One problem (among many) with the just war theory

[Ted Grimsrud]

Though I am strongly committed to pacifism (hence the name of this blog!—here are links to many of my writings on pacifism), I am finding myself more and more intrigued with the just war theory. For one thing, the theory provides our language for thinking about war morally, especially for thinking about specific wars. I also think that just war thought has potential for encouraging opposition both to specific wars and to war preparation in general. However, I say “has potential” intentionally, though, because I think the potential has largely been unrealized.

I think one of the big problems most writers on just war have that makes understanding the tradition more difficult is acting as if the two basic options in the Christian tradition in relation to war have been pacifism or just war. What is left out (a huge elephant in the room) is what has been by far the majority view towards war: what I will call (following John Howard Yoder, see Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution) the “blank check.” The blank check is the basic attitude that when it comes to war a citizen should essentially simply obey one’s government (i.e., give the government a blank check in relation to responding to war).

Perhaps we could say that someone such as Augustine argued for “just war” in relation to (a precious few) governmental leaders, though not at all in a rigorous way. By the time of Machiavelli, the overt argument for “realism” mainly simply stated what governmental leaders actually did much more than suggest a change from “just war” to straight self-interest. But from the start (meaning from the time in the fourth century when Christians began thinking of their ethics in terms of being responsible for the state), for ordinary citizens the basic stance toward war was “blank check” not “just war” (Augustine himself insisted that Christians should obey their governmental leaders, leaving discernment of the justness of war to those in charge of the society).

For this reason, we find next to no emphasis throughout the history of Christianity on what people should do when being expected to fight in unjust wars. And the just war theory has mainly played the role of providing bases to evaluate the relative justness of wars after the fact in totally non-binding ways. 

If the theory worked as its apologists have claimed that it had, we would see a clear differentiation between just war and blank check responses to war ahead of the wars actually being fought. That is, what would make the just war theory operational would be acceptance of the possibility that wars can be unjust. And if this were happening, we would have significant reflection on what to do when wars are unjust.

One indication that this kind of reflection on what to do when wars are unjust has not happened is the total lack of provision for alternatives for selective conscientious objectors (those nonpacifists who discern that particular wars are unjust) in almost all countries—including the United States. There simply has not been significant demand for such alternatives. This lack perhaps as much as anything reflects the failure of the just war tradition to be anything but a kind of sophisticated version of the blank check.

Interestingly, the history of pacifism and of legally recognized conscientious objection (which in almost all cases has been limited to those who demonstrate that they are full-fledged pacifists opposed to all wars in principle) do provide guidance on what just war people might do if they actually do conclude ahead of time that a particular war is unjust.

Part of how the issues of war and peace are (wrongly) framed is to assume that there are injustices and evils that must be opposed and that the only way effectively to opposes these is through war. One either must fight (or at least support) the war or allow the evils to continue. Those who are conscientiously opposed to all war may be excused from fighting, but everyone else must accept their government’s call to take up arms. And, of course, once one is in the military, virtually all relevance of the just war theory ends—your job as a soldier is to obey orders, not exercise your moral discernment about whether the orders are just or not. This is another way that the just war theory in practice becomes marginalized.

Pacifists believe that there are other ways besides war to resist evil and to work for peace in face of injustices. I am just completing another Ethics in the Way of Jesus class, which we conclude each semester by reading Philip Hallie’s wonderful book, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There, that tells of how principled pacifists responded to the mandate to oppose Hitler not by taking up arms but by risking their lives to rescue Jewish refugees. My friend Earl Martin also spoke in this class about his alternative service during the Vietnam War when he lived in Vietnam and sought to help victims of the war (see his book: Reaching the Other Side: The Journal of an American Who Stayed to Witness Vietnam’s Postwar Transition).

If the just war theory truly were operational, we would have seen much more emphasis on providing alternatives to unjust wars that would creatively and effectively address the problems created by injustice. In fact, this should be the central concern. If those who affirm the just war theory would accept that wars can be unjust in reality, that the blank check must be rejected, and that one’s responsibility to resist injustice in just ways can never be abdicated, then the fruit of this theory would be active nonviolence—not acquiescence to state mandated massive violence and militarism.


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