Thinking the Unthinkable: Just Deliberation on War

[1] During the Civil War, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman marched through Georgia. In his wake he left ruined fields, pillaged plantations, looted businesses, and casualties in the thousands. “War is hell,” he shrugged. With these words he situated war outside the realm of moral experience. The judgment justified the carnage.

[2] “War is hell.” The statement may be true to the experience of war, but it is dangerous for our moral deliberation about war. Sherman’s judgment implies that war is beyond the pale of morality entirely. Accordingly, war is not immoral, which suggests that moral categories of right and wrong apply-and apply negatively. Rather, war becomes a-moral: categories of morality do not apply at all. That means that anything goes. If war is hell, we can act like devils.

[3] I fear many people talking about war in today’s context agree with General Sherman. On one hand, warmongers and “superhawks,” as David Brooks calls them, speak as if the possibility of weapons of mass destruction in possession of an enemy regime justifies pre-emptive strike, regime change, and “use of overwhelming force.” In these days the United States Congress is being asked to pass a resolution that would authorize the White House to do “whatever is necessary” to accomplish these ends. Anything goes, because “war is hell.” On the other hand, pacifists proclaim the folly of war in a nuclear age and present non-violence and peace-making as the only viable alternatives. They refuse to think the “unthinkable,” because “war is hell.”

[4] Both sides talk past each other, and debate stalls. But each side agrees to a common premise: “war is hell.” War is outside the realm of moral deliberation. I want to argue that we need to think the unthinkable, bring talk of war back into the realm of moral deliberation. To put it starkly, war is not hell. It is something that we bring on ourselves, for which we, our children, and our children’s children will suffer the consequences. For these reasons we had better think very carefully, together-both superhawks and pacifists-about what we are doing. How can we think about the unthinkable?

[5] As I’ve talked to people on all sides of this issue, I find that most of them hardly know where to begin to think. The talk of war splashed across the newspapers has had the effect of some weird drug. Inside the Beltway the drug acts like a stimulant, as folks talk fast and frantically about WMD, biological terror, and enemy regimes. But outside the Beltway the drug acts like a depressant, and people paralyzed by this barrage of information and pseudo-information seem unable to put their thoughts in order. One of my swimming buddies shook her head in the locker room: “I thought we were supposed to be at war with Osama bin Laden . . . whatever happened to him?” I sense, however, that we are finally shaking ourselves awake, because now we want to think about this.

[6] Fortunately, we are not thinking in a vacuum. There is a body of thought, developed over centuries and refined by thinkers, both Christians and others, called “just war” thinking. It begins at the point of regarding war as such a grave matter that it requires the justification of the most stringent sort. Just war theory gives us a place to start thinking-some thinking points, instead of talking points, if you will-as we attempt to think the unthinkable.

[7] The core assumption of just war thinking is the conviction that war is not hell. It is a serious, sometimes necessary undertaking, but it most emphatically does not exist outside the realm of moral deliberation. War is regulated by certain principles that have developed over time. These may not be exhaustive, but they may be helpful. I will focus here on jus ad bellum, the first part of just war thinking which deals with those stringent justifications for going to war in the first place. The existence of such criteria suggests that there are good reasons, bad reasons, and no kind of reason at all for going to war. The question for us, of course, is the reasons cited in our national debate are sufficiently serious for going to war with Iraq. Let me roll through some of the key criteria here:

[8] 1. just cause: This criteria demands that war not be waged for revenge or domination, property or personal vendetta, but for protection of innocent life, basic human rights, the safeguarding of future generations. Have we met this criteria? The allegation is that Iraqi has an imminent threat of WMD, but supporting evidence is thin and full document would not be available until U.N. weapons inspectors get in there to look. Dossiers from Great Britain have not produced new and overwhelming evidence. And the president’s comment last week that “this is the guy who tried to kill my dad,” suggests that personal vendetta may play a role in national policy. Should it?

[9] It could be argued that the U.S. suffered a pre-emptive attack a year ago, and the nation retaliated against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. But the link between Iraq and Al Qaeda has not been established. Indeed, Al Qaeda organized itself to fight precisely the kind of secularist Muslim regime that presently exists in Iraq. Ironically, that terrorist organization might support our quest for regime change in Iraq, in hopes that a more religious Muslim regime which would operate by the rule of Islamic law, the Shariah. So much for just cause. . . .

