Can War Be Just in the 21st Century? Ethicists Engage the Tradition

Winright, Tobias and Laurie Johnston, eds. Can War Be Just in the 21st Century? Ethicists Engage the Tradition. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2015. 201 pp. $36.00, paper.

In debates about Christian engagement in war, the Just War Tradition (JWT) is the majority opinion in church history, a status which distinguishes it from other traditions such as pacifism, realism and cosmopolitanism. The JWT also provides much of the ethical background for international law. However, this status as the majority position is deceptive for several reasons. There is no definitive description of the JWT. There are almost as many variants as there are theorists who have written about them. There is broad consensus regarding various criteria of the tradition such as “last resort,” “self-defense,” and “civilian immunity.” However without the context of a historical or potential conflict, these criteria do not have much meaning. When theorists attempt to apply the criteria of the JWT to a potential conflict or analyze a conflict from history through the lens of the JWT they often disagree. Moreover, most denominations have not explicitly endorsed the JWT in their confessional documents. Many of their adherents choose from among the alternative traditions mentioned above.

The task for those in the Presbyterian tradition is made a little easier by the Westminster Standards. The WCF in chapter 23 says, “It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate, when called thereunto: the managing whereof, as they ought especially to maintain piety, justice, and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each commonwealth; so, for that end, they may lawfully, now under the new testament, wage war, upon just and necessary occasion.” This would seem to preclude strict pacifism but leaves the door open for realism and cosmopolitanism. Even if one reads this passage as an endorsement of the JWT, the confession does not define the tradition or mention any of its criteria.

For Roman Catholics the ethics of war are even more muddled. Ambrose, Augustine, Aquinas, Vitoria, and Suarez are just a few of the “giants” of the JWT. However, since Pope John XXII issued the encyclical “Pacem in Terris” and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued “The Challenge of Peace” many Roman Catholics have embraced pacifism as an ethic more consistent with the Church’s early history and the Gospels.

In the introduction to Can War Be Just in the 21st Century, Tobias Winright suggests why the majority status of the JWT might be deceptive. Although most Christians have identified with the tradition, they tend to be realists in practice, more informed by Machiavelli than by Augustine when determining when it is right for their nation to go to war. This collection of essays is geared towards Roman Catholics who, while claiming to adhere to the JWT, are actually Machiavellian Realists. The authors argue for a “stricter” JWT that only reluctantly justifies a war. They share a skepticism towards war that lead this reviewer to consider them “practical pacifists,” a charge explicitly denied by the editors in the introduction. “Practical pacifists” use the JWT to come to the practical conclusion that no war can possibly be justified. They will often argue that there has never been a just war fought in all of human history. In other words, they use the just war tradition to argue for pacifism. They will not concede absolute pacifism because they can conceive of some scenario where lethal force should be used by a nation state and can conceive of a way that such a war might be fought in a moral way. However, the presumption for the authors of these essays is against war. As Winright writes, “A burden of proof rests upon those attempting to justify war and the taking of human lives” (p. xxi).

This book is of interest to Presbyterians for at least a couple of reasons. First, much of the “heavy lifting” in the JWT has been done by Roman Catholics. While much of the evangelical world has been influenced by the neo-Anabaptist movement as exemplified by the faculty at Duke Divinity School, Roman Catholics have been left to defend and apply the JWT to current conflicts. (There are of course some very prominent Protestant exceptions to this tendency, including Paul Ramsey and Jean Bethke Elshtain.) This book represents something of melding between Protestant pacifism and Roman Catholic just war theory and it requires a thoughtful response from Protestant advocates of the JWT. In this review I will summarize each essay in this collection and identify its strengths and weaknesses. In my conclusion, I will provide a general assessment of the collection as a whole.

The first essay comes from Lisa Sowle Cahill, whose book Love Your Enemies: Discipleship, Pacifism, and Just War Theory re-examined the importance of motive for Christian ethics. Here Cahill again stresses the importance of love as a motivating factor. Specifically she explores how two prominent figures in the JWT, Augustine and Aquinas, dealt with the problem of how a Christian can participate in war and at the same time be motivated by love for others. She faults Augustine for failing to answer the question, “how can killing somebody be considered an act of love towards them?” According to Cahill, Aquinas dealt with the problem in several ways. First, he argued that not every Christian must be motivated by love at all times. Hence war could be a permitted activity for political leaders and soldiers, but not for priests who must be motivated by love. Second, Aquinas argued for what would become known as “the principle of double effect,” saying that one action can have two different motives and the action can be judged morally good if the primary motive is virtuous. Finally, Aquinas argued that a wide variety of virtues can inform any given action. Justice and the preservation of order can be motives in addition to love. Cahill tries to find a solution for the tension between love and war by advocating for a renewed emphasis upon jus post bellum concerns. In other words, Christians should focus upon peacebuilding efforts that create just and peaceful societies, and when they go to war they must develop plans to build such societies where they do not exist. Most Christians will agree with Cahill that motive is important and that Christians should be motivated by love. And certainly many of the discussions based upon jus post bellum criteria are worthwhile. The weakness of her argument lies in the ultimate object of the Christian’s love and the proper definition of love. As she points out, Augustine believed that love of God is the summum bonum. Yet her focus lies entirely on the issue of how Christians should love other people. It would be interesting for Christians to consider how their participation or non-participation in an act of war might be either an expression or violation of love for God. Cahill also seems to conflate the virtues of love with other virtues such as gentleness and kindness. Even extreme acts such as killing can be considered acts of love.

The next two essays deal with the moral use of three types of modern weapons: drones, robots, and cluster munitions. Brian Stiltner argues that American use of drones and robots has not lived up to the standards of the JWT, while Tobias Winright makes the same claim about cluster munitions. Stiltner argues that the American use of drones and robots violates the criteria of discrimination (non-combatant immunity) and proportionality (doing more overall good than harm). He does not compare civilian death rates from drones and robots with civilian death rates from other types of weapons, and so his first claim is difficult to verify. Similarly, Stiltner relies upon conjecture to hypothesize that the United States might be creating more terrorists than they are killing with drones. The strength of this essay lies in the application of jus ad bellum criteria to drones and robots. Stiltner raises the question of whether drones have made it too easy for well-equipped nations to make war so that it is no longer a “last resort.” He also brings up the problem of “legitimate authority” when drones are used in nations with which we are not at war. Finally, he argues that as weapons become more autonomous we should wrestle with the problem of removing the human equation from moral decision making in war. Winright’s essay on cluster munitions relies upon careful analysis of how these weapons work in war. His most important claim is that around 98% of casualties inflicted by cluster munitions are civilian, owing to the high number of “dud” bomblets, the design of the bomblets (which can look like toys or cans of soda), and the length of time a dud remains a threat. Defenders of cluster munitions point to the fact that their intended use is not to kill civilians and so the doctrine of double effect justifies their continued use. It seems that many of the legitimate concerns Winright and others have about cluster munitions could be addressed through technological improvement of these weapon systems. Better self-destruct mechanisms for duds can be developed, the design of the bomblets could be changed to indicate their lethal nature, and after the conflict more efforts to clean up dangerous areas can be made. Winright argues that all nations should sign onto the convention banning cluster munitions. However, The United States has suspended the use of cluster munitions pending technological improvements which will reduce civilian casualties. Given their effectiveness against military targets it seems that this is a feasible moral choice as well.

