A new look at the 'just war' theory

Jim Castelli

October 16, 1990|By Jim Castelli

IN THE WAKE of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, U.S. religious leaders reacted to President Bush's decision to send troops to the Middle East with cautious support. They condemned the Iraqi invasion and backed United Nations sanctions, including the sending of troops.

As the stalemate has worn on, however, and there has been loose talk in Washington about carpet-bombing Baghdad and Bush's losing patience with Iraq, religious leaders have been a bit more critical.

Several have urged that the embargo against Iraq -- which is total and now includes the air as well as the sea -- not keep needed food and medicine from innocent civilians. Others have called for relying on diplomacy and warned against negative stereotypes of Arabs and Moslems.

Most recently, Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning of the Episcopal Church urged Bush to resist pressures for war. He also asked, "For what reason has our nation unleashed the greatest military force since the Vietnam War? Are we not justified in suspecting that the reason is primarily economic, having to do with unimpeded access to oil?"

For all the timeliness of the situation, however, there has been very little talk -- from the religious community or anywhere else -- about what moral factors go into deciding whether or under what circumstances to go to war.

For centuries, religious leaders have used the concept of the "just war theory" for guidance. The theory originated with the Catholic Church, but most other denominations and faiths have some version of it.

When the U.S. Catholic bishops wrote their pastoral letter on peace in 1983, they included a description of the just war theory. A look at the components of that theory is valuable during what may well be the lull before the storm.

The theory holds that these conditions must be met for a war to be just:

* Just Cause. War is permissible only to confront a real danger such as a threat to innocent life or to secure basic human rights. This is where the criticism that the United States should not fight a war for "cheap oil" comes in.

* Competent Authority. War must be declared by the appropriate legal authority. On a practical level, this means the involvement of Congress.

* Comparative Justice. Even if a nation is "right" in a dispute, it must still answer the question, "Do the rights and values involved justify killing?"

* Right Intention. War can be legitimately intended only for the just cause. This means that during the conduct of a war, a nation must seek peace and reconciliation and avoid unnecessarily destructive acts or unreasonable demands.

* Last Resort. War is legitimate only after all peaceful means of ending the dispute have been exhausted.

* Probability of Success. This is designed to prevent either irrational use of force or hopeless resistance.

* Proportionality. This means that the destructiveness inflicted and the cost of the war must be proportional to the good obtained.

Even if all of these criteria are met and a "just war" is engaged, morality requires that certain standards be used in the conduct of that war.

The just war theory holds that in conducting a war, a nation must meet the tests of both proportionality and discrimination.

This means that the use of force in any instance must secure a good greater than the harm that will be done. "Discrimination" means that it is unjust to directly target innocent civilians.

During the '80s, there was much talk in religious circles that the just war theory was outmoded in a nuclear age when any war involving the superpowers could escalate into nuclear war.

In today's post-Cold-War world, with the United States and the Soviet Union on the same side in a struggle with a country that -- so far -- does not have a nuclear capacity, the venerable just war theory seems to have something to contribute after all.

Jim Castelli writes a syndicated column on religion and politics.


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