the left and the right could care less about the Assad's regimes' ,backed by russia and iran ,systematic ethnic cleansing of men ,women and children, People are indifferent and turning a blind eye and ear,to systematic torture ,chemical weapons,horrific bombings  and starvation of men ,women and children.A week into the uprisings ,I knew we, any one, had a moral obligation to topple this Assad regime .Instead after the countless images of horrific violence against civilians ,all the people here say is that the rebels are also bad guys. As if that is saying anything other then you want to sit by as men ,women and children get burtually horrible killed by a regime we ourselves once called part of the axis of evil.Yes atrocites are committed by the rebels.They too can and should be brought to justice . It does not follow that because there is evil on both sides, we should not stop the Assad's regime systematic campaign of mass murder against sunni arabs or anyone who tries to topple this dictatorship.Once the rug was pulled out from under us, and the people themselves [unlike iraq] really did rise up to topple it, all of a sudden this" axis of evil" was deemed preferable to the bad guys that may follow it.God knows our hearts and God know that our refusal to stop this holocaust is malicious.My fathers father was from Aleppo syria,a christian.If christians are siding with a brutal regime because "he's good to christians" ,that is not a moral argument any more. Maybe it was in the past, prior to the people rising up to topple this dictator. Yes ,we don't know what would follow if he's toppled. That too is no argument fo sitting by and allowing a holocaust of people ,no matter what label you put on them.We can deal with what follows,post Assad, Mankind is us now and now today a holcoaust  is taking place, a horrific holocaust, and still the left, the right say "let Allah sort it out" like that's funny.And they call themselves christian! It's too upsetting to talk about, to think about after the images.Anyone with a conscience is shot down for being  a war monger or reacting emotionally,not rationally.When of couse it is this sudden appeal to "reason" [an inauthentic appeal] concerning an ongoing holocaust by a miltary dictatoship  that  is not rational.It goes to show that after all the self congratulatory rhetoric around "never again", documents professing  our, the world's   "'responsibility to protect" that purports to shows us to be more moral in this centiury then in the past, when it comes to people we hate, a holocaust is still fine with us.

And an irony in all this, a political irony,is that these" bad guys jihadis" ,there to help the syrians topple Assad, had we, the US,NATO any western power, come to the aid of the people who rose up against this dictatoship,and used air power to help topple the regime, had that happened, these  jihadis ,we label anti westem religious fanatics,would have seen ,would have been forced to recognize that when we say we're not against muslims,we meant it. Instead what they  see is the opposite, that a holocaust by a regime we ourleves demonized prior to the people rising up against, it , is acceptable, tolerated and apparantly welcomedby the west.The narrative here is that they're all fundamentalists ,but I do not buy that. These jihadists are, like our military , most likely comprised of different degrees of religous even political ideologies.They call themselves jihadis because they are fighting regimes who oppress  majority  muslim identified people.Our reluctance to intervene does look like a desire to make enemies of muslims;to create jihadis so we can then kill them or have brutal dictators kill them  or subjugate them,I believe it was not an oversight, not inadvertant that we in the beginning of the uprising ,did allow Assad to engage in violent  crackdows right off the bat .We knew very well how brutal this regime has been all along towards dissidents.We ourselves rendered people there for torture.That we now are so eager to say,and say it every time,  that well perhaps we made a mistake in not going in  inintially but lo and behold the really bad guys are there now ,so we can't go and side with them,they're alwada after all;looks like protesting too much.It's  a red flag that expresses [IMO] our bad faith all along; our desire to allow even see a holocaust of muslims.

One more thing; like Bob Dylan says;lies that life is black and white.These middle eastern Christians,who side with dictators and brutality towards Muslims by these dictators,and who have the full solidarity of the west behind them, they are deluding themselves that they're values are western values.Yes right now the west is expressing solidarity with them against Muslims ,however if there is accountability anytime in the future, their complicity,their support of tryanical horrific regimes like Assad's will not be something to be proud of. When the dust settles, God willing soon.

The Obama Administration bungled the situation in Syria from the beginning. The conflict started out as a peaceful political movement for free an fair elections in Syria with Sunni Muslims, secularists, many Christians and even Alawite Muslims joining together. It was time then to put pressure on Assad to gradually release his grip on power and transition to a more representative government. We failed to do so. Militarily, now, there are no good options in Syria. Airstrikes are not likely to stop the fighting, only perhaps switching the advantage from the Assad forces to the rebels, or at least leveling the field. The fighting would go on,probably more intensely, with more and more civilian casualties, now on both sides. It would require an Iraq-like invasion and occupation to try to keep the two sides apart and to try to form that unity, representative government that was the original aim. And even that would be a wildly optimistic outcome. Americans will not support another Iraq-like invasion and occupation, and, perhaps thankfully, will not for decades to come. However, there is no excuse for not allowing more legitimate entry to this country for asylum seekers from the Syrian conflict.


I'm sorry but there is no such thing as a 'just-war pacifist'. In fact there is no such thing as a 'just war'. Have you ever participated in a just war? I don't think any combatant would ever call a war 'just'.

So what then is the Catholic/Christian response to war?

Well, in brief:

- Start with 'If you want peace then work for justice’ (Pope Paul VI). I.E. do all you can to prevent war and the circumstances that lead to war like poverty and injustice.

 - Then actively resist all aggression with non-violence. Do whatever you can, but always without violence.

 - Finally, if all else fails be prepared to die a martyr for your faith, since our faith states - 'If someone strikes you on the one cheek then turn the other’, and 'love your enemies and do good to those who hate you'.

 - Remember, as a Church we have achieved far more through the blood of our martyrs than we have through the blood of our enemies. 

 - Ultimately, trust in God that if you do the right thing His grace will prevail.

 - I realize that this is radical, but then this is our faith.


It's hard to live our faith if you are invested in your country, or even in your own security. Jesus touched on this (see Luke below). Because these 'things’ will impact your decisions and overrule your faith in tough situations such as when facing violence. (Luke 14:26.  "If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”)

Non-violence will not make sense to you unless your faith in God is the most important thing in your life. Faith as in being prepared to die for your faith. Nothing in the Gospels justifies killing someone. Nothing.  (Corinthians 1:23.  “ but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block ... and foolishness”).

The introduction of the just war theory into Catholic theology by Augustine and others was the slippery slope that resulted in the church condoning and even participating in countless wars and massacres.  The moment we said that there were circumstances that could justify us killing other people, the flood of murders ensued. Perhaps non-violence seems impractical and naïve. You could even call it ridiculous and absurd. But hey, have you read the Gospels?


I, for one, did not support intervening in Syria and I generlly do not support the United States getting involved in fights all around the globe. I would even describe myself as a sort of isolationistBut I do have a few problems with the absolute pacifist position. One would be the problem of "dirty hands."

Alasdair MAcIntyre described in one essay the situation the Quakers found themselves in in Pennsylvania. The Quakers believed in an absolute pacifist position and, to their credit, they really did practice what they preached. But their outer settlements were being raided by hostile Native Americans, and as the government responsible for these people's livelihoods, the Quaker leaders could not in good conscience simply sit back and do nothing. So they hired mercenaries to do the fighting for them, keeping their hands clean by dirtying someone else's.

And that's the problem with the absolute pacifist position. Its political irrelevancy means that its' adherents (while I do not doubt their sincerity) can do nothing to make the world a better place or prevent conflict around the globe. All they can hope to do is keep their own hands clean.

I don't hold out hope that our leaders in America will hold to the Just War tradition. Nevertheless, it would be possible for them to do so, and one can imagine what a foreign policy based on the Just War tradition would look like. This makes the Just War tradition be a useful tool for critiquing our military in both the wars it chooses to fight and the way those wars are executed. The absolute pacifist position does not work in this way. It is impossible to concieve of a country actually making absolute pacifism its guiding light in foriegn policy. As much as I hate to say it- because it is a rather condescending thing to say- the position is totally irrelevant to the workings of the real world.

Though on the other hand, absolute pacifism can be relevant to other things. Of course it is wonderful if one practices it in their personal life, and it has served as a guiding light for activists. I don't want to come across as too dismissive.

It has no place in foreign policy, though, because it would be immoral for a government to ignore its repsonsibility to protect its own citizens.

Thank you for your thoughts Warren. I feel compelled to respond to explain a bit further.

I would agree with you that pacifism alone has its problems, and that the 'dirty hands' approach to pacifism is especially shallow and tactless. However I was taking about a comprehensive Christian response, as I listed above (working for justice, alleviating poverty, actively doing non-violent resistance, and directly responding to aggression in a passive way, even to the point of death if necessary), not just the avoidance of personally inflecting violence.

I would also agree that the Gospels do not make much sense when trying to apply it to current political concepts such as foreign policies and the responsibility of the government to defend its citizens. Our modern world is a long way away from the Gospel. (I only wonder what 'modern politics' would look like if the church had stuck to its foundations and not promoted, for over 1500 years, a society that has warfare as an essential ingredient of its makeup.) So if you are a politician or involved in government, then good luck my friend.  But as a Christian we should at least make a start to move the world towards a more Gospel centric society, and the only way to do this is by us living it and thereby demonstrating its potential. I don’t think that Jesus was joking. After all, His world is, in fact, the *real* world, and His ways work.

In essence this is all about allegiance. If our primary allegiance is to our country, or our career, or our political party, or our principles or money or status or security or even our family, and our allegiance to our faith is consequently secondary, then the Gospels are never going to make much sense. And any attempt at applying the Gospel to our lives, or our society, will be frustrating and result (if we are honest) in bitter tasting compromises. I know from experience.


We have to turn this all on its head and make our faith our primary context. I guess that this is what “You cannot serve two masters’ and Luke 14:26 is all about. Only then can we start to address questions like - How should we respond to situations like Syria? How should we vote? What is our role in society? Etc. Things look very different from a faith perspective.

As I recall discussion of St. Augustine's formulation of just war principles, he was under no illusion that this would stop wars. Rather, he put forward principles that in some cases might stop the beginning of a war, but most of all principles that would guide the conduct of war, that would keep it from being so harmful and destructive, especially upon civilians. That is all there really is to it. The task of Christians is to raise warning flags in any case of possibly going to war, and to critique methods and result throughout war. It operates as a slight brake in history, nothing more than that. Nor would any country, including our own, ever pay more than lip service to just war theory, and only when it fit the larger purposes of that country. This is Christian realism; the pacifists have always had a strong case.

Kenneth, I would agree with your comments regarding St. Augustine's intensions with his just war theory, but I disagree with his belief that this is in fact the role of Christians. I think that the introduction of the just war theory into Christian theology was a grave mistake and has lead to us Christians being, at best, (to use your words) "a slight brake in history, nothing more than that" when it comes to our response to war. 

We are actually called to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth, to transform society for the betterment of all. The just war theory has not really helped - in fact it has hindered us.

You are also correct in saying that no country takes the just war theory seriously, especially when 'things' precious to it are at stake. Nevertheless we are still called by God to live out our faith. How sad if we are to go down in history as nothing more than a 'slight brake'.


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