The False Choice of Just War

There’s been a lot of talk about war lately, both in response to the age-old conflict in Israel/Palestine, and in response to the militant group ISIS (Islamic State). There’s a strong sense that the conflict in Israel/Palestine is unjust, on one side or another or both, but there seems to be an equally strong sense that virtually any military action taken against ISIS is justified – the more the better. I’ve written about it a few times, and had some conversations about it, and I see a lot of the same arguments from multiple sources, so I thought I’d address some of them here. The biggest one is the idea that we have a choice between killing people and doing nothing, as if there are no other options in the world. Let’s start there.

I’m a pacifist. That doesn’t mean that I would choose doing nothing when violently confronted by people who wanted to kill me, or kill others; far from it. Non-violent resistance, to be truly effective, requires us to be willing to absorb violence into our own bodies. To put it another way, I would rather die saving someone else’s life than kill to save someone else’s life. So for those who would argue that pacifists are “passive-ists”, or that we’d choose to do nothing at all, I ask: what is more passive, standing in front of a gun or standing behind one?

In no way do I mean to denigrate soldiers. I recently had someone (who appeared to be in the military) say “you’re a civilian, war costs you very little.” I agree, it costs most of us far too little – which is why I find it terrifying that people who declare war never have to be the ones in battle. They can do it far too easily. I find it interesting that whenever I speak out against war, soldiers defend it. I speak out against war because I think that soldiers are put in harm’s way by politicians who often have ulterior motives and rarely have any risk to themselves or their own families. I think soldiers are asked to do terrible things without having a clear or truthful story about why they’re asked to do it. Soldiers are not cowards who stand behind guns – far from it. They put their own lives on the line just as much as non-violent approaches would require – less because they have more means of self-defense, but more because violent actions invite retaliation while non-violent direct action is aimed at defusing violent situations. Soldiers are asked to kill and die by politicians and, increasingly, opinionated people on the internet, for whom war costs very little.

A friend and colleague of mine wrote a blog post the other day about ISIS and just war. Dr. V and I probably agree about most things in life, but you’d never know it from our blogs. I’ll respond to the whole post here, but it begins with the false choice of just war:

Which would you choose: war or peace? Peace, surely.

But what about these options: war or a peace at home which permits a murderous tyranny in other countries, a tyranny bent on world conquest?

In such a scenario, if peaceful diplomatic efforts are ineffective and cost the lives of large and growing numbers of innocents, I would choose war—just war.

I would choose just war as a last resort, with reluctance, to protect innocents from evil aggressors. Lethal force would be limited to what’s needed, protecting non-combatants, aiming for a just peace.

I should be clear from the get-go that he never explicitly calls for war against ISIS. He’s questioning, which is something he does a lot, and for the most part, very well. But there are a lot of assumptions in this opening section, which he doesn’t unpack or address in the rest of his post, which is aimed at objections to just war (which I’ll address below). Let’s look at some of the assumptions here:

1. There’s a plausible situation in which there are only two options: war, or permitting murderous tyranny. This is the false choice of just war in a nutshell: we can kill our enemies, or we can do nothing. There are no other options. I find this strange. We’ve put people on the moon, we’ve invented music and art and mathematics, we’ve built multiple systems of athletic events that require massive international cooperation and sportsmanship every few years, and we can’t figure out how to disarm and defuse a violent situation without killing our enemies? This bogus binary is absurd, yet I see it constantly. Ask Gandhi if he was doing nothing when he kicked the most powerful empire in the world out of his country without violence. Ask Martin Luther King, Jr., if he was doing nothing, enjoying “peace at home” while he non-violently led the civil rights protests that were ultimately responsible for universal suffrage in the US, and also ultimately responsible for his own death by assassination. (I’d also like to point out that his own death didn’t stop him from saving the lives of many others.) Ask the Scandinavian countries who either remained neutral or even allied with the Nazis in WWII if they were doing nothing when they chose not to engage militarily, but instead to wage campaigns of sabotage and non-violent resistance; I’ve read reports that say that they were more effective at saving their Jewish population than any of the countries that resisted militarily. No, there are more than just two options.

