Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Is Fighting in an "Unjust War" Evil?

One thing one runs into a great deal among religious opponents of the war in Iraq (and I assume among non-religious ones as well -- it's just that the context within which I normally run into anti-war discussion is religious) is a fury that more soldiers have not gone AWOL or declared themselves conscientious objectors rather than go to Iraq.

Michael Iafrate of Vox Nova states:
The Church’s views on this war are well known, and less than 1% or Catholic soldiers have the ___s to do what is right. This statistic indicates to me that few soldiers take the Church’s teaching seriously.
[blanking is present in the original text]

Fellow Vox Nova author Henry Karlson concurred:
Here is a question. How many soldiers willingly said no to their commanders when Church officials said the Iraq war is not a just war? How many of them didn’t care and cared more for what their orders were? The truth of the matter is you find the soldier’s true master when they are pressed in such situations, and they go with the flow. This is the problem historically. It’s how the Nazis were able to get people to follow their evil. “Well, the Church is wrong. We are the authority.” And the thing is, people dare teach the Church moral law and argue with the Church on just wars, saying the Church has no authority to declare a war unjust. Viva nationalism.
Iafrate is the same author who some time back was deeply indignant that the pope had appointed a new archbishop to the US military archdiocese, saying among other things:
The Church has no trouble denying communion to those who are theoretically in favor of the unjust killing of persons through abortion, but follows persons who participate in unjust killing [in war] around with the ciborium!
Clearly, we're seeing a strong belief here that the only right choice for a Catholic soldier is to refuse to participate in any war which does not meet just war criteria. At first glance, this might seem to be an obvious conclusion. Given that people tend to think in dualities, one would at first think that any war that was not a "just war" was obviously an "unjust war", and that therefore it would be "unjust" and wrong to participate in any way.

Is that so?

This is not a new question. Shakespeare addresses it in Henry V, which remains one of the great meditations on war, leadership and soldiering in the English language:
...methinks I could not die any where so
contented as in the king's company; his cause being
just and his quarrel honourable.

That's more than we know.

Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know
enough, if we know we are the kings subjects: if
his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes
the crime of it out of us.

But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath
a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and
arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join
together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at
such a place...
Shakespeare puts the moral weight of deciding if the war's cause be just upon the king, leaving the soldiers responsible only for their own personal conduct as they render their lives up unto Caesar.

We have no king. We live in a fairly democratic republic, and so in some sense all citizens bear the responsibility for the state's actions. And yet, this is not a direct democracy. No one imagined in November of 2000 that which candidate he voted for would determine whether and how two wars would be waged. Nor, indeed, do any of us have any idea what Gore would have done had he been in the Oval Office during those years (though I can't help suspecting we would have seen more of the alternating indecisiveness and high altitude bombing with which the Clinton White House dealt with foreign crises.) Thus, while we as a people chose the leaders who brought us through the last eight years, we did not in any direct sense choose the course of action that our country took.

So we find ourselves, I think, with two questions:
1) Is it in some cases true that soldiers are responsible only for obedience and their own personal conduct, while their rulers are responsible for the justice of the cause?
2) If the above is sometimes the case, is it still the case in a semi-democratic polity such as our own?

At this point I think it's appropriate to turn to specific Catholic teaching. The Catachism of the Catholic Church talks about Just War doctrine and about morality in regards to military service in its section on the Fifth Commandment, under the subheading Safeguarding Peace. The quote is a little bit long, but I think it's worth not snipping at all in order to avoid any appearance that I'm cherry-picking through the text:
2308 All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war.

However, "as long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed."105

2309 The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

- the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

- all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

- there must be serious prospects of success;

- the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the "just war" doctrine.

The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.

2310 Public authorities, in this case, have the right and duty to impose on citizens the obligations necessary for national defense.

Those who are sworn to serve their country in the armed forces are servants of the security and freedom of nations. If they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace.106

2311 Public authorities should make equitable provision for those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms; these are nonetheless obliged to serve the human community in some other way.107

2312 The Church and human reason both assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict. "The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties."108

2313 Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely.

Actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes, as are the orders that command such actions. Blind obedience does not suffice to excuse those who carry them out. Thus the extermination of a people, nation, or ethnic minority must be condemned as a mortal sin. One is morally bound to resist orders that command genocide.
Usually, small snippets of this section get quoted on their own, but I think it may be illuminating to look at the section as a whole. First we get the criteria that define a war as "just". We are then told that "evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good". Who are those who have responsibility for the common good? It seem to me that many different people and groups hold responsibility for it in different ways, but clearly a war can only be declared by the rulers of a country. And indeed, we hear more about their responsibilities in regards to war immediately: "Public authorities, in this case, have the right and duty to impose on citizens the obligations necessary for national defense." And lest there should be any doubt whether these "obligations" include soldiering, we have: "Those who are sworn to serve their country in the armed forces are servants of the security and freedom of nations. If they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace."

The catechism then moves from jus ad bellum (justice of a war) to jus in bello (justice in war) and reminds the faithful that war does not mean a suspension of the normal moral laws. Non-combatants, prisoners and the wounded must at all times be treated with fairness and compassion. It also states the limits of military obedience, "Actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes, as are the orders that command such actions. Blind obedience does not suffice to excuse those who carry them out." It goes on to specifically list obeying orders to commit genocide as being a mortal sin and always unacceptable. Although not specifically mentioned, the language seems to clearly say that other actions which are clearly against the laws of nations and the moral law (mistreating prisoners, refusing medical care to the wounded, intentionally targeting civilians, theft, rape, unnecessary destruction, etc.) must not be engaged in even under orders.

In this, it seems to me, the catechism is following in much the same line as Shakespeare: The rightness of the cause is the moral responsibility of a nation's leaders, while soldiers are responsible only for the rightness of their own actions.

Does this mean that it is morally right for a soldier to serve in any nation's military at any time, no matter what the purpose of the war it is engaged in, so long as he refuses to engage in the sort of personal immoral acts mentioned under jus in bello?

Perhaps not. It seems to me that there might be cases in which serving in a specific war or under a specific regime might in and of itself be considered to fall afoul of the statement about never following orders that command, "actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations." However, it seems that in many other cases, one might doubt whether one or more of the four points of just war criteria were met, and yet the cause could well be just enough that it would not be engaging in "actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations" for a soldier to obey his military oaths and go to war.

A consideration of the saints is often in order when looking at moral questions. In this case, I imagine one person who would be brought up is the recently beatified Franz Jagerstatter. Jagerstatter was executed by the Nazi regime for his principled refusal to serve in the Wehrmacht.
Jagerstatter was convicted in a military trial at which he explained that if he fought for the nationalist socialist state, he would be acting against his religious conscience. He had reached the conviction that as a believing Catholic he could not perform military service. Jagerstatter, however, offered to serve as a medical orderly. The court did not respond to his request.
It seems to me that Jagerstatter would be a clear case of thinking that fighting for a particular regime at all would constitute "actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations". And, as if working directly from the catechism which wouldn't come to be for another fifty years, he acknowledged that he was "nonetheless obliged to serve the human community in some other way" by offering to serve as a medical orderly instead. (An offer which the Nazi regime unjustly refused.)

I would tend to be sympathetic towards those who were forcibly drafted into the Werhmacht and the Nazi state's various paramilitary organizations, but regardless of whether or not Jagerstatter's path was the only possible one that avoided grave sin, he clearly provides a heroic example of principled conscience.


Paul, just this guy, you know? said...

I continue to be -- "fascinated" isn't the right word, let's see... oh yes, this is it: "bored to tears" -- bored to tears by alleged thinkers who say that because the Pope disapproves of a war that it is therefore not a just war.

The Church does not have, and does not claim, the charism to certify wars as either just or unjust. As you rightly point out, the Church assigns that responsibility to the properly constituted civil authority.

The days of William the Conqueror at Hastings followed by a vassal carrying a papal banner to signify the Pope's approval of his invasion are long past.

Kyle Cupp said...

I think if a soldier believes a war to be unjust, he should refuse to fight in it. Believing as I do that it's impossible to meet a couple of the just war conditions, I wouldn't become a soldier in the first place, but that's just I.

Darwin said...

but that's just I.

Not to be the dogmatic classicist, but aren't you seeking the accusative case here? :-)

Certainly, it seems to me that if one held, as you do, that it is simply impossible to meet the just war criteria in this day and age, then one would have no business joining the military. (It also seems to me that if the Church thought that was the case, than it would have no business not saying so in the CCC, but let's leave that point aside for now.)

To be fair, I believe I have generally heard the sentiments I quote from people who are either functionally or explicitly pacifists. So they too may believe that it's pretty much a no brainer that no one should be a soldier ever.

However, among the wider swath of those who hold that some wars are just and some are not, I think it's legitimate to question whether it is in keeping with the vocation of being a soldier to make up one's own mind as to the justice of every military action that may come up during a military career. A soldier is very much in the position to know whether the individual actions he is being asked to perform on the ground are just or unjust. However, I'm not sure that it is reasonable to expect each soldier to be able to independently and accurately satisfy himself as to whether every situation of military action meets to the fullest the four criteria of just war. Additionally, I think it both would lend great instability to the country to, in effect, encourage an atmosphere of ad hoc mutiny, and also would devalue the oaths of loyalty and obedience that generally come with a soldier's profession. Few people live under obedience in our modern society, and it is, I think, an increasingly mis-understood and devalued state. However, to the extent that I think living under obedience can be a positive good and indeed a path to holiness, I think we would discard that idea very much to our peril.

Jeff Miller said...

Paul is right for the most part. There has been no declaration of this being an unjust war and that such a determination is one for governments and not the Church to make. You often see some Catholics making such a claim that for example that Pope John Paul II condemned the war in Iraq. I have had email discussions with some of them asking them to show me such a statement, and of course it doesn't exist and of course no statement was made that bound the conscientious of Catholics.

There has been times on the distant past when a Pope a placed an interdict on Catholics fighting in a war and it seems to me that in a clear case where a war was unjust and something like that could be done depending on the situation.

Anonymous said...

The Holy See is convinced that in the efforts to draw strength from the wealth of peaceful tools provided by the international law, to resort to force would not be a just one.

3. Mr. President, your visit to Rome takes place at a moment of great concern for the continuing situation of grave unrest in the Middle East, both in Iraq and in the Holy Land. You are very familiar with the unequivocal position of the Holy See in this regard, expressed in numerous documents, through direct and indirect contacts, and in the many diplomatic efforts which have been made since you visited me, first at Castelgandolfo on 23 July 2001, and again in this Apostolic Palace on 28 May 2002.

Clear enough?

Anonymous said...

Here is an interesting link to an exchange on the just war doctrine between Paul J. Griffiths and George Weigel which appeared in the April 2002 edition of Firth things.

I agree with Weigel. "The new Catholic “default position” is more accurately described as a functional pacifism that mistakenly imagines itself an authentic development of the just war tradition." The way in which the just war doctine has been interpreted by the neo-pacifists within the Church since Vietnam bears little relationship to how the Church, and Catholics in general, applied the doctrine prior to that conflict.

Kyle Cupp said...


I'll bring your aside point back on to the stage, but only to say that my position is an application of principles defended by the Church; I don't proclaim it as the only legitimate Catholic position.

"However, I'm not sure that it is reasonable to expect each soldier to be able to independently and accurately satisfy himself as to whether every situation of military action meets to the fullest the four criteria of just war."

I agree. There may be instances though where a war is clearly unjust.

Anonymous said...

The Blackadder Says:

There is a good discussion of these issues in Francisco de Vitoria's De Indis De Jure Belli. (Part III, paragraphs 20 through 31). Vitoria's conclusions, in brief, are that a soldier should not fight in a war he believes to be unjust, but that if he is merely doubtful on the matter he should defer to the decision of the prince (i.e. the public authority).

Vitoria doesn't address the question of what to do if the Pope has rendered a judgment that a particular war is unjust. That question is, however, addressed by Cardinal Newman in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, wherein he says, "were I actually a soldier or sailor in her Majesty's service, and sent to take part in a war which I could not in my conscience see to be unjust, and should the Pope suddenly bid all Catholic soldiers and sailors to retire from the service, here again, taking the advice of others, as best I could, I should not obey him."

Darwin said...

I'd like to avoid having discussion end up being about whether the current war in Iraq is just or not, and whose place it is to say so. On this, there are two things that seem to me moderately clear:

-People in the Vatican (including two popes) have made it pretty clear that they believe that there were still diplomatic means to be pursued, and thus beginning hostilities was not justified. In this sense, I think it's also reasonable to grant that the Vatican's opinion on this is a far more dis-interested one than many of its medieval and renaissance pronouncements on specific wars and political leaders.

-I do not think it was possible to build a solid just-war case around "making sure Iraq has no WMDs". The justification which I would see as justifiable would be: removing Hussein from power -- something which clearly wasn't going to happen without violence, and which was rather more at the heart of the matter than simply making sure he only had conventional weapons. Using the WMD justification strikes me as one of the greatest (if not the single greatest) mis-step of the administration in making its case for war.

Now on the topic of the post: It seems to me clear that there must be some cases in which the injustice of the war would out-weigh a soldier's oaths of obedience. However, it also seems to me that there might be cases in which he was pretty sure it didn't meet all the criteria but should still remain obedient. Two things that spring to mind might be:

-If the likelihood of success was low, even though the cause was good. (Belgian army 1914? Polish army 1939?)

-If the cause seemed just, and it seemed likely it would require a war to settle the question, but other means hadn't yet been tried "enough" in many people's judgment.

I'm sure there must be other other examples, but my general point is that it seems to me that a soldier's responsibility for the overall cause is much less than that of the ruler to instigates the war.

Anonymous said...

Nice quote from King Henry. I really think that Kenneth Branagh is King Henry.

But how about some practical considerations. What sort of paths do we provide in the legal systems of these United States that allow an individual to dissent from fighting in a war based on conscience? What ones should we?

Anonymous said...

Is allowing an unjust war to continue when you have the power to stop it, immoral?

I submit it is.

I also submit that if the Democrats in Congress decided to end this war, they could, simply by denying funding to the troops.

But we all know that Congressional Democrats will allow political expediency to trump what they know (and proclaim loudly) is right.

Shame on Congressional Democrats! Every American life lost in Iraq since they took office is directly their fault!

American blood is directly on their hands.

Anonymous said...

Wow! A reference to Vitoria! I am impressed Blackadder...I thought I was the only Catholic blogger who read him!

Darwin said...


Is allowing an unjust war to continue when you have the power to stop it, immoral?

Probably, but there might also be situations in which while it might have been un-called-for (and thus unjust) to get involved in the first place, it then becomes your duty to stick around until things are stable rather than pulling the table out from under the house of cards.

If the Iraq war was unjust (I'm not personally convinced of that), I'd submit that we're now in such a situation, in that it's our presence there that's generally making things more stable and allowing the local government and army/police force to get on its feet. If I recall correctly, indeed, several of the same Vatican officials who stated so clearly that we should not have gone into Iraq in the first place, have since stated that it is our duty (and that of the international community) to remain long enough to make sure that our exit doesn't result in genocide or civil war.

On the general post topic:

It occurs to me that part of the reason I find myself wanting to be somewhat open on the "what are a soldier's duties in an unjust war" question is that I want to avoid the "our side is just and the ones on the other side are all evil" line of thinking. Perhaps its excessive early exposure to Homer and Sigfried Sassoon, but it strikes me as important to be able to believe that the guy on the opposite side of the battlefield from you is probably, in many ways, a pretty decent fellow (aside from it being his job to kill you.) I'm cautious of a line of thinking that seems to lead via a pretty short route to, "My side is just, and yours is in grave sin, you evil man."

Rick Lugari said...

Perhaps its excessive early exposure to Homer and Sigfried Sassoon...

It's spelled Homer and Marge Simpson. I agree that they are very influential, especially when providing us with such insights about war and peace like: The war of the sexes is the only one in which we're sleeping with the enemy AND Contrary to what you've just seen, war is neither glamorous nor fun. There are no winners; only losers. There are no good wars, with the following exceptions: the American Revolution, World War II, and the Star Wars Trilogy. If you'd like to learn more about war, there's lots of books in your local library, many of them with cool gory pictures.

That being said I'm in total agreement with your point.


Anonymous said...

When it comes to war, morality and the ordinary soldier, things can get very complicated very quickly. For example:

Ivan Ivanovich is drafted into the Red Army in 1939. He is one of the few in his cadre of conscripts to survive until 1945. During his military service he participated in the following campaigns:

1. 1939-The invasion of eastern Poland in accordance with the terms of the Nazi Soviet Pact.

2. 1940-The invasion of the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and their forcible incorporation into the Soviet Union.

3. 1940-The invasion of Finland.

4. 1941-1944-The defense of Mother Russia from Nazi armies intent on exterminating or eslaving his people.

5. 1945-Bulgaria-He and his Red Army colleagues are hailed as liberators.

6. 1945-Poland-He and his Red Army colleagues help suppress Polish resistance to a Soviet impposed Communist government.

7. 1945-Germany-Liberation of Death camps. Capture of Berlin. Death of Hitler.

8. 1945-Germany-The Red Army engages in a wave of murder, mass rape and looting without parallel in the annals of modern war.

9. 1945-Supression of anti-Communist partisans in the Ukraine by mass executions.

Ivan Ivanovich is finally released from the Red Army and given a train ticket home. Whatever his personal feelings about all that he has seen and done, he will probably keep his views to himself. As in the military, so in civilian life, those who voice criticism in the Soviet Union of Joseph Stalin would quickly find themselves dead if they were lucky, or sent to a camp in Siberia to die slowly of starvation or over-work if they were not.

Anonymous said...

Excellent breakdown of the issue. Kudos.

Anonymous said...

The Blackadder Says:

It was Policraticus' recommendation, actually, that I look into Vitoria. Credit where credit is due.

Brandon said...

Part of the problem is that the word 'war' is not well-defined; it is ambiguous, and really is a grab-bag of a vast number of very different actions. Regardless of whether the particular hostilities of leaders are just or not, for instance, a soldier's duty to assist in the defense of the common good does not change; so it's not enough to talk about the general military action of warring (which indeed, is solely the action of the relevant authorities, namely, those who are primarily entrusted with the power to declare and wage war) -- one must look at each particular case.

So I'd say that asking about the legitimacy of a soldier's participation in an unjust war is a (somewhat) smaller-scale analogue of asking about the legitimacy of a citizen's participation in an 'unjust society'. There are legitimate and important questions hidden somewhere in there, but if we start with this very general level, there's still a lot of work to do yet to uncover them.

miafrate said...

Killing human beings in a given situation is either evil or it is not evil. Unjustified killing is simply evil. This is what the Church teaches.

Darwin said...

While it may at times be tempting to reduce an entire area of Church teaching to three short declarative sentences, I'm not sure that your statements actually succeed in being all that definitive, Michael.

First, I think it's worth asking if it's accurate to say that that morality is binary. It does not seem accurate to me that any set of actions "is either evil or it is not evil" without admitting any degree.

Second, unless you are wholly dismissing the role of the conscience, than it's entirely possible that in any given war situation soldiers on both sides may believe in complete honesty that they are acting rightly, and thus whatever the objective situation may be, it's not necessarily correct to assume that everyone on one side is "evil".

It's this sort of truly Catholic understanding of the human situation which makes authors like Dante so much more humane in their understanding of faith and morality than some of the modern, ideologically driven practitioners of theology.

bearing said...

And wait just a minute. Even if back in 2003, war in Iraq was *not* morally justified, that doesn't follow that the military presence in Iraq is unjustified now. Has any peep come out of the Vatican *lately* suggesting that the military/policing presence in Iraq, with its stated goal to fight the insurgents, is an injustice right now?

It strikes me that the justness/unjustness of military action can vary with time and events. Certainly I have heard the argument of "we shouldn't have gone in, but now we've made a big mess of things and need to help clean up." The situation has changed so much that very little that was said in 2003 could have any bearing on the current situation.

miafrate said...

So Darwin,

The "conscience ambiguity" that you speak of should apply to abortion, then?


Killing innocent people is either wrong or it is not.


Darwin said...

Well, I didn't use the phrase "conscience ambiguity", so I can't speak to that. But I would say, and so far as I know be fully in keeping with Catholic moral teaching in doing so, that if someone procured or provided an abortion while not believing it was wrong, that that person would not be guilty of having committed a sin, although they would have performed an act that was objectively wrong.

I agree with you that intentionally killing innocent people is wrong. (I would still disagree that rightness and wrongness do not admit to degree.)

What I'm disagreeing with is the idea that in any given war situation, the people on one side are clearly and culpably wrong to be fighting, and the others are clearly right to be doing so. Examples are plentiful:

-In the Civil War, with a union soldier who believes he's fighting to abolish slavery and preserve the union and a confederate soldier who believes he's fighting to protect the freedom of his home state.

-In the American Revolution where a British soldier believes he's enforcing the King's rightful authority and a Colonial soldier believes he's protecting his homeland from unjust domination.

And good luck sorting out every grievance in the Forty Years War or the numerous dynastic struggles of the Renaissance (many of which the papacy took sides in for clearly secular reasons.)

I suppose that one can envisage God as a cosmic score keeper -- having the infinite knowledge or foreknowledge to greet us all in the hereafter with, "You were on the right side," and "You were on the evil side." But is that, in the end, the right way to envision God? It seems to me that God is not so political, that rather than cheering for one side and damning the other He grieves that there is a war at all, and judges those on both sides according to their own actions, within the context of their own understandings of the world and their cause.

Anonymous said...

Or as CS Lewis put it in the Screwtape Letters on war:

"But, if we are not careful, we shall see thousands turning in this tribulation to the Enemy, while tens of thousands who do not go so far as that will nevertheless have their attention diverted from themselves to values and causes which they believe to be higher than the self. I know that the Enemy disapproves many of these causes. But that is where He is so unfair. He often makes prizes of humans who have given their lives for causes He thinks bad on the monstrously sophistical ground that the humans thought them good and were following the best they knew."