Just War Teaching and the Present Conflict

[1] The enemy in traditional warfare is a nation-state with military forces and an arsenal of weapons that threaten our national security. The tenets of just war thinking presuppose this traditional form of war-making, addressing such questions as a proper declaration of war, the obligation to refrain from mobilization until it is apparent that there is no other means of securing justice (war as “last resort”), and the principle of proportionality (the evil created by war is more than offset by the positive outcome in gaining the victory). But the enemy responsible for September 11 is quite different from a belligerent nation; “going to war” against this enemy would appear to be metaphorical language, as in going to war against drugs, or crime.

[2] In those first weeks following September 11 it was suggested that “police action” was a more appropriate term to describe what was required, and many questioned whether the language of warfare didn’t invite a disproportionate response. While the president’s persistent use of the term “war” was unsettling to many of us, it undoubtedly helped him to emphasize the seriousness of September 11 and to generate and maintain public support for a military response.

[3] During the early weeks following September 11, many Christians in the U.S. were fearful that their government would react in a disproportionate way, using its vast arsenal of weaponry to decimate the nation(s) thought to be responsible. While the restraint that was evident in those weeks was a welcome relief and encouraged the hope of a measured and rational response, it is clear by now that we are engaging in the traditional acts of warfare that play to our strengths. As I now write, we are conducting an extensive bombing campaign (termed euphemistically by the military as “robust”) that risks alienating significant portions of our citizenry, to say nothing of the rest of the world. For the world’s “superpower” to be bombing one of the most pathetically poor nations of the world is an unsettling spectacle.

[4] Is this justifiable warfare? We have clearly been attacked, if not by another nation at least by an enemy that is intent on destroying our nation with its far-reaching cultural hegemony and military dominance. There would appear to be justifiable grounds for engaging in military actions in light of our understanding of the threat we are facing. The more difficult question relates to the means we use in conducting warfare in view of just war criteria. If selective bombing of Afghanistan is necessary in order to protect the innocent – to prevent acts of terrorism that slaughter civilians – then we are engaged in justifiable warfare. We are told that the bombing now going on is necessary to remove the Taliban defenses, allowing the necessary ground action to destroy Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda network. I do not know if this in fact is the case, but I do know that knowledgeable Christians should be at the forefront in keeping our government honest about its military activity, challenging every expression of what appears to be exorbitant force in carrying out what are ultimately political objectives.

[5] The fact that every war is designed to achieve political objectives raises some very pertinent questions about the nature of this conflict. Any expression of just war thinking requires a grasp of the underlying causes for the belligerence of the enemy in order to address those causes in ways that can avoid military conflict. We have been rightly told that we should not understand the present conflict as a religious war between the Christian West and the Islamic East. At the same time, there are deeply rooted religious convictions that play a decisive role in this conflict. The violence of September 11 was initiated by Muslims whose hatred of the West is confirmed and supported by their understanding of the Islamic tradition. We are facing a situation that the secular, modern spirit finds difficult to comprehend: the possible beginnings of an extended religious war reminiscent of the Crusades in the Middle Ages, or of seventeenth century Europe.

[6] To be sure, religious belief has played a prominent role in recent conflicts in the Balkans and the Near East, but now it confronts us dramatically on our own turf and takes on a global dimension. We do not face a nation that is reaching for political and economic power, but people from many nations who harbor a religious and moral resentment against a Western culture that to them exemplifies all the evils of Sodom and Gomorrah. While our president depicts the enemy as the very “face of evil,” encouraging a crusade mentality, the enemy’s hatred of the West places them in the same crusading mode, assuming the role of the righteous who must defeat the Satanic foe. While every war is justified with reasons that seek to give moral legitimacy to the actions taken, this is a conflict that is interpreted by the enemy in overtly religious language, calling on the name of Allah in justifying extreme acts of violence. It is clearly an historic situation, fraught with dangers that we can hardly grasp at this point.

[7] Given this reality, it is incumbent upon a just war position to pursue every avenue that might contribute to understanding between the two sides, encouraging actions that can ameliorate the conflict. One obvious question we need to ask ourselves, is why we are so intensely hated by so many people throughout the world. We Americans are tremendously naive, believing unabashedly in our goodness and finding it difficult to fathom why anyone wouldn’t love us. Of course, many hate us simply because of our power and dominance in the world, but the more significant fact is that we have often exercised that power in ways that make us hypocrites in light of the values we profess. Our record in the Arab world has been particularly unfortunate, governed as it is by the need of a secure supply of oil that overrules every other consideration. To progressive citizens of Saudi Arabia, we are the villains who prop up a hopelessly corrupt and autocratic regime in order to maintain the political stability that appears to best serve our economic interests. So much of our record in the East places us on the wrong side of historical progress, alienating not just the bin Ladens of the world but many others whom we need as friends and allies. We need to recognize this fact and acknowledge the mistakes we have made.

[8] But the need for self-examination and self-criticism must also be laid at the door of the Islamic world. The tradition of Islam going back to the Qur’an itself harbors intense contradictions between themes of peace-making and respect for life on the one hand, and expressions of intolerance and even violence against unbelievers on the other. Mohammed himself reflects these contradictions during the course of his life as he moved from religious prophet to political leader. There is an immense hermeneutical task here for the Islamic community, one which it may not be equipped to pursue. But Muslims must address this destructive rift in their community for the sake of their own integrity, judging and isolating those who would justify acts of terror against the infidel. This observation is made with the full recognition that we Christians harbor our own fundamentalists who in milder forms express a similar fear of and resentment toward the unbelieving world.

[9] I believe the conclusion for Christians is that a proper grasp of just war thinking in this context should compel us to be peace makers who are intent on building bridges between two venerable religious traditions that must learn to live together. It also means that pressure should be applied to our political leadership, encouraging a more enlightened foreign policy that supports democratic values and is open to political and economic reform. It means, too, that our policies that particularly agitate the Arab world – our military presence in Saudi Arabia, our pro-Israeli stance in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the sanctions on Iraq – should not be beyond continuing review and the possibility of being changed or modified. There is no quick or easy resolution to these issues, but we can do better in demonstrating good faith to all sides in these conflicts and being consistent in the support of reform movements that promise greater inclusiveness and equality. This is the least that can be expected of us in view of our dominant position in global affairs, and in the long run it will help remove much of the potential for terrorism and conflict in the world.

Paul T. Jersild

The Rev. Dr. Paul T. Jersild is Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, Columbia, South Carolina