Christian Faith and War 8: Who Can Kill in War?

While my plan is to submit a weekly blog post to Christian Ethics Bites, last week I was swamped with midterm grading and was unable to contribute, so this week I am making amends.  This is my eighth blog post in this series on Christian ethics and the morality of war.  To this point I’ve tried to survey the basic contours of the debate in the Christian tradition about war. Today I turn my attention to a question that moves me closer to the principle focus of my own research and writing: Who can kill in war? Or more accuratedly, who has a moral right to kill in war? At first glance, the question may appear strange. Who can kill? Well, of course soldiers can kill. The obviousness of this answer veils one of the deep debates at the heart of recent just war conversation. In this week’s post I’ll try to describe this debate and offer a brief explanation about why it is significant.

021017-1131H-011The heart of the debate centers on the relationship between jus ad bellum and jus in bello criteria. Recall that jus ad bellum criteria establish when war is morally permissible. Jus in bello criteria establish what conduct in war is morally permissible. Traditional just war theory has treated jus ad bellum and jus in bello criteria as independent of one another.  It is possible for just wars (i.e. wars that conform to jus ad bellum criteria) to be fought unjustly (i.e. through actions that violate the principles of discrimination and/or proportionality).  It is also possible for unjust wars to be fought by soldiers who strictly adhere to jus in bello constraints.

The distinction between jus ad bellum and jus in bello criteria leads many just war theorists to conclude that soldiers are morally culpable for violating jus in bello criteria, but not for participating in unjust wars (i.e. wars that violate jus ad bellum criteria). The moral agency of soldiers is relevant only insofar as they make choices on the battlefield: whom they will target and how much force they will employ. Soldiers are not responsible for choosing the wars they are called to wage, so they are not accountable for the fact that they might be called upon to wage an unjust war.

Practically speaking, the implications should be clear, but let me illustrate with an example.  Let’s assume for the moment the uncontroversial assertion that Germany acted unjustly when it invaded Poland in 1939, starting the Second World War. Consider two German soldiers: let’s call them Hans and Dieter. Both soldiers fight on behalf of the Nazi regime during World War II. They are participants in an unjust war. But from the perspective described above, neither soldier is acting immorally when he agrees to fight on behalf of the German state. They are tools of the state, not moral agents responsible for the decision to wage war.  They are only responsible for their conduct in the war that has been declared. So imagine that Hans decides to intentionally target and kill a Polish civilian. Intentionally killing civilians is a criminal act, a violation of the principle of discrimination. Hans acts wrongly when he kills the civilian.  But imagine that Dieter avoids killing civilians. Unlike Hans, Dieter is acting within the moral limits of the rules of war and is subject to no moral sanction.

Now imagine that the United States declares war against Germany, as it did in 1941. Once again, if we assume for the moment that the United States acted justly, we may consider two American soldiers: let’s call them Greg and William. Both soldiers participate in the ground assault against Germany. They are participants in a just war. As with Hans and Dieter, both soldiers are responsible only for their conduct in the war. Imagine that Greg decides to intentionally target and kill a German civilian. In this case he is acting unjustly. Like Hans he should be prosecuted. But William instead adheres to the principles of discrimination and proportionality, carefully avoiding civilian death as much as possible and directing lethal force only against combatants. William is acting within the moral limits of war and is subject to no moral sanction.

So set aside for the moment Hans and Greg. Both soldiers have violated the principle of discrimination by targeting those who are not legitimate targets of violent force.  But imagine now that Dieter and William meet one another on the battlefield.  Both soldiers strive to adhere to the jus in bello principles that govern conduct in war.  Here is the peculiar thing: both soldiers have a moral right to kill one another on the battlefield.  Dieter has a right to kill William. William has a right to kill Dieter. As Michael Walzer argues in his book Just and Unjust Wars, soldiers possess an “equal right to kill.” The fact that Dieter is fighting for an unjust cause is inconsequential. Soldiers on both sides of the conflict are legitimate targets of lethal force.

My description above captures a very common line of reasoning in contemporary just war thinking. The claim that soldiers have an equal right to kill may seem plausible on its face.  It is quite common to regard soldiers as tools of the states that enlist them for service. Practically speaking, soldiers have little if any say in choosing the wars that their countries wage. But more recently some theorists have begun to question the foundational premise of this claim, arguing that the moral responsibility of soldiers extends to personal observance of jus ad bellum criteria.  In his recent book Killing in War, Jeff McMahan defends this “revisionist” approach to just war theory. According to revisionists, the moral principles that should govern conduct in war are not qualitatively different from those principles that govern violence in other spheres.  In most circumstances, the threat of violence by itself does not serve as the basis for claiming a moral equality among agents. In essence, McMahan is arguing that the jus in bello principles that govern the conduct of war cannot be so neatly extricated from the question of whether or not a war satisfies jus ad bellum criteria.

That last sentence is too abstract, so let me illustrate the logic of McMahan’s argument with another example. Imagine that an armed robber has robbed a store and is holding the store owner at gunpoint. A police officer arrives on the scene.  In this scenario the armed robber is acting unjustly. The police officer who arrives to stop the robber has a just cause for resisting the robber’s aggression.  The store owner is an innocent bystander.  If the armed robber shoots the owner, he is acting wrongly. But imagine now that the police officer pulls his gun and aims it at the armed robber?  In this scenario who has a moral right to use violent force? In this scenario, I imagine that most will conclude that as a last resort the police officer has a moral right to use violent force against the armed robber if the robber poses a threat to the store owner or to the officer himself.  The robber does not have a moral right to use violent force against either the store owner or the police officer.  The fact that he is committing armed robbery (i.e. he is acting unjustly) undermines any justification for the violence he might inflict.

But this is just the point. Recall that in the previous scenario soldiers have an equal right to kill irrespective of whether or not the war they are waging is just. If we were to apply this logic to the armed robbery scenario, then at the moment a police officer threatens an armed robber with violent force, he would suddenly makes himself a legitimate target for the robber’s violence. We do not argue that armed robbers have an “equal right to kill” police officers.  We recognize that the ends of each agent’s violence are essential to discriminating the justness of their actions. But if this is so, then why treat the violence of war any differently? Says McMahan, soldiers do not have an equal right to kill. Applied to the language of just war theory, McMahan is saying, in short, that when soldiers fight in wars that violate jus ad bellum principles they are never able to adhere properly to the principle of discrimination because there are no legitimate targets for their violence.  Soldiers on the just side of the conflict are much like the police officer facing the armed robber. “The permissibility of action in war,” says McMahan, “cannot be divorced from the ends that the action serves.”

McMahan’s argument is provocative, and I cannot do it full justice in the space of this blog post. I’ll close with two thoughts. First, if taken seriously, McMahan’s argument would entail the embrace of a policy of selective conscientious objection in which soldiers have the right (or, even more strongly, a moral obligation) to refrain from participating in specific wars that are not morally justifiable. It seems difficult to imagine how states could expand policies governing moral conscience in war to include moral discrimination among soldiers who could choose to opt out of particular wars that they deem unjust.  But McMahan’s larger argument is that forcing states to recognize the moral culpability of soldiers who fight unjustly and to account for this in policy may have the effect of further limiting the willingness of state’s to wage war.

Second, this recent debate about the moral agency of soldiers in the just war tradition moves just war conversation closer to the concerns that are the focus of the Christian tradition. Christian ethicist Charles Mathewes argues that secular approaches to the just war have focused too narrowly on questions of policy analysis—questions like “Is this war just?” and “What are the moral limits of our justified violence?” By contrast, the Christian just war tradition broadens its focus beyond these questions to more basic concerns about the moral and spiritual formation of those agents who wage war.  The Christian just war tradition, in Mathewes’s words, “is more comfortable at the level of existential soul-formation—not with the decisions but with the deciders, and those who go forth to enact the decision” (The Republic of Grace167). In this respect, the Christian just war tradition may find much to appreciate in McMahan’s work, which similarly concerns itself with the moral agency of those who wage war.

Christian Faith and War 7: Can War be Just?

EthicsWarEventsLast weekend the United States launched an airstrike in Kunduz, Afghanistan. The bombs hit a hospital administered by Doctors Without Borders. The airstrike left 22 people killed and 37 injured. As of yesterday, 33 people remain unaccounted for.

Meanwhile, Russia has stepped up its own air assault in Syria, claiming itself to be a partner in the fight against ISIS even as NATO allies express concern that Russia is using the ISIS threat as a facade to obscure their real intention of securing Assad’s hold on power in Syria by targeting rebels in the Syrian civil war.

All of this is happening on a week that marks the 14 year anniversary of the start of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. In 5 months we will pass the 12 year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. My oldest son was three years old when we invaded Afghanistan. My two youngest have never known a time when our country was not at war.

War comes easily to us, or so it seems. When I spend even a small amount of time reflecting on the complexities of the violence we so quickly embrace–the suffering of those we target with our bombs and bullets, the burdens and risks we make our soldiers bear as they fight, the grief of parents who lose children in war, the rage, the tears, the self-congratulatory propaganda we create to justify our desire for vengeance, the ease with which we embrace a xenophobia that leads us to deny the humanity of the Other, the ways in which well-intended actions sometimes (too often!) exacerbate the suffering of the innocent–I find myself wondering, “Can any war be just?”

Those of you who have been following this blog series know that my answer to this question is “Yes.” I do believe war can be just. To be quite clear, I am not saying that all wars are just.  In fact, these days I’m more inclined to say that the vast majority of wars are not. Nonetheless, in principle I am a Christian who finds myself standing within what has come to be called the just war tradition. Over the last several weeks I’ve laid out brief introductions into a variety of ways that Christians understand the morality of war. In this week’s blog post I am going to offer a practical introduction to the most basic features of just war theory. I don’t intend to offer here a comprehensive overview of the history of the just war tradition.  There are numerous books that do this quite well.  Among them, Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars remains an essential text for those wanting to explore the just war tradition more deeply. Within the field of Christian ethics, Lisa Cahill’s Love Your Enemies offers a helpful historical overview of the development of just war thinking in Christianity. The literature about just war theory is extensive, but for the purposes of this blog post I’m going to assume that most of my readers lack familiarity with what I am describing. In presenting just war theory as a systematic approach to the morality of war, I want to be very clear that I am not at all implying that identifying what wars are just and what actions are justifiable in war is a simple thing.  Just war theory offers a systematic picture that can guide moral deliberation about war. Just war theory does not offer the solace that the clarity it brings will  point us to indubitable conclusions about the morality of every war.  The abstract purity of just war theory does not do full justice to the opaqueness of moral decisionmaking when real lives are at stake. Nonetheless, abstraction can be helpful.  Looking at formal criteria before one is in the throes of violence can help us discern a way forward for our conversation.

So let’s start at the beginning with the most basic claim of the just war tradition. Some wars are morally justifiable. Not all wars are, but some. Just war theory poses a set of formal criteria that figure into our moral deliberations as we discern whether or not particular wars are justifiable. These criteria are often labelled Jus ad Bellum criteria.

Jus Ad Bellum criteria

This Latin phrase means “right to war.” Thus, Jus ad Bellum criteria offer a way to determine whether or not the decision to wage war is justifiable.

If you peruse online and print sources, you’ll discover a number of different articulations of  Jus ad Bellum criteria. The following are most common. I’ll give the formal title, a brief description, and then an example that illustrates the basic logic of each principle:

Just Cause: A war is justifiable if any only if the party waging war is responding to an act of aggression. Michael Walzer defines aggression as “any use of force or imminent threat of force by one state against the political sovereignty or territorial integrity of another” (Just and Unjust Wars, 62). Example: Country X crosses the internationally recognized border of Country Y in order to assert political control over part of Country Y. Country Y has just cause to go to war against Country X. Country X does not have just cause to go to war against Country Y.

Right Intention: A war is justifiable if any only if the party choosing to wage war intends to preserve a just order, or restore such an order in the face of aggression.  Example: Picking up on the previous example, Country Y may go to war with Country X if any only if its actions are aimed at restoring the conditions in its country that existed prior to Country X’s unjust incursion. A just war is not a war of vengeance, nor is it a tool that countries may employ in order to grow their economy.

Legitimate Authority: A war is justifiable if and only if the party waging war is a recognized political entity capable of declaring war. Example: Country Y is an internationally recognized political entity capable of declaring a just warBy contrast, non-state entities (e.g. brigand groups, private organizations, private militias, etc.) lack authority to declare war. Country Y can declare war. Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men cannot. 

Reasonable Chance of Success: A war is justifiable if and only if it is reasonable to believe that the war itself will quell the unjust aggression. Example: Country Y may go to war with Country X if it is reasonable to believe that in so doing Country X will be compelled to abandon its aggression. However, if reason suggests that Country Y’s violent response is futile, then it would be unjust for Country Y to declare war. Futile wars can never be just.

Proportionality: A war is justifiable if and only if the benefits that one expects to achieve through waging war outweigh the anticipated harms that the war is expected to cause. Example: Imagine that Country X has invaded Country Y as part of its larger goal of cleansing an ethnic minority from the region. The benefits of resisting Country Y’s injustice are substantial; an entire ethnic community is threatened by Country X’s aggression. War is justifiable if these benefits outweigh the expected harms that will come when Country Y wages war. By contrast, if Country X’s aggression is a minor border incursion over a contested region of Country Y, and if Country Y’s war can be reasonably expected to have a cascading effect on the entire region, bringing instability and the potential for much wider conflict that spreads to many other countries, proportionality may entail that Country Y not wage war. 

Last Resort: A war is justifiable if and only if the party contemplating war has exercised all reasonable non-violent options for restoring justice.  Example: Country Y must exhaust all diplomatic options before declaring war against Country X. Country Y should not enter war hastily.

Comparative Justice:  A war is justifiable if and only if the party waging the just war can be reasonably understood to be the victim of unjust aggression. Example: Imagine that Country Y and Country X have had a long-running history of mutually destructive acts of aggression. In recent history Country Y has crossed the border of Country X and caused harm to civilians.  Country Y is responding in turn. If both Country X and Country Y have acted aggressively toward one another, it is quite possible that neither country is capable of declaring a just war.  Country Y is justified in waging war only if Country X is acting aggressively and this injustice outweighs injustices that Country Y has inflicted on Country X.  

Just war advocates usually insist that every one of the criteria must be satisfied for a war to be justifiable. There is no balancing act here, no setting one criterion against another. Each of the criteria is necessary. By themselves, none of them are sufficient for justifying war. While the Jus ad Bellum criteria have been formalized as I describe above, the moral framework for contemporary just war theory stretches back thousands of years. In the Christian tradition, Augustine and Aquinas described war using language and concepts that more or less correspond to the idea of just cause, right intention, and legitimate authority. Much more can be said here, and clearly complexities multiply exponentially when one begins applying these criteria in the real world.

In addition to the Jus ad Bellum criteria, contemporary just war theory points us to a second set of criteria,  Jus in Bello critera.

Jus in Bello criteria

Jus in Bello means “right in war.” The preposition points to the focus of these criteria: specifically, what actions are justifiable in war?  The criteria here are much fewer, with two pointed to most commonly as moral principles guiding the conduct of war:

Discrimination: Just actions in war require soldiers to discriminate between combatants and non-combatants.  Soldiers may only intentionally target combatants. Soldiers may never intentionally target non-combatants. Example: Assuming that Country Y is waging a just war against Country X (i.e. a war that satisfies all of the Jus ad Bellum criteria listed above), soldiers must not intentionally target their violence against civilians. The fact that Country Y’s war is just does not mitigate the responsibility of soldiers to discriminate between combatants and non-combatants.  Intentionally targeting civilians is a war crime, and soldiers of both countries should be punished when they violate the principle of discrimination.

Proportionality: Just actions in war require military leaders to evaluate both the intended and unintended harms of their actions.  If the harms that one can reasonably expect outweigh the benefits of the military action, it is unjust to pursue the action. Example: Imagine that Country Y is contemplating whether to bomb a weapons factory in the center of a residential community.  The factory is a legitimate target, but policymakers determine that bombing the factory will cause a very high number of unintended civilian deaths.  Under these circumstances, proportionality dictates that Country Y refrain from bombing the factory.  


Romanian Army Cpl. Niculaescu, top, provides medical aid to U.S. Army Cpl. Tufeanu during a counter improvised explosive device training mission during Operational Mentor Liaison Team (OMLT) training at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center (JMRC) in Hohenfels, Germany, Jan. 20, 2012. JMRC conducts several OMLT rotations each year, training multinational partners to ensure they are prepared for deployment to Afghanistan with the ability to train, advise and enable the Afghan National Army while possessing the skills to survive on the battlefield. (DoD photo by Pfc. Andre Forrest, U.S. Army/Released)

Just war theorists also focus attention on the relationship between Jus ad Bellum and Jus in Bello criteria.  In contemporary just war theory, Jus ad Bellum and Jus in Bello criteria are complementary, but they also function independently.  From the perspective of traditional/secular just war theory (e.g. the perspective represented by Michael Walzer) it is quite possible for a just war (a war that satisifies Jus ad Bellum criteria) to be conducted unjustly (in a way that violates Jus in Bello principles). It is also possible for an unjust war (a war that violates one or more of the Jus ad Bellum criteria) to be conducted in ways that adhere closely to principles of just conduct (Jus in Bello principles). Country Y might be justified in waging war against Country X, but soldiers act unjustly if they intentionally target civilians with their violence.  Country X might be engaging in unjust aggression when they invade Country Y, but their soldiers might still adhere closely to the principles of discrimination and proportionality, targeting other soldiers while seeking to minimize harms experienced by civilians.  Without getting too bogged down in nuance on this point, I’ll say simply that not all just war theorists are persuaded that this treatment of justifiability and conduct is defensible. This disagreement in contemporary just war theory has given rise to a new “revisionist” school of just war thinking, one that actually bears closer resemblance to Christian just war thinking than to the secular just war theory that one finds in Walzer’s work.  I’ll return to this in a later post.  But for now, I’m standing at over 2000 words for this week’s blog post, enough that I feel the need to draw things to a close.  Next week I am hoping to connect this brief journey into just war theory to my earlier discussion of Christian agapism and war.

Christian Faith and War 6: What is Love?

357379_Rwanda-genocide“Innocent, listen to me, I need to tell you that you are all going to die.”

In 1994 Innocent Rwililiza was a 38 year old Rwandan school teacher. She is today a living witness of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. I came across Innocent’s story at the RwandanStories website, an online resource that has preserved the voices of victims, victimizers, and the workers involved in the difficult peace and reconciliation work in Rwanda that continues to this day. Innocent tells of how on April 11, 1994 members of the interahamwe militia attacked townspeople in Ntarama with clubs and machetes. Panicked townspeople fled to the town’s city hall seeking refuge. The mayor turned them away. “If you go back home, you shall be killed,” he said. “If you escape into the bush, you shall be killed. If you stay here, you shall be killed. Nevertheless, you must leave here, because I do not want any blood in front of my town hall.”

Thousands made their way to the church building at Ntarama seeking refuge. There was no refuge. After several days, the militia invaded the church. The killing began. One boy describes the horrors he witnessed:

“My first sister asked a Hutu of acquaintance to kill her without any suffering. He said yes, and he dragged her by the arm out onto the grass, where he struck her with a single blow of his club. But a next door neighbour, nicknamed Hakizma, yelled that she was pregnant. So he ripped open her belly like a pouch in one slicing movement with his knife. This is what these eyes saw without mistake.”

In the end, 5000 Rwandan civilians were killed at the church, just a few of the many who died during the three months of violence. Meanwhile, the international community refused to intervene, with many countries withdrawing from Rwanda while politicians debated the accuracy of the term “genocide” to describe what was happening. In the end, between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people were killed.

Last week on this blog I introduced Christian agapism. Agapists argue that love motivates and constrains the violence of just wars. Initially I intended to introduce just war theory in this week’s blog post as a way of extending my introduction of how agapists understand the role of love in war.  However, after reflecting on my blog post over the weekend, I’m realizing that there is an important gap in my discussion of Christian agapism that my introduction failed to cover: what is love? Agapists argue that love orients and constrains the violence of just wars. But what do Christian ethicists mean when they speak of love in this way? At first glance, this claim may come across as unrealistic babble . In everyday language, after all, don’t we associate love with feelings of affection, intimacy, and admiration? I love my spouse. I love my children.  But what does this have to do with feelings I have when I contemplate a country’s decision to wage war? What does love have to do with a teenager’s decision to enlist? What does love have to do with pointing a gun at an enemy? Or what does it mean for me to love victims of genocide? What does it mean to love those who perpetrate genocide? What is love, after all?

These are all important questions. Clearly if love entails feelings of affection and intimacy it becomes very difficult to imagine how the concept even applies to a war in which we are to embody love toward strangers and enemies. So here is the first thing to be said about Christian love and war: love does not entail personal affection for the one whom one is loving. While love sometimes includes internal affection, Christian love does not require such feeling. Agapists believe it is possible for me to love even a person with whom I have no affection whatsoever. Timothy Jackson, a prominent Christian agapist who has written extensively about the role of love as a foundation for Christian social ethics, defines Christian love (agape) more broadly, encompassing the following three features (The Priority of Love, 10):

(1) unconditional willing of the good for the other;

(2) equal regard for the wellbeing of the other;

(3) passionate service open to self-sacrifice for the sake of the other.

In the case of war, to love is not simply to feel sympathy when I watch my television and see evidence of genocide.  To love requires me to pursue concretely those things that might constrain aggressors from committing genocide. I demonstrate love toward people like Innocent not simply by lamenting with them the horrors they experienced in 1994 but by advocating that people in a position to stop genocide do so before it occurs. Agapists ask that we face fully that our inaction in 1994 was a moral failure on our part, a lesson to learn about the price of failing to love as we ought. I embody love when I resist, even with violence, those who would slay man, woman, and child with machetes and clubs. Even with respect to the enemy, agapists argue that violence can itself be seen as an act of love.  As Jackson argues, it can be an act of love toward an enemy when I keep my enemy from becoming a mass murderer (The Priority of Love, 124). The violence of a just war does not require me to hate my enemy. No, agapists argue that it is a real possibility to engage in violence toward my enemy while feeling no personal hatred, to be what Charles Mathewes calls a “mournful warrior” whose violence is tinged with regret and hope for the enemy’s redemption.

V324-81_19_29073_380531Admittedly, critics argue that all of this seems unrealistic and far removed from the actual experience of those who go to war. This is the critical concern that I find myself drawn to in my own reflections. The adequacy of Christian agapism as a constructive approach to political violence and Christian faith hinges on the realism of this description of the moral motivations that underlie the violence of just warriors. I will return to this eventually. But for now, I need to close out this brief post and move on to other things. My promise: next week I will turn my attention to a brief introduction to just war theory.