by Ian Gurney
A religion which requires persecution to sustain it is of the devil's propagation.
~ Hosea Ballou (1796–1861)
So, Tony Blair, in a final desperate bid to woo Britain's anti-war protesters, has resorted to the last refuge of a scoundrel, religion. Last weekend, hours before hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest against a possible attack on Iraq, Mr Blair, a member of the Church of England who also attends a Roman Catholic Church with his wife, Cherie, argued what he called "the moral case" for confronting President Saddam Hussein with force, saying "Ridding the world of Saddam would be an act of humanity".
This immediately begs the question "Is there ever a moral case for war". American Civil War general William Sherman said "War is cruelty and you cannot refine it". But many have tried. Philosophers and theologians through the ages have attempted to constrain the barbarity that conflict unleashes by framing rules of war. The most famous of these, the principle of the "just war", provides a theoretical guide for when it is morally right to go to war and how that war might be fought. We owe this principle to St. Augustine and especially to St. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century theologian, and philosopher. In his treatise "Summa Theologica" he laid out the moral precepts that still shape our ethical thinking:
"War has to be a last resort. It can be sanctioned only by a legitimate authority and can be fought only to redress an injury, with self-defence the obvious justification. Even then, a war can be fought only if there is a realistic chance of success. War's ultimate goal must be the re-establishment of peace and the peace secured afterwards must be superior to that which would have prevailed if war had not been fought. Violence used in the war must be proportionate to injury suffered. Methods of waging war must try to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants. Civilian deaths are justified only if they are the unavoidable consequences of destroying an offensive military target, not as a means to an end."
Aquinas's theory has since been honoured as much in the breach as in the observance. Many wars, including those of religion, such as the Thirty Years' War between Britain and France, have encompassed terrible brutality towards civilians.
Other acts, such as the Duke of Cumberland's cry of "no quarter" after the Battle of Culloden, when the Scots of the Jacobite Army were already crushed, defy the proportionality principle.
There have been persistent attempts to regulate the conduct of war. International accords, notably the Geneva Convention, try to tie states to the doctrine of restraint. There are philosophical objections to the "just war" doctrine, and not solely from pacifists. Utilitarians argue that all means are potentially legitimate to minimise the length and cost of war. By such doctrines might those responsible for the bombing of Dresden, the destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima and the obliteration of Cambodia, seek justification.
Is this, then, the justification Tony Blair is using to condone the possible slaughter of perhaps a million innocent women and children in Iraq. If this is the case Tony Blair could well take note of the words of two far more illustrious thinkers than himself. As Albert Einstein said:
"He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would fully suffice. This disgrace to civilization should be done away with at once. Heroism at command, senseless brutality, deplorable love-of-country stance, how violently I hate all this, how despicable and ignoble war is; I would rather be torn to shreds than be a part of so base an action! It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder."
And as Tony Blair prepares to meet Pope John Paul II in the Vatican this week-end it may be worthwhile for him to consider the words of Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French mathematician, philosopher and theologian, who opined:
"Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction."