06/05/2012 10:24 am ET Updated Aug 05, 2012

"Just War" or Just War?

Just War Theory arose out of the contradiction between Scripture's moral precepts and the organized violence that is an inescapable feature of state politics. The theory never aimed at full reconciliation. Christian theologians were always aware that the moral absolutes whose ultimate goal is saving individual souls were not directly applicable to the contingent morality of political responsibility. Thomas Aquinas and fellow thinkers were not spiritual isolates. Devoted to the Gospel message, they were also acutely aware of temporal matters. The Church, from the outset, was a political entity that sought power, conserved power and devised mechanisms to exploit it in the dual cause of performing its macro-pastoral mission and securing its place among secular authorities. Let us recall that the First Crusade was a response to a Vatican call to arms made by Pope Urban II in 1095.

Aquinas' concerns, therefore, emerged against the backdrop of an historical triptych: war among states as a recurrent phenomenon; the Church's own engagement in power politics; and his abiding dedication to restoring and reifying the mission to redeem each individual person of God's creation. That meant avoidance, amelioration and containment of war and its consequences - not its suppression. However, the Thomist philosophy stressed the priority of sacred values. It was more restraining than enabling of temporal power's prerogatives. The core propositions of "just war" theory should be understood in this context since it is all too convenient to see his stipulations as a checklist to be manipulated to rationalize violent, aggressive behavior by statesmen. Cast in this light, the Obama White House's declarations of virtue in their advertised scrutiny of theological writings on "just war" looks more like a ploy to claim a retroactive laying on of hands by great theologians than an honest commitment to ponder their actual meaning. Here's why.

Aquinas, along with his disciples, set stringent standards of ethical behavior on issues of war and violence. His core propositions can be summarized in these succinct precepts:
  • First, war must occur for a good and just purpose rather than for self-gain (simply because it is "in the nation's interest") or as an exercise of power to affirm dominance
  • Second, just war must be waged by a properly instituted authority -- a legitimate state. By implication, that principle today covers procedures that that makes purposes and justifications clear and explicit
  • Third, peace must be a central motive even in the midst of violence, i.e. war is an abomination for mankind that is permissible only as a last resort where diplomacy and other pacific means (dialogue and negotiation) have failed.
  • Fourth, self-defense must be the motive and the conjectured war must not be more destructive than the alternative in terms of spilling blood, above all

In addition, there are strictures on the conduct of war. Additional requirements are:

  • It is necessary that the response be commensurate to the evil; use of more violence than is strictly necessary would constitute an unjust war.
  • Governing authorities declare war, but their decision is not sufficient cause to begin a war. If the people oppose a war, then it is illegitimate. The people have a right to depose a government that is waging, or is about to wage, an unjust war.
  • Once war has begun, there remain moral limits to action. For example, one may not attack innocents or kill hostages.

Almost all of America's military actions under the heading of the "war of terror" fail this test by a wide margin. The initial assault against the Taliban/al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is a likely exception -- "likely" because we never paid the slightest attention to Mullah Omar's proposal to try Osama bin Laden and to rid the country of his lieutenants. Certainly, the president's "kill list" project flies in the face of "just war" precepts and ridicules its spirit. For the objective relegates human welfare, the mainspring of Thomist thinking, to a status subordinate to the United States' national interest as measured in realpolitik terms. The most blatant violations are those that transgress the bounds of ethical Christian conduct. Three stand out.

First is the principle of proportionality. The United States either has killed or has done things resulting in the deaths of others that are greater than the number killed on 9/11 by a factor of 100 or so. Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, et al. have taken a toll conservatively estimated at 300,000. The overwhelming majority have been innocents -- non-combatants who posed no threat to the United States now or in the foreseeable future. We should remember that we are talking about New Testament morality -- not Old Testament morality. "An eye for an eye" is not the ruling ethic. "Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord." There is no known codicil that excludes the United States from this admonition -- no fine print that designates Obama & Associates sub-contractors.

Second, attacks that result inescapably in the death of civilians are prohibited outright. Yet drone assaults, Special Forces night raids and the newly acknowledged "kill zones" fall squarely in this category of prohibitions. The "kill lists" are but the extension of a warped logic that has governed our actions for years. The exceptionally loose criteria for placing names on the lists, as well as the arbitrary manner of making the determinations, disqualifies the policy for consideration as worthy of the "just war" imprimatur. Moreover, President Obama has granted himself the ultimate power to decide how many sins can be ethically eclipsed by a realpolitik virtue. As the New York Times story reports:

Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties.... It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants... unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

This contrived sophistry has no standing in Christian "just war' doctrine.<

Moreover, the violent jihadist groups who are our supposed targets have demonstrated little capacity to strike the United States. Killing innocents declared "collateral" damage of our campaigns is all the more un-Christian, by the light of "just war" theory, where there is no immediate or manifest threat. The White House now goes so far as claiming that "patterns" of movement showing an individual's presence in areas frequented by some already on the list justifies "signature strikes," i.e. placing him on the "kill list." Close only counts in horseshoes and Obama kill lists. Such behavior is condemned by Christian ethics.

Third, there is the issue of how hostages and prisoners are treated. Thomists pronounce anathema on torture: on calculated mistreatment of all sorts; of taking persons hostage on flimsy grounds of maybe being connected somehow at some time with people who bear ill will toward the United States; on collective guilt assigned to villages or clans or blood kin of an accused terrorist e.g. the children and now in-laws of Awlaki. Yet the Obama administration does all of these things.

There are two questions here. Does "just war" theory apply? Obviously not. Is the behavior at issue justified on other grounds -- compelling national interest? The latter is in fact the administration's claim -- even though out actions of generated more hostility and enemies than it has liquidated. The rest is public relations window dressing. The picture shown us of Obama, Brennan and Donilon in the Oval Office, the triumvirate of self-proclaimed philosopher-kings, as if poring over Thomas Aquinas alongside lists of nominated victims in agonized concentration, is offensive. Offensive to us as citizens expecting an honest accounting from our leaders as to what they are doing in our name, offensive to upholders of "just war" theology, offensive to all whose sense of humanity extends beyond tribal allegiance -- right or wrong.

What Obama has done is to borrow the crude thinking of Florida's "stand your ground" law and applied it slapdash to America's foreign policy. Aggrieved, resentful, vengeful -- and armed to the teeth -- you prowl the global precincts with your mind fixed on a caricatured image of your enemy. You strike at will when anyone vaguely approximating that image registers on your retina. If they fight back, that confirms their guilt or evil intent and the rightness of your avenging anger. Having performed your duty to protect your fellow citizens, you trumpet your bravery and virtue -- with one hand holding high Thomas Aquinas.

As for the country at large, the shrug of the shoulders reaction suggests that we are little concerned about issues of "just war" -- after all, this is just war, something to which we have grown accustomed -- too accustomed.