Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Ruthlessness and conscience

When Christians are confronted with the question of war a few adopt a position of strict pacifism but most make judgments about the justice of the cause and how it is pursued using some variation of ancient just war theory. I used to include an explanation of Just War in a unit of the elective high school international relations class I taught. Students understood and appreciated that there could be just and unjust reasons for going to war but there were always severe doubts about the attempt to enforce rules about how a war should be fought. Paul Johnson reviewing Michael Burleigh's Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II—about a war during which all sides largely disregarded just war standards—discusses the history of efforts to limit the killing of the innocent, in the ancient world as well as more recently.
.... There may or may not be such a thing as a "just war". But we can be sure that war, which means the abandonment of reason, justice to individuals, and proportion, cannot be fought justly, as Burleigh demonstrates time and again. All that a morally self-respecting society can do is to try to ensure that obvious excesses are prevented. ....

People who try to wage war righteously are almost bound to be inconsistent. And recent post-war experience shows that attempts to limit bomb-loads and differentiate between target areas on a moral basis, as practised by both Anthony Eden in the 1956 Suez War and Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam, do not work from any point of view and, in retrospect, are liable to seem ridiculous as well as hypocritical. Burleigh's book should be read, and reflected on, by anyone inclined to take a high moral line on Afghanistan and Iraq. And by those who have to take decisions on getting in, or getting out. It would be interesting to know what Tony Blair, for instance, thinks of it. But then he never reads books, poor fellow. [more]
Moral Fog of War | Standpoint