[10] 2. proper authorization: A second thinking point is proper authorization. The war must be authorized by proper authorities. There is a fair amount of internal debate on this question: whether the president, also commander-in-chief, was granted power to engage Iraq by decade-old legislation passed during the Gulf War? Or does Congress alone retain the power to declare war? But is the United States itself a proper authority-or is the U.N. the only appropriate body to adjudicate the situation. Should regime change, if that is what we want, really be the goal of one country against another?

[11] 3. intent: This leads to thinking point: intent. What is our motivation? In its official statements, the U.S. has been unclear about this. Certainly the president gave a powerful speech at the U.N. on September 12, 2002, and his words spurred that body to action. But hours afterwards pundits were pondering our real intent. What was it: forcing weapons inspection or lobbying for regime change? We hinted at both. Even today the intent is not clear. Add to that the president’s daddy, and we do not have appropriate motivation. Just war thinking suggests that the only proper motivation would be self-defense, but until we have clearer evidence that the U.S. is a direct target of Iraq, and that Hussein has both weapons and a means of directing them at us, we are not in any clear danger.

[12] 4. last resort: War is a last resort: it should happen only if all other means-in this case, diplomatic and economic-have been exhausted. A pre-emptive, unilateralist move against Iraq will alienate countries we need as our allies. Muslim countries in the area, Arabs, Turkish, and Russian, are all unhappy with Hussein. We should be working with them to isolate Hussein, rather than working in isolation to be unhappy with Hussein all by ourselves. An attack on a Muslim state will only win us more enemies in the Muslim world, possibly raise up more terrorists. Centuries ago the North African Christian Tertullian warned the Roman rulers: “The blood of Christians is the seed of the church.” In this situation, the blood of Muslims may be the seed of future terrorism.

[13] 5. proportionality: The criterion of proportionality imposes as a moral obligation assessing consequences of possible engagement before initiating it. This means worrying about the stability of the region during and after the war. There must be reasonable hope of success to justify the suffering war will cause. And we need to be quite broad in defining what counts as “success.” This means worrying about what happens to the majority, but marginalized Shiite population in the south of Iraq and the disenfranchised Kurds in the north? This means a solid and in-dollars commitment to nation-building in Iraq after we leave. During the election campaign, this administration said nation-building was very low on its priority list, pledging itself to domestic problems instead. Let’s hope our nation-building efforts in Iraq will be better than those we have initiated in Afghanistan, where we have reneged on both money and manpower.

[14] I worry that we will find this a very hard war indeed-and ratchet up our offensive strategies to “win at all costs.” The costs will be very great, both to us and to the Iraqi. But to us as a nation, I fear the costs will be soul-destroying. In a recent review article Abraham Verghese comments: “In times of war, all countries wind up destroying their own culture. . . .”1

[15] These are some of the points we must consider as we think the unthinkable. And we need answers before anyone takes up arms, before troops are transferred, before resolutions have been signed, sealed, and placed on the White House door. Is this an exhaustive list? I would certainly add to these thinking points the existence of an informed public that can freely debate, without being charged with lack of patriotism or politicizing the debate. In dark times ignorance and unfreedom are moral offenses. Given the points enumeration, the question remains: have we had the debate we need?

[16] I fear not. I feel like the mood of the nation at this point is: “Damn the debate; full speed ahead.” But we have not deliberated one of the most serious moral issues of our time. War is not hell; it lies within the sphere of moral judgment, and we need to think and think carefully, lest we be judged with the same ferocity we are so ready to show other countries. We need to apply these criteria to our own engagement-not just the discussions of others. Pacifists need these thinking points, if they are to argue persuasively and in the public realm that this war is not justified. Superhawks need these thinking points, if they are to argue persuasively and in the public realm that this war is grave, but justified.

End Notes

1 Abraham Verghese, “Wars are Made, not Born.” Review of Chris Hedges’ War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (New York: Public Affairs, 2002), in The New York Times Book Review (September 19, 2002), p. 21.

Martha E. Stortz

Martha E. Stortz is Professor Emerita at Augsburg University, where she held the Bernhard M. Christensen Chair of Religion and Vocation from 2010-2021.  With Rabbi Barry Cytron, she directs the Collegeville Institute’s Multi-Religious Fellows Program.  She writes, speaks, consults, and publishes, most recently, Called to Follow: Journeys in John’s Gospel (Cascade, 2017).