Lesson 6: Just War Theory (Part 2)

Let me ask some questions that I think demonstrate the limitations of any just war theory in our time.

1) Many of the those who read last week’s lesson reported they did not believe there was anything like a just war. They considered themselves conscientious objectors. Is that a moral position? Is it the only possible moral position today?

Just trying to answer the question is one of the ethical challenges of our time. I suspect the government abolished the draft because a large enough part of the population feels this way. Even Lutherans announced they would support members who feel their theology leads them to be conscientious objectors. Sadly, the words and actions of our leaders have offered little or no help in recovering fr0m the distrust stemming from the Viet Nam war.

2) One of my friends was a pilot in that conflict who dropped bombs on empty fields rather than firebomb villages. Was that a just decision?

Ever since Peter Arnett reported a major in Nam spoke of the need to destroy a village in order to save it, many have become cynical about military reasoning. They regard it as propaganda, lies, or nonsense.

Until then, just war theory focused on the actions of nations. It assumed soldiers obeyed their superiors. In fact, Augustine provided ways to absolve soldiers who were involved in the atrocities of war. Today, more attention is paid to the accountability of individuals. They are expected to refrain from war crimes such as rape, looting, torture, and massacre even though ordered by a superior to do so.

3) Our foreign policy has become preserving the peace with a nuclear weapons race that supposedly makes an assault a suicidal act. Long ago, Roland Bainton maintained a Christian would refrain from retaliating if informed the enemy had launched a nuclear attack. Was he right?

Bainton’s reasoning was Christians should sacrifice themselves in order that the enemy might survive with the potential to rebuild a humane civilization. Nowadays, we might also question the wisdom of basing policy on the assumption people put their survival above all else. We constantly see mass murderers commit suicide after massacring innocents.

4) Peacekeeping also involves preventing more nations from developing nuclear weapons. Is that just?

Regardless of the justice, it is not sustainable. One of the characteristics of technology is the ability to proliferate its techniques. It is just a matter of time until any nation, and for that matter any wealthy small group, will be able to produce nuclear weapons.

5) One of the tactics of modern warfare is the targeting of civilian areas. This is justified in several ways. It supposedly speeds the end of warfare and actually saves lives. It acknowledges industry and communications are weapons. Do these kinds of arguments make it just?

It gets even more complicated when you realize there are now more civilian than military deaths in warfare. We have been very successful in protecting the lives of soldiers while leaving civilians vulnerable.

There are no easy answers to these questions. They might reveal the difficulties of maintaining a just war theory in our time or, for that matter, whether there is anything we could conceive as a just war. However, they also leave us with the dilemma of how to act in a situation that calls for protecting our neighbor. It’s all well and good to refrain from violence in your own self-defense but what do you do when your neighbor is endangered?

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  1. Myron Hoffmann says:

    The people of Ukraine are fighting to protect their independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, their homeland, against the forces of evil led by Putin. How are their efforts to defend themselves not just? Putin would destroy their history, culture and society in pursuit of his insane hegemonic vision. He has no respect for boundaries or human rights. Should he prevail, more than Ukraine will be lost. The grat risk is that he will feel empowered to move against his neighbors, the Baltic States, Finland, Poland, Moldova, any country on his hate list. NATO will become engaged. Europe willbe destabilized, and the entire framework of relations between nations, economic, political, cultural, so arduously constructed after WW II, will be in jeopardy. Beyond that, liberal democracy and the rule of law, touchstones of western civilization, will be seriously disrupted.

    In his essay “The Bombing of Germany” written during WW II, Reinhold Niebuhr notes that people in Britain and America “had the decency to feel and express sorrow over the necessity of this terrible measure of war….It is natural of course for those who are inclined to pacifism to declare that those of us who support the war prove the untenability of our position by this moral embarrassment and discomfiture….Once bombing has been developed as an instrument of warfare, it is not possible to disavow its use without capitulating to the foe who refuses to disavow it. No man has the freedom to escape from the hard and cruel necessities of history.”

    As Christians, we have an obligation to our fellow man, to our neighbor, that transcends our own self interest. There may be occasions, in some of our lives, that acting for the greater good of humankind may involve participating in actions we as individuals may consider abhorrent. People of good will on either side of this question may not find mutual understanding. Perhaps it is beyond human capacity.


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