The Magazine

Making War

From the November 3, 2003 issue: The triumph of just-war theory.

Nov 3, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 08 • By CHRISTOPHER LYNCH
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Such concerns can be allayed in practice by showing that modern liberal democracy can provide, protect, and to some extent even foster the space in which human beings seek to satisfy their deepest religious longings. Absent such protection and fostering, we risk degenerating into what Elshtain aptly labels ideological secularism. Responsibility for this task falls to clergy and laity alike. At a moment such as ours, when recourse to arms is sure to con-tinue if we choose to shoulder the burden of American power, responsible believers and thoughtful nonbelievers must regain what George Weigel has called "moral clarity in time of war." The just-war tradition is a vital means to that end.

TO HELP REVIVE this tradition and situate it within the contemporary context is the aim of Darrell Cole's "When God Says War Is Right." Although written by a scholar, this is no scholarly disquisition. It is a short and accessible primer on just-war doctrine. Cole's simply stated and well-supported thesis is that at times it is not only permissible but morally imperative to go to war. In many cases, a just war justly fought is not a necessary evil but a moral necessity.

Contrary to the "presumption against violence" codified by the American Catholic bishops' 1983 "Challenge for Peace," Cole vigorously argues that "classic just-war doctrine as articulated by the Church does not view all use of force as evil; rather, it declares that war can actually be a positive act of love entirely consistent with the character of God. Love of God and neighbor impels Christians to seek a just peace for all, especially for their neighbors, and military force is sometimes an appropriate means for seeking that peace."

At the crux of the problem is the Christian enjoinder not to repay evil with evil. His key contention is that the use of military force that meets just-war criteria--reasonably interpreted--is as morally defensible as the force used by a police officer who tackles a fleeing thief or a parent who punishes an older brother for beating up his younger brother. And no less than the good cop or parent, a good soldier must cultivate virtues that can be considered their own reward as well as a positive good for the country he serves.

To be sure, matters of international relations are far more complex and terrible than these analogies suggest, but morally speaking they are the same. Cole insists that a host of circumstances must obtain for the use of force to be just: It must be carried out with discrimination and proportion in a just cause by a rightful authority convinced that no other means will suffice, and with a reasonable hope of success and the intent to do good. Yet he also insists that if they do in fact obtain all this, it would be unjust not to use force.

JOHN PAUL II HIMSELF, the most visible proponent of peace on the world stage, acknowledges that the duly constituted officers of sovereign states are the rightful authorities for deciding matters pertaining to their own security; and, contrary to countless newspaper headlines, he did not declare the war in Afghanistan or Iraq to be unjust. Whatever the pope's final position, it is safe to say that he has meditated well on the mysterious relationship between God's justice and His mercy. From his belief that his office compels him to make urgent pleas for mercy in international affairs, it does not follow that John Paul condemns as unjust a particular recourse to war. Even less does it follow that other religious authorities or persons of good will should simply mimic his pleas without regard to their stations, missions, and duties.

Much work remains to be done before America fully internalizes the canons of just war, but popular punditry's now-routine use of the theory and the flood of recent books on the topic suggest that a change in the nation's thinking has taken place.

The results should be fascinating to watch.

An assistant professor of political science at Carthage College, Christopher Lynch is the editor of "Machiavelli's Art of War" (University of Chicago Press).