HUNTINGTON, Ind. (Our Sunday Visitor) – Is contemporary just-war theory just? That's the question being asked by the Global Ethics and Religion Forum, which recently launched a study group dedicated to "Revising Just War Theory for the 21st Century." That's also the question being debated by bloggers, pundits and scholars from coast to coast as they evaluate the justness of the ongoing U.S. military presence in Iraq.
Just-war theory lays out the criteria for when (jus ad bellum) and how (jus in bello) secular rulers may appropriately use military force. Rooted in St. Augustine's theorizing over the nature of a rightly ordered state, and later refined by St. Thomas Aquinas and other natural law philosophers, just-war theory has shaped the way the church and many states evaluate armed conflict for more than a millennium.
But, with the onset of the "war on terror," a growing number of political scientists, theologians and philosophers now contend that classic just-war theory fails to account for the challenges of 21st-century warfare – challenges that include terrorism, child soldiers, torture and violence by independent militia.
Does their contention have merit?
Threats to the concept
Not according to Gerard Powers, director of policy studies at the University of Notre Dame's Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. In fact, Powers noted, just-war theory has existed side by side for centuries with the very types of challenges its critics now cite as new.
"Terrorists are not new," he said. "Fighting against people who don't abide by the rules of war the way you do is not new."
Nor is it new for states to face threats from "non-state actors," or hostile individuals and groups within states. In fact, noted James Turner Johnson, professor of religion at Rutgers University and author of numerous books on just warfare, just-war theory was first developed during a time when the modern concept of "nation-states" didn't even exist.
Instead, what Johnson and Powers both see behind the push to revise just-war theory is not a desire to make it more relevant to contemporary warfare, but rather a desire to scrap it altogether.
"There are – and always have been – people in America who have a no-holds-barred approach to the use of force, who think the idea that force should be limited is hogwash," Johnson told Our Sunday Visitor. "That's what's behind the sentiment that traditional moral and international laws don't apply when dealing with terrorists."
"Just because our enemies don't play by the same rules of warfare as we do doesn't mean we're freed from our own moral obligations," added Powers.
Applying it correctly
Though Powers and Johnson disagree with those who claim just-war theory is no longer adequate, both see room for improvement in how the theory is currently understood and applied.
According to Johnson, the most pressing need is for a recovery of the classic understanding of just war.
"The traditional meaning of just war has been lost," he said.
Historically, Johnson said, a military action needed to meet three important criteria in order to qualify as "just":
- Just cause needed to exist – typically defined as "protecting the public good.”
- The rightful sovereign authority needed to make the decision.
- Right intent needed to motivate his decision.
That third component had both negative and positive dimensions. Negatively, it meant the avoidance of wrong intentions, such as the desire to dominate; positively, it meant the intent to secure peace.
Of course, just because a war was just didn't mean it was prudent. Evaluating the wisdom of fighting followed evaluating the justice of fighting. During the 20th century, that evaluation process took a four-pronged approach. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, those prongs are:
- The damage inflicted by the aggressor must be lasting, grave and certain.
- All means to ending the conflict must be proven ineffective or impractical.
- Serious prospects of success must exist.
- The response to the aggressor must not produce greater evil than the evil being eliminated (No. 2309).
Just peace overlooked
Johnson, however, contends that in recent decades those four prongs replaced the three traditional criteria for evaluating justness, and a presumption against war supplanted the classic priority of securing a just peace.
"Securing a just peace is supposed to be the end of just war, not simply avoiding war," he said.
Johnson said America's current problems with civil strife in Iraq are a classic example of what happens when leaders use only the four prudential criteria and not the three classical criteria, with their focus on just peace, when determining if and how to fight.
"The Bush administration didn't pay enough attention to securing the peace," he said. "So, we went in with enough troops to topple the regime, but not enough to prevent the total breakdown of order that followed."
Although Powers opposed the initial intervention in Iraq and thinks the destructiveness of modern warfare necessitates the prudential criteria receiving more consideration, he shares Johnson's concern that the end of securing a just peace has disappeared from contemporary applications of just-war theory.
That disappearance is why Powers believes all those calling for changes in just-war theory would do well to stop focusing their efforts on a wholesale revision of the theory, which would require scrapping traditional moral norms.
Instead, he said, they need to work on developing a theory of jus post bellum.
"'What do you do afterward?' is the question that needs answering now," he said.
- - -
Emily Stimpson writes from Ohio for Our Sunday Visitor.
Republished with permission by Catholic Online from the Nov. 2, 2007, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper (www.osv.com) in Huntington, Ind., a Catholic Online Preferred Publishing Partner.