8 January 2020
(I usually post a reflection on Friday. Due to current developments, I post this a couple days earlier.)
In January 2003, I was invited to meet with a group of about twenty US Army and Air Force chaplains at a US base in Germany. I often met with them for what were called “days of recollection.” This time the presentation and discussion were about the “Just War Theory” and what was already being seen as an impending US invasion of Iraq. (That happened of course in March 2003.) As I explained the main points of the traditional understanding of a just war, one young chaplain became very restless. Rather emotionally he called out to me: “If I understand what you are saying, it would be immoral for the US to launch a war in Iraq.” Very calmly I said: “Yes. I think it would be immoral and unjustified.” I looked around the room. Just about every chaplain there was shaking his head in agreement. The young chaplain then said, with great restlessness, that he could not be a part of such an invasion and didn’t know what to do. Then an older chaplain, whom I have always greatly respected, said: “Young man pull yourself together. I was a chaplain in Vietnam. I understand just and unjust wars. Your responsibility is not to implement government policy per se but to travel with your soldiers and be with them in their own difficult journeys.”
Now, with President Donald Trump’s decision to kill the Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, those just war reflections jump back at me, with fears of a major military escalation. What is morally legitimate and responsible international behavior these days?
As I explained to the chaplains back in 2003, the traditional just war theory defines four conditions that must be met in order for a war to be just:
1) The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain.
2) All other means of putting an end to the initial problem must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective.
3) There must be serious prospects of success.
4) The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.
The first consideration, I would suggest, is not whether an act of war is just but whether or not it is wise. I remember the remark of the American writer, Issac Asimov: “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” A January 3rd editorial in the New York Times, titled “The Game Has Changed,” expressed it this way: “The real question to ask about the American drone attack that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani was not whether it was justified, but whether it was wise. Many pieces of the puzzle are still missing, but the killing is a big leap in an uncertain direction.”
My second consideration would be that the traditional four-points just war theory totally ignores our contemporary situation. With today’s atomic, biological, and chemical weapons of mass destruction can there ever be a “Just war”?
Today, we need to explore and implement other ways of resolving international conflicts. We need to reinforce and collaborate with international organizations like the United Nations. We need to see that the function of the military is not to make war but to maintain peace.
I resonate with the January 3, 2020 statement by Johnny Zokovitch, Executive Director of Pax Christi USA:
“The decision by the Trump Administration to assassinate Iran’s General Soleimani on Iraqi soil, reportedly by drone strike, has only succeeded in escalating tensions in the Middle East and put in jeopardy the lives of innocent men, women and children who will bear the brunt of back-and-forth retaliation between the US and Iran. This is another in a long string of failures by this administration to pursue diplomacy and act with prudence in addressing the complicated problems of the region, many of which have been exacerbated by or are the direct result of decades of bad decisions undertaken by the US in the Middle East.”
Yes. We are moving into a new decade……We must “beat swords into plowshares” and pursue peace. This is not just pious rhetoric. It is now our practical life or death reality. I think 2020 will be chaotic, unpredictable, and enormously consequential.