2. “Peaceful diplomatic efforts are ineffective.” Dr. V did say “IF” in front of that statement, but while I’ve seen dozens of articles about ISIS, I’ve never seen one that even mentions diplomatic efforts. All too often, the assumption of just war is that diplomacy doesn’t work. Well, diplomacy isn’t the only non-violent option either (as my point above hopefully shows), but again, I’ve rarely seen an actual commitment to diplomacy. Diplomacy in our world usually corresponds to another quote about non-violence I’ve seen recently from Theodore Roszak: “People try nonviolence for a week, and when it ‘doesn’t work,’ they go back to violence, which hasn’t worked for centuries.” The Israel/Palestine conflict is a perfect example of this: we’re always relieved when there’s a ceasefire that lasts more than a week. There’s simply no commitment to diplomatic resolution; it’s assumed that war is inevitable, or even simply justified, and therefore that diplomacy itself is a concession. They don’t come to peace talks willingly. How sad.

3. There’s such thing as just war. As I mentioned in a previous post, there’s a long list of conditions under which a war could be seen as a just war. There hasn’t been a single war in human history that meets those conditions. Just war is a figment of our imaginations, and it’s completely implausible in reality. Just war being theoretically possible but completely unlikely is not an argument for war. One condition of just war stands out: military necessity, which is described as follows:

Just war conduct should be governed by the principle of minimum force. An attack or action must be intended to help in the military defeat of the enemy; it must be an attack on a military objective, and the harm caused to civilians or civilian property must be proportional and not excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated. This principle is meant to limit excessive and unnecessary death and destruction.

Which brings us back to non-violent direct action. There are frequently (maybe not always, but probably most of the time) non-violent ways to defuse violent situations. They’re almost never tried, or limited to diplomacy which is usually assumed to be ineffective, is used reluctantly, and is given up on almost immediately. If a war would be just, it must use the minimum amount of force necessary – so if nonviolence is actually attempted it would be no force at all. “An attack or action must be intended to help in the military defeat of the enemy” – but surely your enemies deciding not to attack you anymore would fit that description, wouldn’t it? (It would if your overall military objective was peace, which is required by the other criteria of just war.) Working for peace and refusing to engage in war is the only way to keep war truly just.

I appreciate the sense of reluctance that Dr. V has in the last sentence I’ve quoted above, and I know that it’s genuine – the guy’s got a heart of gold and wouldn’t deliberately hurt anyone – but there’s also a sense in which, in spite of his reluctance to engage in violence, he believes that doing so would be justified, right, and good. This is at the core of my frustration with just war: it’s situational ethics of the worst kind. Things that would never be considered morally permissible in any other situation are suddenly not only justified, but good and praiseworthy. (I don’t know if Dr. V would call it praiseworthy, but just war in general implies it, and our society definitely lauds it). A little while ago I wrote that, in spite of being a pacifist, the news about ISIS makes me want to kill them all with extreme prejudice; but I recognize this as the worst in me coming out, whereas to just war theorists, it is theoretically a good thing and morally justified. Feeling bad about doing bad things is important, but it doesn’t excuse those bad things; and doing bad things for good reasons is important, but it doesn’t justify those who engage in bad things. There’s no such thing as a get-out-of-jail-free card in morality, and we can’t get away with doing awful things (like killing people) just because other people are doing what we assume to be worse things (like killing people). We’re still morally accountable for doing those bad things, and those bad things do not become good. If we want to engage in war we must recognize the cost of it on ourselves (as soldiers do): it may cost us our lives, but it also costs us our humanity, dignity, and morality. There may be times when we must be willing to take that on, but we can never assume that we maintain some sort of moral purity just because the other is more morally perverse (by our own standards and perspective) than we are.

I want to quickly comment on Dr. V’s response to “objections” to just war, because I think they’re fairly shallow:

1. “The Bible commands ‘do not kill.'”

Dr. V makes a distinction between killing and murder, and he’s right to do so in the context of the Pentateuch, but not in the context of the Bible as a whole. A follower of the same Jesus Christ who abstained from violence in spite of having legions of angels at his call (those same legions that Elisha did call upon in the Old Testament, by the by) and instead submitted himself to torture and death in order to save others, including his torturers, cannot simply refer to a distinction between killing and murder as an argument for war. The distinction is true, but unimportant in the light of Christ’s more powerful example of non-violence. Dr. V’s example of a police officer shooting to kill in order to stop a school shooting only underlines this: a police officer is a trained marksman, and presumably has the power to shoot to wound and incapacitate; there are also other steps police officers can take to stop a shooting in progress, and many police officers are trained at de-escalating situations. Shooting to kill may be justified as killing instead of murder, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s concerned with saving some over saving others. Christ was concerned with saving his own torturers and killers, and wouldn’t use his own far more legitimate power so that he could accomplish that. If the police officer wanted to save everyone, including the school shooter, they’d shoot to wound. And if they accidentally killed the shooter, it would still be different from shooting to kill.

2. “Jesus said ‘Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.’

Dr. V rightly points out that context is very important here, but I think he gets the context wrong, and thus the meaning it implies. He says:

Yes, Jesus said this, but this has to do with personal relationships, not matters of government. It has to do with a backhand slap to the face, which in Jesus’ culture is an insult. It means that if someone insults you, suck it up.

The context of Jesus’ comment was a class-based society in which the upper class, or occupying force, was Roman citizens. He’s correct in saying that it has to do with a backhand slap, but a backhand slap itself is a meaningful statement of subjugation, representing the entire occupation and oppression of the Jewish people by the Romans. A backhand slap on the right cheek is easy for a right-handed person, but if you turn your left cheek to the person, they can’t connect with a backhand slap. If they want to strike you, they have to do it as if you’re a real person instead of a subjugated non-person. Jesus is not just telling his audience to suck it up if you’re mistreated in a personal relationship; he’s telling them to encourage their foreign oppressors to inflict obviously unjust amounts of violence against them, and then to suck it up. This is using the Roman sense of justice to illuminate the injustice of their rule, and the other two examples Jesus gives in the same speech show this: when you’re being sued for your outer garment, give them your inner garment too (i.e., if someone is using the legal system to take the coat off your back, strip naked in the courtroom to show that they’ve taken everything from you, which highlights the injustice of using legal means to systematically devour your enemy’s property, as Romans did in Jesus’ day and as some Israelis do to Palestinians today); and when you’re asked to walk one mile, walk two (Roman soldiers could order any non-citizen to carry their pack for a maximum of one mile; more than that, and they’d be in trouble for it). Dr. V quotes CS Lewis, who points out that Jesus lived in a disarmed nation and “war is not what they would have been thinking about.” We agree on that point!

3. “Aren’t we supposed to love our neighbours? Doesn’t love preclude war?”

Dr. V answers this objection by saying that sometimes love requires us to protect our neighbours from murderous thugs. To this I would ask the same question that someone once asked Jesus: “Who is my neighbour?” Jesus’ answer pointed to the historic enemy of the Jews, someone who was probably considered a “murderous thug” to many Jews of Jesus’ day – a Samaritan. In saying that we’re justified in killing “murderous thugs” to protect our neighbours, we’re implying that these murderous thugs are not our neighbours. It may be clear that they don’t see us as neighbours to be preserved, but that’s the point of Jesus’ parable: we are to love our enemies.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer participated in a plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler during the second World War, in spite of being a committed pacifist. He felt compelled to do whatever he could for his neighbours, the Jews. He never actually committed any violence against the Nazis, but he struggled with the notion of it, and decided that doing so would damn him, but that he was compelled by his love of neighbour to do so anyway. He was willing to accept damnation for the sake of his oppressed neighbours, just as Paul wished he could do on behalf of the Jews. He’d do it anyway, and throw himself on the mercy of Christ, knowing he was wrong to do so but also knowing that he could do no less because of love of neighbour. He was hanged by the Nazis just weeks before the end of the war, and I imagine that he walked to the gallows with his head high and peace in his heart, because he’d done everything he could for his neighbour and had also been spared from having to take a life. May we all experience such grace and mercy.

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