18 October 2004

Warfare and the just use of force

Below is my most recent "Principalities & Powers" column for Christian Courier, dated 11 October:
The mainstream of Christianity, including the Reformed tradition, has adhered to something called the just war position. Originating in Augustine’s reflections a millennium and a half ago, and further elaborated by Thomas Aquinas, Hugo Grotius and others, this position begins with the assumption that the doing of justice, to which everyone is called, may necessitate the measured use of force under certain circumstances. Criteria must be brought to bear to determine the justice of a proposed military action, including: (1) The cause must be justified; (2) the intention must be right; (3) the war must be waged by a competent authority; (4) the war must have a reasonable probability of success; and (5) it must be fought only as a last resort. These are known as ad bellum principles in that they determine whether a country should go to war in the first place.

In bello principles, that is, those principles governing the conduct of war itself, are as follows: (1) Non-combatants, neutrals and third parties must not be harmed; (2) existing laws and treaties must be honoured; (3) the means must be proportionate to the goals; (4) the enemy must know the terms on which peace can be achieved; (5) the goal must be the return of the aggressor to a rightful place among nations.

In recent decades many Christians appear largely to have abandoned the just war tradition, either because they see it as incapable of addressing the dilemmas of a nuclear age or because their understanding of justice has shifted away from an acknowledgement of its retributive character. Along with this has come a reluctance to contemplate the use of force in its defence.

However, many of us who accept the continuing validity of the just war tradition are nevertheless reluctant to plunge into warfare too quickly for other reasons. Indeed the use of force in warfare presents difficulties not present in a domestic police action. A police force by its very nature is responsible for supporting a domestic legal system and maintaining civil peace. It is part of a structure of authority consisting of legislatures, executives, bureaucratic departments, regulatory agencies and courts. Clear lines of authority and accountability exist and the use of force is hemmed in by them.

However, in a state of war two or more duly constituted military forces battle, not actual criminals, but each other. To be sure, one side may have a greater claim to justice than the other. But due to the precarious nature of the international arena, there is no certainty that the “right side” will win, especially if the other side is more powerful. Moreover, because each side is fighting in accordance with its own laws and the policies of its own government, there is perhaps a sense in which some measure of right, or justice, is found in both. Yet they clash and one may well suffer defeat.

This does not mean that just war principles are no longer relevant; I strongly believe they are. Yet if many of us are reluctant to resort to warfare too quickly, it is not necessarily because we believe the use of coercive force is intrinsically wrong. It is because its use is precarious at best, particularly for a small state with limited resources. Furthermore, innocents are more likely to suffer the effects of war than they are a domestic police action.

This underscores the need to build and support international institutions towards some form of global order. Though not a substitute for military force, these might serve to prevent some wars or at least to limit their destructive potential.

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