The Broken Tradition

The Broken Tradition

Mini Teaser: In the ongoing argument between foreign policy realists andidealists, the just-war tradition of moral reasoning about the use offorce has played a crucial mediating role for centuries.

by Author(s): James Turner Johnson

In the context of the first development, these theorists regarded war
as provided for by both nature and the law of nations as a means of
settling otherwise intractable disputes. As to the second issue, one
might guess, on the face of it, that if both sides in a conflict
appear to have just cause, then the tradition would enjoin them not
to fight; that is, it would see ambiguity itself as a restriction on
jus ad bellum, the very right to go to war. Certainly, if there were
a presumption against war within the core of the tradition, it would
have been most likely to present itself here. But neither Vitoria nor
Grotius reasoned this way. Rather, accepting war as a last-resort
means of settling disputes, they focused instead on the idea of
simultaneous ostensible justice--the perception of justice on both
sides at once--as the base for more attention to restraint in war,
thus feeding the development of the jus in bello, the rules limiting
the conduct of war. Also, both of these early modern just-war
theorists give explicit attention to the purpose of just use of force
to right injustices, as for example Vitoria's contemporary-sounding
argument for the use of force to oppose pillage, rape, and
indiscriminate killing.

Clearly, the development of Christian just-war tradition follows a
line of reasoning focused on the rightness of the resort to force to
combat the evil of injustice, and that development did not construe
at any point the use of force to be a moral problem in itself. In
classic just-war theory the use of force is morally problematical
only when it is the source of injustice. But even then, wrong uses of
force do not call force itself into question, but instead justify the
resort to force to set matters right. What Christian just-war
doctrine is about, as classically defined, is the use of the
authority and force of the rightly ordered political community (and
its sovereign authority as minister of God) to prevent, punish, and
rectify injustice. There is, simply put, no presumption against war
in it at all.

The Evolution of an Idea

If the idea of a "presumption against war" cannot be traced to the
theorists who gave Christian just-war theory its classical form, then
where does it come from? The answer, I suggest, is that it has
developed out of a particular response to the phenomenon of modern
war, a response that understands the nature of war today necessarily
to threaten human values, not to provide a means of protecting them.
This understanding depicts war in its contemporary form as inherently
suspect. A widely known rendering of this view is in Paul Fussell's
The Great War and Modern Memory: Modern war is senseless, out of
control, massively destructive of human values and life values,
leaving behind harmful consequences that linger long after the
shooting is done.

Since the idea of a "presumption against war" as informing just-war
theory has been explicitly adopted by the American Catholic bishops
in their 1983 pastoral, The Challenge of Peace, it is instructive to
follow the evolution in Catholic thought of the perception of modern
war as inherently destructive of value. Here, as in other religious
criticism of modern war, we encounter additional themes: negative
judgments on the purposes of modern secular states, references to the
growth of "militarism", and a conception of modern weapons as
inherently too destructive to serve value. It is important to note
that this negative perception of war is not simply a reaction to the
age of nuclear weapons. It was well established long before the
nuclear age. Fussell traces this conception of war to the terrible
experience in the trenches of 1914-18, but for Catholic thought it
begins at least as early as 1870, when a formal position paper, or
Postulatum, was presented to Vatican Council I, challenging the
justice of the form of war practiced by modern states.

Reflecting the experience of the Franco-Prussian War of that same
year, and perhaps also the American Civil War that had ended five
years earlier, this Postulatum explicitly cited the venal motivations
of states and the danger of large standing national armies as a
special evil. It argued that such armies fostered a spirit of
militarism, tended to foment wars in order to finance themselves
through conquest, and led to conflicts so destructive as to be
"hideous massacres" that the church could not regard as just. So far
as the jus ad bellum was concerned, the argument of the Postulatum
precluded the possibility of a first use of force being just, no
matter what its aim--and after the grotesque slaughter of the First
World War some forty-five years later, the argument could only have
seemed more self-evident than ever. The document did, however, admit
the right of second use of force in defense against attack. Together,
this undercutting of the first use of force along with the acceptance
of second use (defined as defense) was to become an element not only
for later Catholic thought but also for twentieth-century
international law.

Following the Great War and reflecting the experience of that
conflict, a gathering of prominent theologians at the 1931 Conventus
of Fribourg thus distinguished between defense, which they regarded
as lawful, and the argument for war from national "necessity", which
they declared not lawful. In the context of the provisions for
arbitration of disputes established by the League of Nations, and the
renunciation of first use of force established for the signatories to
the Pact of Paris, the Conventus took the position that it was wrong
to initiate any resort to arms to settle a dispute without first
recourse to arbitration.

These two documents set the terms for a critique of war that ends as
a "presumption against war." Since the Second World War various
official and nonofficial statements have called into question
whether, given the nature of modern war, even the just cause of
defense can legitimize resort to armed force. Statements of the
various popes to this effect are especially interesting because of
their authoritative force, even though they represent only a fraction
of the full range of recent Catholic thought on war.

Pope Pius XII, whose papacy (1939-58) extended through the Second
World War and the beginning of the nuclear age, in effect forbade
"all wars of aggression, whether just or unjust", as John Courtney
Murray put it. For this pope a "war of aggression", Murray notes, was
identified with any offensive use of force, whatever the justifying
reason. Defensive war, on the other hand, was acceptable--though Pius
hedged this allowance more tightly than earlier just-war writers. His
reasoning on first and second resort to force came together in his
1956 Christmas message, which reflected the context of the Hungarian
revolution and its repression by Soviet military power. This
statement is interesting as an example of the refashioning of
traditional just-war concepts into a somewhat different doctrine from
that defined by the classic theorists. In a particularly vivid
passage Pius wrote:

"There is no further room for doubt about the purposes and methods
that lie behind tanks when they crash resoundingly across frontiers.
. . . When all the possible stages of negotiation and mediation are
by-passed, and when the threat is made to use atomic arms to obtain
concrete demands, whether these are justified or not, it becomes
clear that . . . there may come into existence in a nation a
situation in which all hope of averting war becomes vain. In this
situation a war of efficacious self-defense against unjust attacks,
which is undertaken with hope of success, cannot be considered
illicit." [emphasis added]

In context, this was a pointed condemnation of the Soviet invasion
alongside a somewhat lukewarm acceptance of the Hungarian resistance.
Pius used just-war language, but his priorities were importantly
different from those of classic just-war theory. There, as we have
seen, the classical focus was on three concerns: the justice of the
cause for resort to force, the existence of authority to do so, and
the intention with which it would be used. Pius, however, focused
elsewhere: on the evil of first resort to force itself (tanks
crashing "resoundingly across frontiers") and the requirement of last
resort (the threat of further force without making use of
"negotiation" and "mediation"). While he allowed defensive use of
force, he subjected it to further limits: only self-defense against
"unjust attacks" is allowed; "reasonable hope of success" (the
classic criterion) has been refashioned into "efficacious
self-defense . . . undertaken with hope of success" (emphasis added
in both cases); and the defensive resort to force is not explicitly
just, but only "cannot be considered illicit."

Pius' reasoning here expressed a "presumption against war" without
employing the term. While his reference to atomic arms introduced a
new element in the context of resort to force, Pius' focus in this
passage was clearly not that these particular weapons are especially
evil and to be avoided but that the use of force is especially evil
and to be avoided. His negative attitude toward resort to force was
thus not a particular result of the atomic age; rather it was of a
piece with the distrust of arms, armies, and the use of force
expressed earlier in Catholic thought, in the denunciation of large
standing armies and militarism in 1870, and the emphasis on
arbitration in 1931.

Essay Types: Book Review