Thursday, January 18, 2007

Just War or a "Just War"?

I'm really not a nice person; not when it comes to the subject of violence. I actually grew up in a culture of violence (well, America; we're fed a diet of violence from the moment we can sit upright before a TV that would make a Roman legionnaire blush), and tend to react violently when I'm frustrated, scared, angered, opposed. You know, the usual triggers. I control it because I'm supposed to, not because I am, by nature, a pacifist.

But I really have no patience with "just war" theories. For one thing, the very resort to war seems to me a violation of any notion of "justice." "All's fair in love and war" is the only truism about war worth retaining. Vietnam was "unjust" because "we had no reason to be there." Not because the US alone dropped more ordinance in that war than all the warring sides used in WWII. But WWII was a "just war," even though we did precisely what the Germans did, an action deemed so barbaric and hideous it actually justified the Allieds doing it: we bombed civilian areas. Dresden. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. Munich. To this day, we claim those sites had "military significance." By that reasoning, so did Guernica, or London, and the Germans would have been justified in burning Paris (which, fortunately, at least one German realized was futile madness). So just how "just" is war, anyway?

Perhaps we fail to appreciate the barbarism of war. If so, might I recommend reading All's Quiet on the Western Front? Or Gulliver's Travels, or Twain's "The War Prayer" (the single best refutation of the argument of "just war" I know of). It really isn't that hard to find literature which describes war, or puts you in the middle ot if. If you don't want the quasi-saccharine view of Stephen Spielberg (the boy can't help it), watch the bluntly realistic battle scenes of "A Very Long Engagement." It includes not just the sounds of bullets whistling by, the the dull thud of impact in a human body. War is hell, but a hell far beyond the imagining of those who have never experienced it.

I read Studs Terkel's book The 'Good War' when it came out. My uncle, who'd actually fought in WWII (the subject of the book) saw the title and didn't notice the quotation marks indicating the irony of the designation. He told me he didn't know there was such a thing as a "good war." I often dream of passing that anecdote on to Tom Brokaw, although I'm sure it wouldn't make a dent in his hagiography of my uncle's generation.

And, as I told Pastor Dan, I'm enough of a Niebuhrian to recognize that nations don't do things for moral reasons; that, indeed, morality is so antithetical to the nature of nations as to have no place in their deliberations. This seems like an extreme position (indeed, Pastor Dan thinks it so), but it isn't. What's extreme is clinging to the notion that modern nations are simply new configurations of "nations" as that term is found in the Bible. But iin that anachronism lies much of the problem.

The "nation" of Israel in the Hebrew scriptures is a collection of at least 13 tribes tracing their ancestry back to a common figure. But that figure is first Abram, and later Abraham, indicating the figure may not have been so "common" after all. Indeed, no one today is sure he ever existed. But the historicity of the claim is irrelevant; it is the confession of the claim that is important. And even that wasn't the central claim of the Hebrews. They called themselves children of Abraham, but in Deuteronomy, after the return from Exile, they are reminded to bring the first fruits of the harvest to God with the words: "A wandering Aramean was my father...." The emphasis in that ritual is a reminder that the land and all that comes from it (life, essentially) comes from God. This is the tie that binds the children of Abraham into the nation of Israel. But it is in no way the "nation state" of 19th century European geopolitics.

Indeed, it is common now to decry "tribalism" in favor of "nation state," which is how the idea was originally sold. The latter is progress, is an "improvement" over the former, now commonly regarded as a "benighted" state (one doesn't have to look far to find critiques of the situation in Iraq right now which blame some variant of "tribalism". "Tribalism" is bad and parochial; the nation-state is good and cosmpolitan. Except which was used as an excuse for invasion?). But there is a vast philosophical difference between the two, and it was this difference Niebuhr insisted on.

Morality requires, ultimately, that I regard the needs of another above my own needs. At the very least, it insists on the paradoxical position that my needs are best served by regarding first the needs of others, not my own (this is the problem, at root, with John Rawls' Theory of Justice, by the way. He attempts to make utilitarianism appear moral with his "sensitivity to initial conditions," but it's the same old selfishness allowed to hide from itself. But I digress....). As Niebuhr understood, this is all well and good for the individual to decide or even to live by, but it is an impossible burden to lay on others, or, more bluntly, to be decided for them (as the Desert Fathers understood, which is why they became "the Desert Fathers.") How many people, after all, challenge pacifism by asking: "But what would you do if someone were attacking your family, raping your wife and children? Would you stand passively by then?" When they make that argument, they are making Niebuhr's essential argument. I can decide for myself to accept pain, punishment, torture, even death, for the sake of morality. But who am I to decide that fate for others?

A king, perhaps. Consider the example of Nineveh, in the book of Jonah. The king listens to the preaching of Jonah and repents, and all the kingdom repents with him. But that's the nature of a kingdom: the king provides for you, and what the king does, you must do (that is the ideal, anyway; although hardly the reality). We have no such society today, not in Western culture; we don't even retain that structure in the family (to the extent we do, it isn't that highly regarded, and is usually subtly or overtly condemned).

So "just war" as a moral concept has a dubious basis in political or even moral philosophy. Again, it is no accident the theory was first proposed by Augustine, he of the "City of God" and convinced of the virtue of imperial rule (think Nineveh). Who among us accept that philosophy of rule today, or lament the passing of the Roman Empire? "Just War" may be a fine concept for an emperor; but for a democracy? We may be able to argue morality in the public square; but can we really impose it on others, even when those others are citizens of the same nation?

If we are going to have war, let us have war. But don't put lipstick on a pig and tell me it's beautiful. It is war. It may be justified, but it is never just. It is just war. And that is never anything less than the abandonment of justice.

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