The next two essays in the book deal with the problems of humanitarian intervention and secession. Both of these cases often involve smaller and weaker states and the authors reflect a belief that at times military action is the only way to help a weaker state. Kenneth Himes’s article on humanitarian intervention begins with an examination of Catholic social teaching on the purpose of the state. A state becomes “self-defeating” if it grossly fails to accomplish its purpose of “protecting and promoting the common good.” thus losing its claim to internal sovereignty. Other nations then have a duty to interfere with that state to correct the gross violations of the common good. Himes reaches back to Augustine’s definition of peace in order to support his claim. Peace is not simply the absence of violence but positively is a well-ordered society. If one views peace simply as a lack of violence, then a war for peace could never make sense. However, if peace is a well-ordered society, then war can lead to peace if it meets other criteria from the JWT. The weakest part of the essay is his analysis of “reasonable prospect of success.” Given the uncertainty inherent in humanitarian intervention, calculating the likelihood of success seems an impossible task that will lead to non-intervention. Calculating the probability of various outcomes is extremely difficult, and Himes does not provide any methodology for making such a calculation. Himes, also does not address other criteria from the JWT that seem to be at odds with humanitarian intervention such as “self-defense” and “last resort.”

Gerard Powers addresses the problems of self-determination, secession and revolution, and the use of military force. His thesis is that “forceful secession is harder to justify than self-defense by an existing state against aggression but easier to justify than forceful revolution” (p. 79). He views secession as an “exceptional remedy” rather than a right and takes a cosmopolitan approach to the problem. The Vatican has come under criticism for taking inconsistent approaches to civil wars in various conflicts, and Powers attempts to show how these stances are based upon consistent principles rather than parochial self-interest. The Vatican has seemed quick to advocate the right of secession when Catholic rights are being suppressed as in the former Yugoslavia but hesitant when the rights of other minorities such as Muslims in the Philippines are at risk. Powers makes the case that the Vatican has consistently tried to advocate for just societies with the least amount of military force necessary. Powers does an excellent job drawing from cosmopolitanism and international law to address a problem that does not feature as prominently in the JWT. However, he leaves unanswered the question of the rights and obligations of the state that is facing the threat of secession and his discussion on the morality of intervention on behalf of secession lacked detail.

Anna Scheid argues in her essay that the act of torture can never be morally justified. She first makes the case that what officials in the United States government have called “enhanced interrogation” is actually torture and thus illegal. She then spends the bulk of her essay addressing the “ticking time-bomb scenario” (TTB) popularized by Michael Walzer. In this hypothetical situation, law enforcement officials have a suspect in custody who knows the location of a bomb set to detonate and kill many civilians. The suspect refuses to cooperate. There are three typical reactions to the TTB. Alan Dershowitz argued that it illustrates the need to legalize and regulate torture so that its use is very limited and conducted under legal scrutiny. Other ethicists such as Scott Paeth and Darrell Cole argue that torture should still be illegal, but that the moral response of the law enforcement officer is to disobey the law and torture the suspect. Scheid makes her case that torture is always immoral and should always be illegal with two arguments. There are problems, she notes, in the TTB that make it a poor framework for analyzing the morality of torture. It stacks the deck in favor of torture, it describes something that is so unlikely to occur that it becomes meaningless, and it presumes that torture will actually work. She goes on to argue that torture cannot be permitted under the JWT because it violates the principles of right intention and discrimination. The goal of war is the establishment of rightly ordered societies. Scheid suggests that torture makes reconciliation and a peaceful end to the war less likely and actually serves to harden attitudes against those who employ torture. Discrimination has typically been extended to include prisoners of war, which is why international law provides blanket prohibitions on torture with no exceptions for TTB scenarios. There are a couple of gaps that stand out in Scheid’s essay. First she does not deal with the assertion by the U.S. government that captured suspected terrorists are not prisoners of war, but rather should be classified as “enemy combatants.” One wishes that Scheid addressed whether or not this classification is valid and how it bears upon how such detainees should be treated. Second, Scheid does not deal with the problem of torture in history. Augustine defended the use of torture (City of God, xix:6) and Aquinas never addressed the issue even though torture was widely practiced by secular and religious authorities in his day. Scheid assumes a consensus against the use of torture in the JWT that does not seem to bear out in historical terms. (There does seem to be broader consensus within international law, however.)

Laurie Johnston argues that the environmental effects of war and war preparations must be considered under the JWT criterion of proportionality. That is to say, the good produced by the war and the harm prevented by the war must outweigh the environmental damage caused by the war. Her argument flows from Catholic social teaching on the environment which gives it both intrinsic and utilitarian value. She argues that moral decisions will be informed by the virtues of humility and solidarity which remind humans that the environment does not exist merely for human exploitation. I would add that Christians have an interest in protecting the environment because of the value that God places upon it and the fact that creation brings glory to God. Interestingly, Johnston is the only contributor to substantially use Scripture texts such as Deut 20:19-20, to make her case. Johnston does not reason that modern warfare causes so much environmental degradation as to make it intrinsically unjust. However she does argue that considering environmental proportionality will make the case for moral war more difficult. Johnston acknowledges that calculating potential and preventable environmental damage is a very difficult task. It is already difficult to make simpler calculations such as human deaths. A weakness in the essay is the lack of guidance as to how such calculations might be made.

Rachel Winter argues in her essay that nuclear testing and the policy of deterrence are morally unacceptable preparations for war based on the criteria of right authority, proportionality, and discrimination. The Bikini Atoll testing site is her case study. Of all the essays in this collection, hers is the weakest. For instance she claims that the criterion of right authority was violated by nuclear testing because there was disagreement between military and civilian scientists on the necessity of the testing. However, she provides no evidence that the legitimate civilian authorities in the executive branch of the government ceded control over the military to its generals during the Bikini Atoll tests. The JWT does not require the handing over of military preparedness to unelected civilian scientists. While government officials would be wise to seek good advice from a variety of sources, ultimately the decisions about defense reside with government officials. In the United States, preparation for war especially is the duty of the Executive Branch. Winter also claims that the damage caused by nuclear testing is not proportional to the good achieved.There are two glaring gaps in her argument. First she does not provide concrete statistics. She claims the residents of Bikini suffered from starvation, cancer, and other affects from radiation exposure. But she does not offer any specific numbers. How many people died as a result of the testing? How many people suffered health consequences? Surely if one is going to calculate proportionality specific numbers should be taken into account. Second she asserts that the good achieved was outweighed by the suffering of the indigenous people of Bikini Atoll. Proponents of testing and deterrence would argue that the good achieved was the avoidance of nuclear war which surely outweighs the unfortunate collateral damage suffered on the Marshall Islands. Winter claims deterrence has failed because the world is still torn by wars. However the case can be made that the goal of deterrence should be the avoidance of nuclear war rather than the prevention of all wars. She argues for disarmament without specifying if it should be bilateral or unilateral. She argues that the U.S. government must never test another nuclear weapon. But U.S. military and civilian authorities concluded long ago that further nuclear testing is unnecessary. The U.S. signed the treaty banning nuclear weapon tests in the atmosphere, in outer space, and under water in 1963, and it has not tested a weapon since 1992. The U.S. has signed but not ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban treaty which cannot go into effect until several other nations ratify it. Other than a vaguely defined disarmament it is unclear what action Winter thinks is morally required by the US. If it is to stop nuclear testing, the U.S. has already stopped. Is Winter arguing for unilateral disarmament or ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban? She does not say.

Christina Richie looks at how the expanded role of women in military roles might affect the JWT. Specifically she addresses two challenges. The first is that women in combatant roles need to be held accountable for their actions in the same way that men are. The second problem is the tendency to view all men in enemy territory as combatants and women and children as civilians. In 2012 President Obama directed the military to effectively count all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants unless it can be proved that they were “innocents.” Richie’s points are well-reasoned and important to consider as ethicists continue to struggle with the definition of “non-combatants.” One wishes Richie would have included a discussion about whether or not women should be allowed to participate in combatant roles, but she may have seen this as beyond the scope of her essay. She did briefly mention the problem of rape as women take a larger role in today’s military, but did not address the other ethical issues surrounding women in combat.

