Thursday, August 16, 2007

Revisionist Just War Theory

Army captain and Iraq War veteran Robert P. McGovern’s new book All American: Why I Believe in Football, God, and the War in Iraq makes the case that “as a lawyer, a soldier, and a graduate of four Catholic schools, I believe that nations are legally and morally obliged to prevent injustices like genocide, military aggression and threats to civilians.” In other words, he believes that the Church’s Just War Theory fits the Iraq situation and provides adequate justification for the war.

I gasped when I saw this. First of all, Captain McGovern’s contention that the Just War Theory justifies this war in Iraq is such revisionist hooey. The fact is that before the war ensued, Pope John Paul II pleaded with Bush NOT to go into Iraq—and to get out—several times. ALL of the U.S. mainline churches openly opposed the prospect of war. Moreover, onlookers claim that Bush never consulted a minister, including one from his own Methodist faith about his decision to invade Iraq.

Secondly, four and a half years of war have gotten us 3,699 dead Americans and between 69,284 and 655,000 dead Iraqis; mass migration and unrest in the region; $451.8 billion of taxpayers money wasted; torture against our enemies and domestic spying; soldiers doing three, four, five tours in Iraq; and the cultivation of more terrorism because of our occupation. Things are so bad that 70 percent of the American people are against this war, almost a complete reversal of support when we started it. Perhaps a look at Just War Theory can help us see through this fog of war that seems to be getting thicker and thicker.

In 387 A.D. Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. The Christians, who had been enemies of Rome, suddenly became allies of the state. Although they no longer had to dodge being eaten by lions, they had a new problem: how to deal with questions of war like: “When is it permissible to wage war” (jus in bello) and “What are the limitations in the ways we wage war?” (jus ad bellum). St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.) tackled this problem by formulating his famous “Just War Theory” which claimed that leaders could commit their people to war if it were morally justifiable. Any leader contemplating war had to meet three conditions. First, the nation must have legitimate authority to declare war. Secondly, it must take care not to hurt non-combatants or civilians. Third, the nation must consider a proportional means to achieve its goal.

Even though these rules of war had been layed out, Christians have been waging war through the centuries and making as many excuses for war as there have been wars. In truth, Augustine’s Just War Theory runs counter to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), which preaches that we love our enemies and take care of the poor.

Another unintended consequence of the Just War Theory is the alliance between church and state, which has resulted in the Church’s “horrible history of war that we try to forget by re-interpreting the text,” says Professor Rudi Siebert, religion and society scholar at Western Michigan University. Hitler, for example, reinterpreted the text with the 1933 Concordat, a treaty he made with the Vatican which guaranteed the Church’s right to regulate its own affairs in Germany while the dictator proclaimed that Christianity was “the basis of our collective morals,” the family, and “the kernel of our people.”

Applying Just War principles to the twentieth century has become “very murky” said Professor Siebert because today’s wars may involve weapons of mass destruction and they often include genocidal violence against civilians. For example, during World War I, 10 percent of those killed were civilians. In World War II the number rose to 40 percent. Today, estimates are at 90 percent.

It distresses Professor Siebert that religion has been the source of so much violence and war. However, he is concerned that “when religion fails, what does that leave us?” The state with its laws and secular morality can avert violence and war and international controls like the Geneva Convention, the United Nations, and NATO foster restraint and discourse. However, says Professor Siebert, today even these institutions are losing their effectiveness, especially when President Bush effectively blew them off in his urgency to get the war in Iraq started.

For all his study and experience of war (he was a teenage fighter pilot in the German air force and an infantryman during World War II), Professor Siebert admits that the ultimate paradox about war is that “All wars are bad even if sometimes some wars may be necessary.” So, why so many wars? His answer is threefold. Economically, we fight over scarce resources. Culturally, we have movies that glorify war and killing. Psychologically, we have a death instinct “as if there were something biologically wrong with us.”

“Even wolves have an instinct to stop fighting when it is clear that one wolf is vulnerable and defeated,” says Professor Siebert. “He opens his neck to the other wolf and the aggressor doesn’t bite. We human beings don’t have a mechanism within us to be against war—except the Sermon on the Mount.” Unfortunately, some Christians will quote Matthew 10:34 to justify war: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Finding our way to peace is looking more and more difficult and yet, as Gandhi said to the British governor over India: eventually you will all leave. You will just walk out. And walk out they did—ever so graciously and India gained its independence from Britain in 1947.

Seems to me that we have a solution for ending the war in Iraq: we simply walk out. Better that it happen sooner than later!