America’s Unjust War

As I’ve detailed before, there are two major ways of thinking about wars.

Realists believe that war is a simple necessity, and must be handled realistically.  You will try to minimize civilian casualties, and try to obey international treaties, but you will do these things for realistic reasons: to minimize blowback and the creation of new terrorist groups, and to ensure further cooperation with world governments.  Henry Kissinger was very prominent and straightforward in aligning himself with this way of thinking.  If you watch movies like The Bourne Identity you will see this kind of thinking exemplified.

Idealists, on the other hand, hold that certain ideals are more important than these “realistic” concerns, whether these ideals are matters of tradition, religious belief, morality or hopes for the future.  These ideals will mediate the wartime activities the idealist will engage in, even when those activities would be advantageous from a realist perspective.  In the Christian tradition in particular, two forms of idealism have emerged: pacifism and the just-war tradition.

Christian just-war theorists hold to the ideal that God has revealed a moral code that applies not only to Christians but to all mankind, easily summarized as “love God, love others.”  Loving other can mean using force to defend victims from aggression, but also means loving the attacker in the process.  So where the just-war doctrine has flourished, the church has developed a tradition to make concrete what that means: it means things such as not intentionally killing non-combatants, making terms of surrender clearly known, using proportional force, using all possible means prior to using force, caring for surrendered and imprisoned enemy combatants, and so on.  Just-war theorists do not believe these concepts apply only to Christians, but that they are moral laws that apply to all humans, so just-war theorists have tried to persuade governments to adopt these as military policy, and to see these concepts embedding in laws and international treaties so that even realists will follow them, even though they do not share the Christian’s ideals.

Christian pacifists agree with all of the above ideals (that killing non-combatants is wrong, etc.) but in addition hold an ideal that Christians are called to imitate Christ specifically in his refusal to utilize violence against the injustice of the world, and rather to suffer on behalf of the world.  Christians pacifists will join with just-war theorists to call on their national governments to use just force, but do not see the nation as a force called to be pacifist in its own right.  From the pacifist perspective, only the church is a community capable of living nonviolently, because only the church recognizes that Christ is Lord.

All of this I take to be uncontroversial, though it is admittedly oversimplified. (John Howard Yoder wrote a short book entitled Nevertheless: Varieties and Shortcomings of Religious Pacifism that identified and critiqued around thirty different forms of Christian pacifism; there is no way to speak for all at once.)  I take it to be uncontroversial that Christians, when confronted with the choice of participating in an unjust war or unjust action in war (even where the policy is not embedded in national or international law) has the duty to refuse that service.  What should be uncontroversial but is not is that the United States is currently ideologically committed to an unjust war: the so-called war on terror.

In the last two weeks a bill passed the Congress permitting the government to imprison U.S. citizens detained on U.S. soil indefinitely without trial if that person is suspected of being a terrorist.  Radical conservatives like Rand Paul and radical liberals like Denis Kucinich spoke out against the bill, but it passed overwhelmingly.  The language of the bill allows suspected terrorists to be held in military prisons without charges or trial, as enemy combatants, “until hostilities end.”  Meaning, until the “war on terror” is won.  So this is not merely a metaphor, like the war on drugs or the war on poverty.  This is an actual war with actual military agendas and actual wartime legislation.

And a war on terror cannot possibly be a just war.  A just war requires that the enemy be given terms they can meet in order to surrender, requires the possibility of surrender in the first place (who could surrender on behalf of “terror”?), requires proportional force, requires the capacity to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants.  For these reasons, from a Christian moral perspective, terrorism has to be dealt with as a criminal issue, not a military one.  That could be justified, but this cannot.

As such, I feel that all Christians at this time are called to lay down arms and refuse to fight this unjust war.  Further, I feel that all Christians are called to come together to witness to the state the injustice of its actions, its ideology, its framing of this war.  This recent bit of legislation is just one example, but one that even realists can oppose for its realistically frightening implications.

What do you think?  Is the war on terror a war?  Can it be a just war?  At what point are Christians expected to allow their morals to dictate their loyalty to the nation?


2 responses to “America’s Unjust War

  1. You did an excellent job of presenting a simplified picture of the various positions. “All of this I take to be uncontroversial…” but the sad fact is that most American Christians have no grasp of any of these positions and for most, a pacifist is certainly ‘unAmerican.’
    As to the ‘war on terror,’ it is cerainly scary that a person can be sentenced to a life of incarceration without trial during a ‘war’ that will never end. And for all the reasons you mentioned, it can not be a ‘just war.’
    As a pacifist, I have no problem with asking those Christians who choose otherwise to at least follow their rules.

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