The National Catholic Reporter recently alerted us to the convening of a Vatican-sponsored conference on just war. The article noted it was the “first-ever conference to reevaluate just war theory,” suggesting that the Catholic Church has not rethought its centuries-old response to state-sponsored violence. I think most folks understand the general notion of just war, that it proscribes principles for getting into, fighting, and getting out of war. I don’t want to wade through hundreds of years of debates within the Catholic Church about how this doctrine has been applied. However, I do want to add a couple of points to the discussion.
First, as the organizers of this conference well-know, there has been a vigorous contest over interpreting and applying just war doctrine by American Catholics, from Dorothy Day and John C. Ford, S.J., in World War II, through Gordon Zahn in the early Cold War, the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference after Vietnam, and more recently Andrew Bacevich. This debate owes a debt to Pax Christi as well, for consistently advocating non-violent resolution to conflicts since 1945.
Second, the rub for changing the calculus of the just war doctrine is disentangling it from justifying rather than preventing war. Conference organizers declared: “After more than 1,500 years and repeated use of the just war criteria to sanction war rather than to prevent war, the Catholic Church, like many other Christian communities, is rereading the text of Jesus’ life and re-appropriating the Christian vocation of pro-active peacemaking.” But the prospect of upending the historical use of just war reveals the heaviness of the term.
What the organizers encounter in addressing just war is the dialectical relationship between why wars are fought and how wars are fought. Moreover, the immediate justification for engaging in war–an attack on the homeland, the imminent death of many people, a mortal threat to the material existence of a people–is often trumped by the existential purpose of a nation or group. In short, no matter how rational just war principles might seem they typically sound banal next to the heroic and historic pronouncements about why we must fight!
Michael Walzer remains a prominent expert on just war theory and in the latest edition of Just and Unjust Wars (2015), he responds to both the critics of his book and the promoters of the academic industry of just war theory by pointing out the significance of the collectivist power of war. “Patriotism and loyalty are, no doubt, often misguided, but they shouldn’t be incomprehensible,” he tells his critics. “Collectives like the state (or the army of the state) are indeed instrumental: they have no intrinsic value. But they make possible, and they defend, another collective, a community whose existence is of centrally important value to (most of) its members.” (340) Walzer reminds us that the default position of soldiers fighting for big concepts like “our freedom” is war not peace. See the image above that introduces this post from Chris Kyle, the idolized war hero. See further the people who made him into an idol.
With a nod to Peter Berger and his idea of “sacred canopy” creating social norms and beliefs out of language, just war can mean something very different to those who have been using to fight for a very long time. As Michael Ignatieff, among others, came very close to arguing at the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, it is America’s burden to be a better empire and empires are not made in peace.