Opongo’s essay applies the JWT and international law to several recent conflicts on the African continent. First he briefly sketches the history of several “types” of conflict in Africa, making the case that international law and the JWT are better equipped to address the challenges of interstate wars rather than intrastate wars. Unfortunately most conflicts in Africa are complex intrastate affairs. While acknowledging the legitimacy of international humanitarian intervention, Opongo argues that a better option would be an expanded role for the Peace and Security Council of the African Union. Most analysis of the JWT focuses upon Western conflicts so Opongo’s essay is a welcome foray. However, instead of trying to use both international law and the JWT to address the issue, he should have focused upon the JWT for the sake of clarity. Because of the number of recent conflicts and their complexity he is unable to provide needed in-depth analysis. This is something that John Kiess is able to provide in the next essay, which focuses on the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kiess shows how unintended consequences often thwart efforts at peacemaking, but argues that instead of abandoning them, nations should learn from their past mistakes and try to improve peacemaking efforts. His case study is the conflict in the DRC and the use of a provision in the Dodd-Frank Act which attempted to defund the rebel groups which were oppressing innocent civilians. Rebel factions in the DRC mined various minerals to fund their activities, exploiting and terrorizing the civilian population. On the other hand, these mining operations also provided a livelihood for many people. In response, the United States required companies to certify whether or not the components of their products were certified “conflict free.” Because compliance was difficult and expensive, companies instead just stopped purchasing minerals from conflict zones. The effect on rebel groups was minimal as they looked to other sources of funding, while the civilian population suffered even further economic distress. The case study shows how difficult it is to predict outcomes and why proportionality is so difficult to calculate. Kiess offers ideas of how the law could have been written differently to prevent some of the problems, but his solutions rely upon multi-national corporations to voluntarily assume great risk, which seems to be an unlikely prospect.

In the book’s final essay Tobias Winright and E. Ann Jeschke discuss the problem of “moral injury” for returning soldiers. This condition is similar to PTSD, but should be seen as a separate condition. If PTSD is an instinctual response to combat, “moral injury” is a condition with roots in what soldiers believe to be their own violations of deeply held moral beliefs. The authors advocate a return to the medieval practice of penance for returning soldiers. Crucial to their discussion is answering the question “is justified war a positive good or is it the lesser of two evils?” They answer that war, although it is not a “moral evil,” is still evil. In Reformed terms we might say that war is the result of the fallen condition of the world. This is an important and disputed question in the JWT. Several ethicists would argue that if truly motivated by love of neighbor, wars can be a positive good rather than a “lesser evil.” However given that death is a result of the fall and that war is always accompanied by death, it is better to consider it as part of the fallen world. Yet this is different from saying that everyone who participates in a war must repent of their participation. That war is part of the sinful condition does not render participation in war as necessarily sinful. One might also take issue with the author’s dismissal of medical and psychological responses to the problems of “moral injury,” especially given its close relation to PTSD, which is a well-documented mental illness.

There are several positive elements in this collection of essays that Presbyterian advocates of the JWT can use. The authors bring new attention to difficult challenges such as asymmetrical warfare, drones, robots, and torture. They also do well to apply the JWT to several “minor” conflicts throughout the world. The JWT really only makes sense as it relates to the specific challenges of war as it is practiced, and the authors apply it in thoughtful ways to recent conflicts. However, many of the essays turn the JWT into a practical pacifism that is inconsistent with the best of the tradition as exemplified in the Catholic tradition of Augustine, Aquinas, and Vitoria, as well as the Protestant tradition of Calvin, Grotius, and Ramsey. The authors argue for a strict application of JWT criteria because war is horrible. However, they fail to explain how they would prevent the equally horrible prospect of unjust societies which can only be brought down by war or held in check by the threat of war.

Michael Farrell
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando