Letter: What is “just” war?

How would columnist George Weigel ‘develop’ the just war doctrine?

A phrase in George Weigel’s June column, “Just war revisited and revitalized,” troubles me. He refers to those “who take the classic just war theory seriously and work to develop it in the light of the realities of 21st century politics and technology.” What does “develop” church teaching mean? What part of the just war doctrine needs to be developed? What does that development consist of? Should church teaching conform to our politics or should our politics conform to church teaching? Weigel’s opposition to “wishful thinking…allowing evils to happen” fails to recognize the wishful thinking that enabled “murderous men” like Anastasio Somoza, Augusto Pinochet, Ferdinand Marcos and Roberto D’auboisson to get away with claiming they were using American taxpayers’ money to kill communists, not Catholics. For that matter, wishing that our politicians conform their foreign policies to the Ten Commandments does not ensure their doing so. I request that the Catholic Anchor have Mr. Weigel tell us exactly what changes he wants to the four tenets of the just war doctrine and why we should enact such changes.

—   Geoff Kennedy, Anchorage

George Weigel responds: I’m not quite sure what Geoff Kennedy means by “the four tenets of the just war doctrine,” since by most reckonings the just war tradition is composed of five war-decision criteria (competent authority, just cause, right intention, reasonable chance of success, proportionality of ends and last resort) and two war-conduct criteria (proportionality of means and discrimination). And as I have argued for years, moral reasoning within the just war tradition is not a matter of ticking-all-the-boxes. The just war tradition is a moral framework for collaborative deliberation on whether, in Case X, the use of armed force can be fitted to morally justifiable political ends. The tradition emerged in the days of siege engines, knights and broadswords, so it has obviously “developed” over time to take account of new empirical realities: new forms of “competent authority,” new political realities and new military-technological realities. Among the new realities with which the just war tradition must contend in the 21st century (this leading to a further development of the tradition) are the rise of non-state international actors of often-lethal consequence (e.g., al-Qaeda); new weapons technologies (e.g., drones); new kinds of regimes (e.g., the apocalyptic mullahs in Iran); and the failures of international institutions to be peace-keepers or peace-makers. I and many others would also argue that the just war tradition must “develop” to include moral reasoning about post-war reconstruction and reconciliation.

— George Weigel, senior fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center, Washington, D.C.


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