Do Conservatives Still Care About Just War Theory?


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