Gaza, ISIS, and Two Types of Just War

I’m currently reading In the Fray: Contesting Christian Public Ethics, 1994-2013 by David P. Gushee, a series of essays and addresses in a variety of ethical topics and issues. Today I read “Just War Divide: One Tradition, Two Views”, written in 2002 just before the US invaded Iraq again, and it got me thinking about the possibility of a third Iraq invasion on the horizon.

Gushee points out that Just War theory has been divided into what he refers to as “soft”, or “dovish” views of just war, and “hard” or “hawkish” views. He then gives an example of each view. I’ll give you his definitions of the two views, followed by more contemporary examples from Gaza and Iraq today. First, “soft” just war:

Soft just war theory is characterized by seven key components: a strongly articulated horror of war; a strong presumption against war; a skepticism about government claims; the use of just war theory as a tool for citizen discernment and prophetic critique; a pattern of trusting the efficacy of international treaties, multilateral strategies and the perspectives of global peace and human rights groups and the international press; a quite stringent application of just war criteria; and a claim of common ground with Christian pacifists. – Gushee, In the Fray, 32.

Soft just war theory starts with the notion that war is hell. Gushee later points out that soft just war theory developed in the 20th century, in large part in response to the horrors of the wars of that century. The fact that he separates between articulating the horror of war and having a presumption against war may seem strange: if war is awful, why wouldn’t we presume against it? Starting with the presumption that war is horrific, even evil, soft just war theory sees the criteria of just war as a criteria for the limitation of war: if war cannot be carried out justly, it should not be carried out at all. Gushee goes on to describe hard just war theory:

Hard just war theory reverses these emphases, replacing them with the following: a presumption against injustice and disorder rather than against war; a presumption that war is tragic but inevitable in a fallen world, and that war is a necessary task of government; a tendency to trust the US government and its claims for the need for military action; an emphasis on just war theory as a tool to aid policymakers and military personnel in their decisions; an inclination to distrust the efficacy of international treaties and to downplay the value of international actors and perspectives; a less stringent or differently oriented application of some just war criteria; and no sense of common ground with Christian pacifists. – Gushee, In the Fray, 33.

Hard just war theory sees war as a necessary evil, a regular function of government as a way of keeping the evils of injustice and disorder in check. This is where references to Hitler usually come into play: what’s more evil, to kill thousands of people in a war, or to not go to war and let millions of people die at the hands of a radical dictator or terrorist group? Governments have the responsibility to protect their people, and some would argue that they even have the responsibility to punish those who would attack their people (Gushee points out that this was argued as a reason for the US invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11). Starting with such presumptions, hard just war theory sees the criteria of just war as a criteria for the justification of war: war must be waged, and should be waged as justly as possible.

Before continuing to the examples, make sure you take a look at the criteria of just war. There has never, in the history of the world, been a war that meets all of these criteria; yet even the most pacifist of us, with the benefit of hindsight and recognizing the life we enjoy today, may be willing to admit that there are some wars that we’re glad were fought. I think I would insert into Gushee’s analysis, then, a difference in the way that the word “just” is understood: soft just war theorists would argue that no war is just, even if war is necessary; while hard just war theorists would maintain that the ends justify the means, i.e., that a war is actually just in the sense of being morally acceptable if it is waged for the right reasons and in the most humane and effective ways possible.

Now take a look at the current conflict in Gaza. Israel and her allies tend to lean pretty heavily on hard just war theory, which Gushee points out is natural for any government to do: he notes that we tend to hold the position on just war that best aligns with our loyalties. Those loyal to a state or military body are naturally going to have their reasoning affected by that loyalty. In Israel, every male and a large portion of the female population is a member of the military; further, their ethnic identity is tied with their national identity, as Israel is a Jewish state. Even further, they have reason to understand their survival and continued existence as a part of that Jewish identity, as from the moment Israel became a nation they have been subject to attack from neighbouring nations whose explicit aim was to completely destroy them for racial and religious reasons – so loyalty to the state and the military can be seen as inherent to cultural and religious identity for Jewish Israelis.

On the other side of the conflict, hard just war theory (of a different sort) also rules: Palestinian governments and militant groups such as the PLO, Palestinian Authority, and Hamas have all at different times and to different degrees justified their militant stances. The difference is that they pay no lip service to just war criteria, and work within revolutionary frameworks that include guerrilla warfare, suicide bombings, kidnappings and torture, and targeting civilians. Make no mistake, Western governments do this too (Israel is surely no exception); we just claim that we don’t. In any case, the Palestinian governments’ concept of just war is much broader, with no restrictions on methodology but instead deriving its justification entirely from right reasons for war: being oppressed on one hand, and (at least to extreme conservative islamists) the existence of a Jewish state in a Muslim holy land on the other.

International parties in this conflict aren’t quite so firmly on the side of hard just war theory. The US government affirms Israel’s right to defend itself, but is more insistent that other means of conflict resolution be at least attempted (Canada hasn’t said much in that regard, to my shame). Other nations condemn Israel’s attacks on Gaza, but support the Palestinians’ rights to defend themselves. Of course, both nations are defending themselves by offensive means, attacking their neighbour as a way of defending against them, and this is deemed justifiable only by the most “hawkish” of just war theorists.

International groups and individuals are more prone to supporting Palestine than most national governments are. Hamas began as a (terrorist) militia, and other militant forces around the world support their struggle openly and verbally, while governments who support them do so secretly and with smuggled shipments of weapons. Individuals who have no connection to the conflict except through news reports online are more commonly soft just war theorists: Paul Estrin, the now former president of the Green Party of Canada, wrote a blog post in which he lamented the entire war, and even recognized several of Israel’s faults in the conflict, but implied that if Hamas didn’t change their aim of eradicating Israel that Israel would be justified in taking more severe measures. His whole post seemed a long way short of pacifism on one hand, and yet there was nothing “hawkish” in his view that Israel would be right to defend itself. Even so, there were immediate calls for his removal based on his so-called support for “genocide” (the implication being that Israel is engaged in genocide, and therefore any support of Israel was support of genocide). So even people who have no connection to the conflict other than being a human being on planet earth are regularly expressing some form or other of just war theory in support of either side of this conflict.

The Israel/Palestine conflict, to me, gives support to soft just war theory. I’m a pacifist, but when I see that there are elements on both sides of this conflict who won’t stop until the other side is annihilated, I can’t help but think that perhaps defensive violence may be necessary. If that defensive violence could be used in a just way as defined by the criteria of just war, I might be won over to soft just war theory from my current pacifist stance. I recognize that my pacifism is easy, given that I’m not currently under threat. Even so, the convoluted nature of the Israel/Palestine conflict suggests to me that a pacifist response is possible: both sides can recognize that they’re guilty of atrocities toward each other; both sides can recognize that they’re not gaining any ground by fighting; and both sides could at least in theory agree to simply stop fighting. I think this would require that both governments agree to more tightly control their citizens, as the extremists on both sides are the ones who keep the fighting going, but I think that would in many ways be more just than trying to exercise strict control on each other. So I still have some hope for a pacifist option, but in general Gaza makes me think that perhaps soft just war theory is justifiable.

Then ISIS happened. Everywhere I look online these days I see news stories about ISIS (an extremist militant islamist organization) murdering Christians in Iraq, even beheading children. My first thought whenever I see a story like this is about the Christians, my people: “Lord, please help those poor innocent people.” My second thought is about ISIS: “Someone needs to kill those motherfuckers.” Not particularly Christian or pacifist of me, is it? Of course, my sudden swing toward thinking that violence is justified is, as Gushee pointed out, a product of my loyalty to the group in question. It’s also due to the nature of ISIS: they’re a completely unaccountable group that seems to function on mob mentality and religious fervor, and shows absolutely no restraint. This is as near to radical evil as I’ve ever seen in this world, the kind of evil that doesn’t follow the rules of war, the kind of evil that can’t be reasoned with. This is mass-possession, the likes of which the world hasn’t seen since…Hitler. And I’ve come full circle, back to the argument that war is justifiable if it’s fought for the right reasons, and that it’s better to kill a few thousand members of ISIS than to let them slaughter Christians for no cause.

Knowing that I have this kind of reaction is helpful, I think. It helps me to identify with those who justify war without immediately resorting to inflammatory and dismissive terms like “warmongers”. It helps me to step down off of my high horse as I offer opinions on the internet regarding the wars of the world from my comfortable couch in Canada. And it helps me to consider the true cost of pacifism, as well as the true potential of non-violent resistance, because all too often we treat pacifism as an ideal that gets thrown out the window as soon as the first shot is fired by our enemies. If we’re going to hold a soft just war position, we need to do so not as a failed attempt at pacifism, but rather as a principled and self-controlled approach to self-defense or the defense of others. And if we’re going to hold a hard just war position, it should be because it makes sense, not because we’re loyal to our state or military body. And finally, knowing that I have a knee-jerk reaction toward a hard just war position reminds me why, more often than not, my standard position is pacifism: because as much as I’m loyal to Christians and may want to defend them, my first loyalty is to Christ himself, who absorbed the violence of Rome into his own body rather than letting himself be rescued by his followers (or a legion of angels), and did so in a way that inspired a more principled and higher resistance in people and shamed the violent powers that ruled by the sword. This is not the kind of action that I can insist that others follow – if I were in their situation, I may feel justified in violence – but it is the action that Christ took, and the action he calls his followers to emulate. I hope I never need to follow him that, and at the same time I watch and wait for an opportunity for my own death or persecution to mean something. If given the choice between justifying killing someone and having a meaningful death, I hope for the latter. Perhaps if more of us looked for ways for our life, and death, to be meaningful rather than looking for ways to justify killing others, we’d have less opportunity for either.


4 thoughts on “Gaza, ISIS, and Two Types of Just War

  1. came searching for some thoughts from pacifists on ISIS – really appreciate your thoughts here and resonate quite strongly with the knee-jerk reaction to wanting to kill ISIS and knowing that’s why pacifism needs to be my starting point.

  2. Interesting article, even for “non-believers” like myself. I’m normally the “soft just war” type but this “ISIS” news makes me skip past any milquetoast “hard just war” viewpoint straight to wishing for brutal, ugly revenge to be visited on these motherfuckers. And feeling pretty good about my feelings on the matter. Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers in an apparent rage right?

    • Thanks for reading Fred!

      I resonate with your reaction to ISIS, and I think the way we act in response will be the measure of our humanity. This kind of thing tempts us to be something less than we can be, than we ought to be. Best-case scenario is that we act swiftly, while at the same time showing restraint from unnecessarily violent responses; worst case scenario is the ugly revenge.

      As for Jesus, much has been made of him turning over the tables of the moneychangers, and especially the “whip of cords” he used. It should be noted that the money changers were only there to facilitate selling animals for temple sacrifice, and the whip of cords was probably used to drive out the animals. This was a non-violent statement about corruption of the temple, not a blind rage (though I’m sure he was plenty angry). As Paul put it: be angry, and yet, do not sin.

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