Just War For Modern Time (Part 1 & 2)

Author: Fr. William Saunders


Father William Saunders

Just War For Modern Time

Recently, I have heard about the Clinton administration's planned invasion of Haiti. Would this be considered moral? What would be the criteria for a "just war" in today's world?—A reader in Alexandria

Rather than trying to second guess the administration's strategy here or deal with all of the particulars regarding Haiti, this question does prompt us to review "just war theory." (After all, I am neither General Patton nor secretary of state; however, I admit that I do have some reservations about the administration's strategy and its execution up to this time.)

St. Augustine (D. 430) was the originator of the just war theory, which St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) later adapted and explicated in his <Summa Theologiae>. St. Thomas maintained that a war may be waged justly under three conditions. First, the legitimate authority who has the duty of caring for preserving the common good must declare the war. For instance, according to our Constitution, only Congress can legitimately declare a war. A private individual, no matter how much clout he may wield, does not have the right to commit a country to war. (Please note, we could easily get into those technical qualifications of "police actions," "conflicts," and "operations," but to the best of my knowledge Congress has placed restrictions on these areas.)

Secondly, a just cause for war must exist. St. Augustine, quoted by St. Thomas, said, "A just war is apt to be described as one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly."

Finally, St. Thomas said the warring party must have the right intention, "so that they intend the advancement of good or the avoidance of evil." St. Augustine noted, "True religion looks upon as peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace or punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good." An evil intention, such as to destroy a race or to absorb another nation, can turn a legitimately declared war waged for just cause into a wrongful act.

Obviously, since the Middle Ages, warfare has changed dramatically, as witnessed by World War II and the conflicts which have followed it. Nevertheless, the new catechism asserts, "governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed." Therefore, we can expand St. Thomas' and St. Augustine's theory to the following: In preparing to wage a just war, a country would have to meet the following criteria:

—Just cause—the war must confront an unquestioned danger. "The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave and certain," asserts the new catechism.

—Proper authority—the legitimate authority must declare the war and must be acting on behalf of the people.

—Right intention—the reasons for declaring the war must actually be the objectives, not a masking of ulterior motives.

—Last resort—all reasonable peaceful alternatives must have been exhausted or have been deemed impractical or ineffective. The contentious parties must strive to resolve their differences peacefully before engaging in war. Here too we see the importance of an international mediating body, such as the United Nations.

—Proportionality—the good that is achieved by waging war must not be outweighed by the harm. What good is it to wage war if it leaves the country in total devastation with no one really being the "winner?" Modern means of warfare give great weight to this criterion.

—Probability of success—the achievement of the war's purpose must have a reasonable chance of success.

If a country can meet these criteria, then it may justly enter war. Moreover, a country could come to the assistance of another country who is not able to defend itself as long as these criteria are met. However, the event of war does not entail that all means of waging war are licit; essentially, the "all is fair in love and war" rule is flawed. During war, the country must also meet criteria to ensure justice is preserved:

—Discrimination—armed forces ought to fight armed forces, and should strive not to harm noncombatants purposefully. Moreover, armed forces should not wantonly destroy the enemy's countryside, cities, or economy simply for the sake of punishment, retaliation or vengeance.

—Due proportion—combatants must use only those means necessary to achieve their objectives. For example, no one needs to use nuclear missiles to settle a territorial fishing problem. Due proportion also involves mercy—towards civilian in general, toward combatants when the resistance stops (as in the case of surrender and prisoners of war) and towards all parties when the war is finished.

While these are "just criteria," they still are wrenching. It seems paradoxical that the Christian religion which promotes love justifies a violent action to establish justice. I do not think any good person wants war. Yet at times we—as an individual, community, or nations—must confront and stop an evil. Pope John Paul II in an address to a group of soldiers stated, "Peace, as taught by Sacred Scripture and the experience of men itself, is more than just the absence of war. And the Christian is aware that on earth a human society that is completely and always peaceful is unfortunately a utopia and that the ideologies which present it as easily attainable only nourish vain hopes. The cause of peace will not go forward by denying the possibility and the obligation to defend it." Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers;" sometimes "making peace" may well include fighting evil, even if it means the sacrifice of life. Next week, we will continue this discussion looking at the ideas of total war and modern types of warfare.

Fr. Saunders is president of the Notre Dame Institute and associate pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria.

This article appeared in the September 22, 1994 issue of "The Arlington Catholic Herald."


Father William Saunders

Just War In Modern Times (Part 2)

What would be the criteria for a just war in today's world?—A reader in Alexandria

Last week, "Straight Answers" addressed the issue of a just war theory. While the criteria for waging a just war are reasonable, our modern methods of warfare complicate their application, especially in the areas of proportionality (that the good achieved by waging war must not be outweighed by the harm), discrimination (that armed forces ought to fight armed forces and strive not to bring harm to noncombatants) and due proportion (that combatants use only those means necessary to achieve their objectives and show mercy to all, once combat has ceased).

The Second Vatican Council recognized, "The development of armaments by modern science has immeasurably magnified the horrors and wickedness of war. Warfare conducted with these weapons can inflict immense and indiscriminate havoc which goes far beyond the bounds of legitimate defense" (<Gaudium et Spes,> #80). The Council Fathers still had fresh in their minds the ravages of World War II. For example, the Nazis purposefully dropped the "buzz bombs" on London, leveling entire city blocks and killing citizens with the intent of breaking morale. In response, the Allies dropped incendiary bombs ("fire bombs") on Hamburg on July 27, 1943 killing 45,000, and then again on Dresden on February 14, 1945 killing 135,000; in each instance, the time lapse was just twenty-four hours. The atomic bomb exploded at Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, killing about 80,000 people and injuring more than 70,000 others. World War II also brought to light the mistreatment of prisoners of war: The Nazis, Soviets and Japanese in particular not only brutally treated prisoners but even at times massacred them.

During the Cold War, the technology of warfare "advanced," and continues to do so, so that armaments—whether nuclear, biological, or chemical— have the capability of even greater destruction than anything witnessed during World War II. Obviously adherence to the criteria of proportionality, discrimination and due proportion is harder than ever before this time.

While affirming the right of a country to defend itself, the Catholic Church condemns "total war": the state of war between two parties does not justify or make fair the use of any means to wage the war. Vatican Council II therefore asserted, "Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation" (GS #80). Unfortunately, war will always involve the loss of innocent life or the destruction of non-military property; however, the purposeful intent to commit such actions or to wage indiscriminate warfare is not morally justifiable.

To prevent the occurrence of such warfare, the Vatican Council proposed the following means: First, the community of nations ought to alleviate any arms race which not only consumes so many resources which could be used to alleviate the causes of war but also easily creates the "first strike mentality" or the "Mutually Assured Destruction" strategy. Second, international agreements should be ratified and enforced which would equitably work to reduce armaments, build trust among nations and establish channels for resolving conflicts peacefully. Third, the community of nations should work together to eliminate conditions which jeopardize peace and thereby may cause war, such as poverty, ignorance, or substandard living conditions. Fortunately, we have seen greater progress in these areas either through the efforts of the United Nations or individual countries.

While we have not seen the vast ravages of war as witnessed during World War II, the specter of war and its destructiveness still exist. The Vatican Council lamented, "Insofar as men are sinners, the threat of war hangs over them and will so continue until the coming of Christ" (GS #78). Sadly, all we need to do is look at the news reports about the violence in Bosnia and Croatia, Rwanda, Haiti, Palestine and other places and we see how far we are from peace and from even living by the basic principles governing just war theory.

This article appeared in the September 29, 1994 issue of "The Arlington Catholic Herald."

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