Which Way Out of Just War Theory?

Posted: May 5, 2009 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

Richard Haass at the Council on Foreign Relations recently voiced reservations about the Afghanistan war, pointing out that it was rapidly evolving into a ‘war of choice.’ It’s a good read, and I commend him for giving the interview.

However, I take issue with his more recent piece on the Washington Post’s “On Faith” feature, “When is War Justifiable?”  The kernel of the piece lies in these two sentences:

But just war theory is too subjective and confining for today’s real-world threats.

A more useful concept is that of justifiable war.

In one way, Haass is right: modern conflicts have pulled the thin veneer of usability off of just war theory and exposed it not as a restraint on actions in conflict, but as a gateway drug. We use it to get in, and it does not help us get out. And, if our slippery-slope behavior in World War II is any guide, it doesn’t particularly bother us to jettison it once we get angry or frustrated enough during the conflict. (See Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, etc.) But to say that just war theory has somehow made it too hard to get into wars ignores the last couple of centuries’ worth of wars and “police actions.”

I posted this brief reply to Haass in the comments section (and yes, I misspelled his name consistently throughout):

As much as I appreciate the recent skepticism Mr. Haas recently voiced about the Afghanistan escalation (and I do very much appreciate it), I’d disagree with the direction in which he’s going in this piece. I do not subscribe to “Christian” just war theory either, but if we are to dismantle it, we should be heading in *more* restrictive directions, rather than loosening its constraints.

Haas is correct that just war theory is meant to be “confining.” That’s the point. He is incorrect in an underlying assumption: that people can be helped by the unpredictable violence unleashed in wartime.

On the other hand, he’s only making explicit what has been the dirty little secret of “Christian” war deliberations in the U.S….that we don’t use just war theory, and that when we claim to do so we’re actually just talking about whether we feel justified in making war.

We should jettison just war theory not because it’s too restrictive (is it Haas’ case that it’s too hard these days to go to war? I’m confused…) but because it isn’t restrictive enough. Violence is not a legitimate means of participating in conflict.

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