A New Language for Just War

[1] General Carl von Clausewitz said, “War therefore is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will” (Clausewitz, 1976). Stated a little differently, the intention of war is the destruction, in the most literal meaning of the word, of the enemy. The issues facing combat soldiers, military commanders, and chaplains are serious and life altering. Chief among these issues is the question of how chaplains can care for warriors who are asked to see, experience, and perform tasks that threaten to erode their souls. Gathered here today at the Lutheran Ethicists Gathering are theologians, chaplains, commanders and others who are members of a religious tradition that possesses an extensive vocabulary for speaking to these issues. The Lutherans, Episcopalians, members of the Reformed tradition, and others represented here together have the ability to speak clearly, cogently, and thoughtfully about these profound issues related to warriors and war-fighting. Indeed, the language of just war is embedded in the confessions of the Episcopal, Lutheran, and Reformed traditions.

A New Language for Just War by Wollom A. Jensen

[2] While Clausewitz himself talked about the morality of war, his meaning was somewhat different than that attributed to him by many non-professional soldiers. Clausewitz meant by morality those characteristics that make an individual soldier and therefore the army strong. Courage, the political backing of the government, the support of the citizenry, the “rightness” of the cause, and hostile feelings for the enemy, are but a sampling of the way in which Clausewitz used language in speaking of the morality of war. I suggest that the language of just war principle, just war theory, or even just war Tradition is limiting and ultimately unhelpful to both warrior and chaplain. The language of just war is by definition and practice largely based on a western and Christian tradition and therefore largely exclusive in nature. Just war tradition is biblically based, rooted in the thinking of St. Augustine, a 4th century Christian bishop from North Africa, and honed in the 14th century Scholastic tradition of the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas. The attending language of just war tends to marginalize those Christian traditions that arose in the left wing of the Protestant Reformation. It also excludes those religious traditions that are non-Christian, and those newly emerging traditions that are self-defined as non-religious or perhaps better described as non-theistic. It appears that there is an emerging need for a hermeneutically informed language to address the problem of the moral theology of war in the 21st century.

[3] The challenge begins with dictionary definitions of war. These definitions largely define war as a state of armed conflict between nations or states. State sovereignty and territorial integrity are cherished concepts that have been used as the basis for international order and stability since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The language of the Peace of Westphalia used to discuss the moral aspects of war, whether jus in bello or jus ad bellum, has been rendered ineffective. The language of state sovereignty and territorial integrity has, in the 21st century, become ambiguous at best and useless when speaking of irregular warfare. The old dictionary definitions of war have failed.

[4] Just War Theory is the predominant moral framework used today to talk about the justness or morality of war. It has its roots firmly embedded in the Westphalian state system. For the strategic operating environment that existed during the Westphalian era, Just War theory was more than adequate to the task. However, in the post WWII era the strategic operating environment has changed dramatically. The most significant indicator of this change is the rise of transnational terrorism and the advent of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The nexus of these two factors constitutes a threat that could not be imagined in the Westphalian era and that Just War theory does not adequately address. A new moral framework for war is necessary to adequately address the justness and morality of war in the 21st century. (Leaphart, 2009)

[5] Military chaplains live and minister in a highly complex environment. Ministry to the soldiers, sailors, Marines, Airmen, Coast Guardsmen, and more recently to civilian employees of governmental agencies involved in high and low intensity combat operations, requires that chaplains possess an understanding and openness to a plethora of faith traditions that have moved beyond ecumenism and deeply into the world of religious pluralism. The advent of a non-faith tradition (The Association of Atheists and Free Thinkers) which, ironically, bears many of the earmarks of a faith tradition, has added an even deeper dimension of complexity to the challenges of ministry to women and men in combat units participating in kinetic engagements.

[6] With the average age of service men and women in the mid-twenties (Stinson, 2009) chaplains are confronted by a culture that is largely religiously illiterate and deeply suspicious of organized religion. This cultural reality is underscored by the increasing frequency with which service members list “No Preference” when asked for a religious identification. Evangelical Protestants have asserted their ascendency and have vigorously targeted the military as fertile ground for missionary work. Additionally, many evangelical groups have adopted an appeal to “traditional” or “orthodox” Christians using appeals to patriotism and individual rights. An emphasis upon the individual chaplain’s perceived First Amendment rights to offer public prayers in Jesus’ name at official gatherings such as change-of-command ceremonies have frequently been at the center of contentious litigation. The divisive attitudes and resulting behaviors have often resulted in litigation that has distracted the chaplain corps from the important work of finding a common theological language with which to address the serious pastoral issues confronting all levels of military service in what is now 10 years of war. Might it be possible, for example, for those of us gathered here for this conference on the moral theology of war to look to the language of Aristotle, for example, and the concept of eudemonia to begin a new theological language that might facilitate providing pastoral care to those in danger of losing their souls or the essence of their humanity in the work that they have been asked to perform on behalf of the nation? Living a good life; embracing and practicing the virtues of restraint, honor, courage, dedication to comrades in arms, selflessness, integrity are already identified with the warrior culture and might well be adapted and adopted in the work of protecting the essence of an individual soldier’s humanity; or quite frankly to aid chaplains in the business of saving the souls and healing the moral wounds of the warriors who are their pastoral responsibility.

[7] In a broadly pluralistic world it seems as though the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, full communion partners living into the reception of Called to Common Mission, and focused on becoming what Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church, describes as missional churches are ideally situated to provide such theological language for a redevelopment of the just war tradition in the 21st Century.

[8] In seeking a new language of moral theology a beginning point can be found in the academic discipline of communication theory. Clausewitz himself reckoned the need for such deliberation. “The aims a belligerent adopts, and the resources he employs must be governed by the particular characteristics of his own position; but it will also conform to the spirit of the age and to its general character. Finally, they must always be governed by the general conclusions to be drawn from the nature of war itself” (Clausewitz, 1976).

[9] Consideration and conversation regarding the development of a new language to help understand how a tradition of just war applies to war in the 21st century must begin with communication theory. One of the fundamental principles of communication theory is that meaning in communication resides with the hearer and not with the speaker. It is the task, therefore, of the speaker to endeavor to make the intended message as clear and accurate in conveying the thought as possible. Of course the message must be conveyed in language which itself is symbolic, abstract, arbitrary and ambiguous (Wood, 2010, p.95). Language is symbolic because the letters individually and in combination are but symbols for the intended thought or object referred to. Language is arbitrary because the letters and their combined forms (words) could have been different, as demonstrated by the multitude of languages spoken around the world. Language is ambiguous because it is not concrete and is, again, symbolic and arbitrary in its nature. Language is abstract in that the words are not the things that they attempt to describe or convey. The symbolic, abstract, arbitrary, and ambiguous nature of language is particularly acute when one is attempting to describe an idea, feeling, emotion or concept such as just war.

[10] Moral injury occurs when an event shatters moral and ethical expectations that are rooted in religious or spiritual beliefs, or culture-based, organizational, and group-based rules about fairness, the value of life. Warriors and chaplains are experiencing such moral injury, producing shame, guilt, and anxiety about potential consequences. It has been reported that the number of Marines taking their own lives has spiked from about 13 per 100,000 in 2006 to 24 per 100,000 now (Walker, 2010). Clearly it is time for a new language and a new way of thinking about war and morality. A language of morality that shares common definitions, common concerns, common restraints, and provides for a common understanding of the boundaries which help to mitigate the extent of the soul injuries suffered by warfighters, chaplains, and politicians must be developed. The stakes have likely never been higher.

Works Cited

Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. Ed. and Trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976 Print

Leaphart, John. “A Moral Framework for War in the 21st Century.” MS Thesis. Army War College. 2009. Print

Stinson, P. http://www.slideshare.net/pastinson/us-military-active-duty-demographic-profile-presentation (Accessed 1 January 2012).

Walker, M. http://www.nctimes.com/news/local/military/article_179c6d17-ebb5-5e26-9aa4-8dc4c8f721cd.html#ixzz1k7pf6BR0 (Accessed 17 December 2011)

Wood, J. T. Interpersonal communication: everyday encounters (6th Edition), Wadsworth, Boston Mass. 2009 Print

Wollom A. Jensen

Wollom A. Jensen is a retired CAPT, Chaplain Corps, United States Navy. A rostered Pastor in the ELCA, he currently serves as Executive Officer to the Episcopal Bishop for Armed Forces and Federal Ministries.