Even the Pope Gets It
Recently Pope Francis came out with a criticism of the war in Ukraine. In it he went further than just to decry the Russian invasion. He stated that all wars are unjust. This follows an encyclical Fratelli Tutti published in 2020, in which the Pope seems to be moving away from the traditional Catholic teaching on the possibility of a just war. This has of course, led to a predictable conservative pushback within the church. As a former Catholic, all I can say is that it is about time. To be fair such a position would create serious conservative backlash in about every Protestant denomination.
I will leave it to the Catholic church to debate their church’s teaching on this topic and will address a broader perspective. This is primarily a secular perspective, as I have already argued multiple times about the Christian conscience being absolutely proscribed from using violence. In short, secular just war theory states that there are conditions that may arise in which it is permissible to use military force and commit violence. Basically, the doctrine states that military force is justified if used defensively, to repel an invasion. This force must be proportionate and be directed at the invading force only. There must be all reasonable care given to minimizing collateral casualties (death of non-combatants), and a strict prohibition of intentionally targeting non-combatants.
There are two components to this doctrine. One is jus ad bellum, or a justifiable reason to go to war. The other is jus in bello, or a right conduct of the war. If there is no justifiable reason to go to war, then all resultant deaths are a crime. If there is a justifiable reason to go to war the conduct must be within the parameters of proportionality and minimal deaths of non-combatants. In the modern era, as I will argue, the Pope gets it right; there are no just wars.
Jus Ad Bellum
In the modern world there are typically three reasons why a nation may go to war. They are defense of a nation’s sovereignty, their territorial integrity, and their transit in international waters. It should become apparent by a short perusal of US history that most, if not all, of this nation’s wars fail to meet this criterion. The broader question is, can any war meet this criterion? Perhaps theoretically, but then again not really. First, all government is itself a criminal organization, totally dependent for its existence upon violence and theft. It cannot morally defend that which it has no right to in the first place. At best one would be in the position of defending one violent gang over another violent gang. Is there really a moral choice between the Crips and the Bloods?
In any event this criterion only applies if you are being attacked or having those three above areas encroached upon. If your nation is not threatened, then you cannot attack or use military force in a moral manner. These become wars of choice, which are proscribed. Add to this the fact that taxes and likely conscription are used to fight such wars and you once again damn the whole enterprise by the fact that it is a criminal entity waging the war.
Also, what seem like clear cut cases of unprovoked attacks are usually, upon closer examination, revealed to be much more morally problematic. Take Pearl Harbor for instance. According to US historical mythology the Japanese came out of a clear blue sky in a dastardly attack upon a peace-loving America. Gone from this “analysis” is the reality that the US had been in imperial competition with Japan across the Pacific for at least the previous 40 years. In the process we supported all manner of authoritarian policies and violent actions. In the end, the US embargoed Japan’s oil. So, suddenly, the justness does not seem so clear.
It is also impermissible under this doctrine to get tangled up in foreign alliances. Another nation’s misfortune does not give you the right to spill your nation’s blood and treasure. You will inevitably get sucked up into their intrigue, with no guarantee that what brought them to war is a just cause. The comparison in the present moment is erroneously thought to be the “appeasement” of 1938. Instead, it is more horrifyingly akin to the alliance dominos that fell in 1914.
One nation cannot police the whole world or even a corner of it. There are simply not the resources to do this. What then becomes the criterion for war? National interest, that’s what. This places a nation squarely in the immoral quadrant for a reason to go to war. So, as we can see both the nature of the entity (government) and most causes involved, there is no just cause for going to war.
Jus In Bello
This brings us to by far the most damning analysis of Just War theory; the conduct of said war. Again, in a theoretical way, we might conceive of it being possible to wage a war justly, but this is not possible. No horizontal (state to state) war can ever possibly reasonably contain the violence against non-combatants. The best scholarly estimates of the average percentage of civilians killed in war is about 50% from century to century. This is an appallingly high figure and consigns the entire enterprise of war to the moral ash heap. This does not even consider the intentional targeting of populations in an explicit counter value strategy, as was the case with the US terror bombing of German and Japanese cities in WWII, as well as the Axis policy of terror bombing. This kind of thing is de rigueur in all warfare.
Only in small group situations, as in one on one or limited numbers of combatants could you ever conceive of a situation that a war could be conducted justly. Obviously, that will never be the case when governments go to war with one another. To exponentially magnify the moral outlaw status of war, just think about a nuclear exchange.
In the end, it is gratifying to see the Pope move Catholic doctrine even a bit away from the hoary idea of a “just war”. It is also good to see many begin to recognize that all war is morally proscribed to both the secular mind and the faithful. There is sadly much work to be done in both the secular world and in faith communities to move humanity away from accepting any war as “just”. In the end if war cannot be reconciled with either the laws of God or man, then too fucking bad for war!
Praise Be to God