The Magazine

You Say You Want a Just War?

Look at what the coalition forces have just accomplished.

Apr 21, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 31 • By J. BOTTUM
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THERE'S A HUNGER in the world of public intellectuals and chattering commentators--among everyone from Unitarian peace activists to hawkish Catholic neoconservatives--for just-war theory to work like a gumball machine: You pay your money, and you get your answer. Or maybe, better, one of those learn-your-weight machines that used to lurk near the doors of corner drugstores: You put your war upon the scale, you drop a penny in the slot, and out pops the answer on a little slip of paper, with an ad for Bayer aspirin printed on the back.

In fact, just-war theory is hardly a machine that runs of itself. Beginning life as a suggestion in St. Augustine's "City of God," the theory has exploded in the years since World War II to become the major intellectual device for weighing the morality of war. And it's filled with terms of art, technicalities of application, and requirements for prudential judgment. The theory isn't completely manipulable--the Nazis' invasion of Poland and the Allies' fire-bombing of Dresden won't pass muster--but it's open-ended enough to admit a little nudging from the will of the person applying it.

Nonetheless, as the fighting in Iraq sputters to an end, we can come to something like a firm conclusion. When the war began, hundreds of thousands of soldiers stood on either side, armed with some of the most dangerous weapons ever invented. The British and American forces faced Iraqi troops dug into cities that were packed with civilians like sheep crowded into paddocks, waiting to be slaughtered in the crossfire. A fear of biological and chemical weapons kept the coalition soldiers jumpy, their fingers on their triggers. The skies above Baghdad were filled with planes and missiles, each imaginable as a potential humanitarian disaster.

And the result of all this was slighter than any major human conflict has ever seen. Never was there an actual war more carefully conducted. Never was there a war of this magnitude with so little collateral damage. Never was there a war with greater desire to confine the damage to actual combatants. By what the theorists would call the in bello canons of just-war theory, the invasion of Iraq may go down as the most justly waged war in human history.

That qualification of in bello is necessary. Over the centuries, the concept of just war moved from St. Augustine to St. Thomas Aquinas, then to the philosophers of natural law and international relations in early modernity, before finally reaching the theorists of the last half century, from Paul Ramsey to George Weigel. Along the way, the theory hardened to distinguish two places of application: justice in the means used during a war, jus in bello, and justice in the reasons for going to war, jus ad bellum. About the reasons for going to war, controversy will undoubtedly keep just-war theorists arguing for years. But they will have a hard time faulting the conduct of the war.

The first canon of a justly waged war--jus in bello, the bringing of as much justice as possible to the inherently dangerous and sloppy work that armies do--is the proportionality of force to goal: Because the point of war is victory and not, directly, the killing of the enemy, we slide into injustice when we apply to a particular battle more force than is necessary to win that battle. The second in bello canon is discrimination, which insists that direct attack upon civilians is always unjust and that indirect attack upon civilians--in the bombing of military sites, for instance, and in crossfires--must always be minimized.

The final canon is right intention. This is an instance of what St. Thomas would have called "the principle of double effect"--a recognition that very bad things happen in war, but nonetheless a moral distinction should be made between two types of motive: There are those commanders who do not want and will try hard to minimize the unintended results of firing a weapon, and there are those commanders who, by actual intent or simply through negligence and unconcern, condone and encourage the accidents of war.

Now, think about these canons and their application to the way the British and Americans conducted war in Iraq. Assume the worst, if you like--assume the leaders of the coalition forces are all monsters who were kept from dropping the atom bomb on Baghdad only by fear of bad public relations. Still, the smart bombs destroyed Saddam Hussein's meeting places while leaving the surrounding neighborhoods intact. Still, the residential sections of Basra are nearly untouched. Still, the soldiers on the ground in Iraq have held their fire more often than any soldiers in history. Accidents happened, horrible and sad, but they happened because accidents occur in war, and not because the tank commanders and bomber pilots intended them.