The Failure of Just War Theory
At The Week, Damon Linker calls just war thinking “an intellectual, moral, and theological fraud” on the grounds that “ad bellum considerations primarily provide an additional moral and theological imprimatur for actions we would be inclined to do anyway.” For nations like the United States, just war theory serves to perpetuate war rather than deter it.
I agree with Linker in so far as the use of just war theory is typically fraudulent, especially when invoked by self-righteous hawks longing to see the U.S. “serve as nothing less than the world’s moral judge, jury, and executioner,” but I wouldn’t call the theory itself a sham or fraud. Philosophers like Augustine and Aquinas formulated just war principles in an attempt to grapple seriously with the demands of the common good, the responsibilities of the state, the immorality of killing, and the evils of war. These principles have since led the Catholic Church, for one, to reject the logic of war and call for its complete abolition.
Instead of calling just war theory a fraud, I would call it a failure. There is no war that can meet all of its criteria. The consequences of war, which are never localized to the “battlefield,” are simply too expansive and uncertain for the belligerents to wage war knowing that they’ll not produce evils graver than the evil to be eliminated. As Linker reminds us, the death toll of the invasion and occupation of Iraq ranges from over 100,000 to over one million. Livelihoods have been lost. People have been displaced. Communities have disappeared. War is indiscriminate, not only by accident, but also as a result of the deliberately chosen means of war.
Putting the ambiguous matter of guilt and innocence aside, war involves not only the use of potentially lethal force to stop an aggressor, but also the deliberate use of force to destroy human beings, an act for which the destruction of human life is not a foreseen, unintended side effect, but the very object intentionally chosen. If human life has inviolable sanctity, as some proponents of just war theory believe, then no circumstance can justify the use of force with the intention to kill.
Just wars aren’t just rare, they’re nonexistent. At least according to the criteria of traditional just war theory. In fact, I’ve heard proposals that the necessary criteria of just war theory need to be rethought in light of modern threats and technologies because the old theory makes it too difficult to justify war as a suitable response to these modern aggressions. Personally, I’d prefer to see the theory abandoned.