Do Conservatives Still Care About Just War Theory?

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare


DIGG THIS

Does the theory
of just war count for anything anymore within American "conservatism"?
If one were to take recent events and conservative reaction to these
events as evidence, it would seem that it does not.

Several
large recent events immediately spring to mind. First, there is
the war in Iraq. Such Catholic conservatives as George
Weigel
and Michael
Novak
, two men who have contributed much of value to conservative
thought, attempted to give justifications for the war in Iraq along
Catholic lines. Neither were very successful and their arguments
have been rebutted by several writers on this site (here
and here),
so there is no reason to repeat the reasons why they were wrong
Suffice it to say that the war in Iraq cannot be justified via the
just war theory, but at least Weigel and Novak tried to justify
the invasion of Iraq with appeals to just war theory — most other
conservatives were content to accept the idea of pre-emptive war
as morally legitimate

Then,
of course, there was the conflict between Israel and Lebanon this
past summer. The conflict started with Hezbollah firing rocket into
northern Israel and capturing two Israeli soldiers and killing three
others. Israel attempted to rescue the kidnapped soldiers, but when
that failed, they began bombing Lebanon. Before the end of the conflict,
almost 1,000 Lebanese citizens were killed and hundreds of thousands
of Israelis and Lebanese citizens had been displaced. Conservatives
were, by and large, either silent on Israel's actions or supportive
of them. (For a hilariously bad take on the situation, see Ben
Shapiro's response
to Pope Benedict's condemnation of Israel's
actions).

The
two situations differ in where their most flagrant violation of
the Catholic theory of just war lie. The war in Iraq violates the
principles of jus ad bellum in that the war itself is not
a just one. Israel's actions most violate the principles of jus
in bello in that their actions within the war is not just. Our
war in Iraq, it should be noted, has, for the most part, not been
prosecuted with the same reckless disregard for civilian life that
Israel demonstrated. This does not excuse our initial action, but
at least we are still demonstrating some restraint in our action.
I say "some" restraint because our treatment of Iraqi
prisoners has not been stellar, and our initial bombardment of Baghdad
certainly was not just; however, since then our attacks have not,
for the most part, been targeted at civilians.

But
the conservative reaction to Israel's actions indicates that American
conservatives favor complete abandonment of all just war principles.
A recent article by John Hawkins of Right
Wing News
makes this sentiment extremely clear. Hawkins' first
point in an article entitled "Five
Things You Can't Say in America
" goes as follows:

1)
The U.S. military should be far less concerned about civilian
casualties.

Moreover,
although we shouldn’t be cavalier about taking the lives of civilians,
safeguarding the lives of our soldiers and winning the wars we
fight are more important than the civilian body count. It’s better
to lose foreign civilians than our soldiers and it’s better to
kill large numbers of civilians than lose a war. That’s how we
looked at it in World War II and it’s how we should look at it
today.

Contrast
this with the Catechism
of the Catholic Church
:

2313
Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must
be respected and treated humanely.

Actions
deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal
principles are crimes, as are the orders that command such actions.
Blind obedience does not suffice to excuse those who carry them
out. Thus the extermination of a people, nation, or ethnic minority
must be condemned as a mortal sin. One is morally bound to resist
orders that command genocide.

2314
“Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction
of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime
against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.”
A danger of modern warfare is that it provides the opportunity
to those who possess modern scientific weapons especially atomic,
biological, or chemical weapons – to commit such crimes.

Just
war theory demands that the evil inflicted by any military action
on the civilian populace be proportional to the good that is achieved
by that action. So, it's not legitimate to bomb a mall full of innocent
non-combatants to kill one enemy soldier. That may seem like an
extreme example, but it is useful to note that just war theory places
strict limits on collateral damage. Once the amount of evil inflicted
is no longer proportional to the good achieved, an action is unjust
and must be avoided by any country that wishes to continue claiming
to follow the principles of just war.

Hawkins
is explicitly calling for an end to these limits, while at the same
time warning against being "cavalier" with innocent human
life. But how is this possible? Once one has dismissed any notions
of proportionality, one has dismissed the idea that civilian casualties
must be minimized. What, then, is acceptable? How much damage can
the military inflict on the civilian populace before it becomes
"cavalier"? An admonition against being cavalier can only
be described as vague. Proportionality and respect for innocent
human life demand that civilians never be targeted directly. But
Hawkins' guidelines put no real boundaries on military action. What
if it was found that bombing civilian targets that contained no
enemies discouraged the enemy from attacking? Did this, perhaps,
figure into Israel's thinking? Suddenly, the slaughter of innocents
is accepted as moral by many American conservatives.

This
embrace of utilitarian thinking by conservatives is incredibly disheartening,
but it seems that they are left with no other options. The rationale
for the war has shifted from disarming Saddam, to bringing democracy
to Iraq, to fighting the terrorists there rather than here as the
situation has worsened. When no weapons were found, it became a
fight for democracy. When democracy was established and chaos remained,
suddenly it became a fight against terrorists in Iraq. The prospect
for success has become increasingly dismal, and this latest column
by Hawkins must be seen as a desperate response to this reality,
but still a response that makes no sense morally or practically.
If democracy and order in Iraq remain a goal for America, one must
wonder how a decreased respect for civilian life might accomplish
that goal. If the United States were to follow Hawkins prescription
for success in Iraq, would anyone be left to enjoy democracy? Furthermore,
if our objective is only to defeat whatever terrorists remain in
Iraq, civilian casualties be damned, why do we still have ground
troops in Iraq? Why haven't we pulled out and began an aggressive
bombing campaign? Would that cross the line into "cavalier"?
Who will make that determination?

Again,
this sort of ludicrous suggestion by Hawkins must be seen as a response
to the reality in Iraq. If things were going as well as many conservatives
claim they are in Iraq, there would be no need to suggest that the
U.S. military should start disregarding the lives of innocent civilians
in order to succeed. Even as they deny the situation in Iraq, they
implicitly accept it in their suggestions for "success."

May
17, 2007

John
Ostrowski [send him mail]
is a graduate student in political science at the University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Visit his
blog.

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare