Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The (im)morality of war

"There is no morality in war. Morality is the privilege of those judging from the distance. War is only death and destruction" (John Cory).

"War is hell" (attributed to General William Tecumseh Sherman [1820-1891], who was noted for his "scorched earth" policies).

War is immoral. Most people agree that war is wrong. It is, in fact, almost universally condemned for the brutality, cruelty, and wanton destruction of life and property that it inflicts. Unfortunately, some people extol war; they are professionals who make a living out of killing others. There are also people who treat war as something heroic, and even make games out of it.

In spite of this almost universal condemnation, war is a tragically commonplace feature of human life. War has existed since the beginnings of the human race, and is found in every age and all over the globe. There has never been an idyllic age when there was no war; it persists right up to the present. Thus there is little hope of eradicating it, even if most of the world desired that.

In the ancient world, war was an accepted as a fact of life, and its morality was not questioned. The Greek philosopher Aristotle praised war as necessary for the survival of the community. It was one of the ways that societies acquired the necessities of life. And thus it was widely perceived as noble and heroic.

But the Christian Church during the early centuries strongly dissented from this view. The Bible explicitly condemns killing. Instead of killing, it commands people to love each other. Although it recognizes that war was sometimes necessary, nowhere does the Bible praise war. For this reason the early Christians tended to be pacifists who refused to serve in the Roman army. Later, when the Christian faith was legalized, this attitude changed and war became acceptable once again.

Augustine was the first to enunciate the just war theory, which was later elaborated by Thomas Aquinas and others. Augustine argued that war could only be waged by the appropriate legal authority. And he claimed further that a legitimate war required a just cause and should only be fought with rightful intentions. These principles, together with several others, have been used to justify war ever since.

Some Christians, such as the Mennonites, have traditionally been opposed to war. But many other believers have continued to argue for the just war theory, using arguments such as self-defense to justify the use of deadly force whether by individuals or communities and states. Yet even this argument is not sufficient to justify war. As critics of the just war theory repeatedly point out, the use of violence in the name of self-defense is difficult to defend in view of the biblical injunction to love one's neighbor, even if they are enemies (Mt. 5:44).

At this point, someone can properly ask, "What is war?" War is hard to define, even though most people can recognize it when they see it. This ambiguity has become particularly acute today when many wars are often undeclared and may involve non-state combatants. The "war on terrorism" is an example of both of these; this "war" is not justifiable by the just war criteria.

The Apotheosis of War. Painting by Vasily V. Vereshchagin

Increasingly today there is dissatisfaction with the just war theory. This dissatisfaction is inspired not only by those who are pacifists or who promote non-violence. Even people who have accepted this theory at one time, of whom I am one, now recognize that in a nuclear age it is no longer appropriate. That is why I have chosen active non-violence.

There are other motivations for this dissatisfaction. These just war principles have too often been used by powerful states to impose a standard of conduct on others who are less powerful or may adhere to cultural standards that differ greatly from who wield that power. The morality of war seems to serve the interests of these powerful states. As has been frequently noted, history is written by the victors.

War is so obnoxious that it deserves to be eliminated. The (im)morality of war is expressed in both the principles that are invoked to justify war (jus ad bellum) and in the way a war is actually conducted (jus in bello). To which should also be added the judgments that are made after a war (jus post bellum). The last refers to what was done when the international community after World War II tried the German leaders at Nuremberg but refused to the same for Americans after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The latter is debatable, but it illustrates how elusive justice can be. The frustrations surrounding the ICC (the International Criminal Court) led the United States to "unsign" the Rome treaty that established that court out of a fear of politically motivated prosecutions of Americans, and has made many African nations charge that African leaders are being picked on by the court to the exclusion of those from other parts of the world.

These thoughts are prompted by a series of recent incidents: the trial of Ratko Mladic, who is known as the "Butcher of Bosnia" for his alleged atrocities during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia, as well as the atrocities that American troops in Afghanistan have been charged with. I was reminded too of the infamous video made public by Wikileaks of American troops shooting from a helicopter at children and other innocent civilians.

In addition, I am very concerned about the use of drones in Afghanistan, where a soldier can kill the enemy by remote control from a site half a world away. War has now become a video game -- unfortunately with real casualties. Even the use of sanctions, as in Iran, is questionable from a moral perspective. While all these incidents all fit into the category of how war is actually waged, they have led me to write this post this week.

Many books have been written on the morality of war. In this post I can barely touch on some of the issues involved. I am writing this only to prompt further thought on this major question. The world is suffering while academics and others debate these issues. As with other questions, such as global warming and poverty, we cannot remain standing at the sidelines. The time for decisive action has come: let us do whatever we can to eliminate war. We owe as much to the rest of the world.

(Just a selection from the many books on this topic. I could have listed more, but these will have to suffice.)


  1. Thanks for the conversation/s starter ! Another good book is John Howard Yoder's *When War is Unjust: Being Honest in Just War Thinking*. As a Mennonite, I've been learning more about Just War and listening to those who come from that tradition of reasoning about war. One of the points that I found significant was that part of the rationale for the Just War position was precisely to address the im/morality of war. As I understand it, the Jus ad ... were described as such specifically to LIMIT war, and to LIMIT some of the injustices that can take place in wartime. Until I heard that I had always the impression that "just war" teachings were there to justify going to war, now I realize it had other intentions. It was very significant to me to learn that some recent Catholic Popes have stated that the way modern warfare is conducted, such as the drones !, exceeds the boundaries of what can be considered acceptable from within Just War constraints -- thus un-justifying modern warfare from a theological position, even one that advocates "Just war" theory.

  2. Hi, I'm learning about the subject of war in school, and I'm just writing to say, that this helped a lot. War is known universally as a bad thing, but you have to think, would our lives be the same if we didn't have war?

  3. i think of war in negative ways thus being that war is very inhumane and should be avoided by all means necessary to bring peace. i do not understand why we cant be at peace with other powerful nations... i understand that they have their interests and we have ours but there is always a solution, like a compromise of some sort. i am glad we have brave men and women on the front lines who put their lives on the line to protect the things we love doing everyday, if it was not for them we would not be doing the things we are now. we owe all respect for them for fighting (maintaining) our freedom. i love this quote by general George Patton of the U.S Army "Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men. It is the spirit of the men who follow and of the man who leads that gains the victory." -Cavalry Journal (September 1933) -General George Smith Patton. War just spends all of our money, puts us in debt, raises taxes (which hurts the middle class), and the most tragic event, is the deaths that are encountered during war time. War brings tears to the loved ones who die and are fighting to protect us. Wars are violent events that occur and should be prevented by peace not by blood. this is because "History is written by the victors." - Winston Churchill and often repeated (Occasionally)if not looked upon over and over again like a text book. -Michael R Kelly

  4. I agree war is bad but think that without war many great things may not have been made or discovered, and the spirit of men such as General George Patton would not have been tested and we would not have know about the true strength in great men and women.

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