Moral jousting over war and peace

In weighing the morality of a possible attack on Iraq, both hawks and doves are saying they have all the support they need in the thought of a 4th-century African bishop.

That's because they're finding that the ancient "just war" theory of St. Augustine of Hippo asks necessary moral questions for a modern nation considering a preemptive strike. Could such an attack be necessary to protect innocents? Have all other options been exhausted? Answers aside, both camps are using the same time-tested questions as a moral compass in uncharted waters.

For example, Roman Catholic bishops in Washington Tuesday met to draft a statement questioning the morality of a preemptive war on Iraq, the wires report. Cardinal Bernard Law said the document would question whether the Bush administration had met the ethical standards of just war. While a number of moral theorists in public essays have used the same criteria to say waging war against Iraq may be a moral duty.

Americans flock to the ancient just-war theory, scholars say, because it brings a desirable moral dimension to a pragmatism that accepts war as sometimes necessary. But although scholars generally agree the standards apply to Iraq today, users of the theory are debating whether it will provide adequate moral guidance through all 21st-century conflicts.

"The issue [with Iraq] is how can you justify preemptive strikes, and just-war theory speaks to that," says Susan Thistlethwaite, president of Chicago Theological Seminary. "But terrorism makes just-war theory mute. Just-war theory assumes a nation-state, but war is changing. Who actually are you fighting?"

"To say just-war theory doesn't have anything to say to terrorism is to overstate it," says J. Bryan Hehir, president of Catholic Charities USA and a leading just-war theorist. "It has to be adapted to a range of new circumstances.... [Moral theories] form the basis of what it means to be human, so the principles won't change."

Just-war theory presumes war to be immoral unless adequately justified. Those who would declare war must show they have six elements firmly in hand: just cause, competent authority, right values, right intention, exhaustion of alternatives, and probability of success. When fighting, warriors must target only combatants (not civilians) and expect a final outcome whose benefits will outweigh the battle's high costs.

Over the centuries, St. Augustine's principles from "City of God" provided a road map for Thomas Aquinas and others to navigate the moral terrain of warfare. Alternatives were always available, for instance, through Christian pacifism's teaching that war is always immoral and through the expediency of realpolitik, best exemplified by Prince Otto von Bismarck, which separates politics and morality so they occupy separate spheres without overlapping.

Yet just-war theory continues to claim the widest allegiance, especially in the United States, where leaders have invoked its standards to justify every major war in the nation's history.

Americans won't settle for realpolitik, according to University of Chicago ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain, because they believe war requires greater justification than purely national interest. Since the nation always seems capable of isolating itself rather than going to war, she says, "if there is to be a loss of life, it ought to be for a higher purpose."

Yet pacifism has never caught on here, she says, because Americans don't find it realistic. "Just-war theory accepts human wickedness," Ms. Elshtain says. "It acknowledges that humans sometimes do very bad things to each other.... Pacifism goes too far in one direction, let's say, and realpolitik goes too far in the other."

Just war has also enjoyed remarkable staying power because "it deals with the motives of war that would be present in any war, because the categories don't change," according to David Davenport of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. In an October essay defending a preemptive attack, he wrote, "the United States should not acknowledge the United Nations as a moral authority on Iraq, but rather should apply traditional standards of just-war theory to explain its actions."

Yet despite his confidence in what the theory offers in dealing with Iraq, Mr. Davenport says the theory may be losing its value in today's world.

"I think new situations and new technologies really make us need to rethink just-war theory," Davenport says. Example: Just-war theory assumes a need to declare war, yet many circumstances involve an army acting "more like a high-level police force," thus negating the need for a declared war. What's more, he says, the global village cannot agree on who has authority to sanction warfare - any sovereign nation? The United Nations alone? Without these answers, just-war theory might see its core criteria erode.

To address new challenges of terrorism and provide an alternative to just war and pacifism, a group of United Church of Christ pastors and theologians are convening this month to advance a "just peace theology," a model in the making since the 1980s. The basic idea, according to Ms. Thistlethwaite, is "to establish a new Marshall plan" for the world by learning "how peace is built and sustained so it will not be necessary to consider the question of violence." Key elements include fighting poverty to thwart the root cause of terrorism and insisting governments earn their authority by creating and maintaining just systems.

Meanwhile, opponents of just-war theory are borrowing its questions for their own purposes. Annie Tunstall, a Quaker peace activist in Amesbury, Mass., says, "I don't believe there is a just war. War is just left over from another age, and we haven't learned to live without it."

Yet when broached about the Iraq situation, she asks if diplomacy has been exhausted and what tactic might hold the best chance of success. Both questions reside implicitly in just-war theory, illustrating the idea's legacy even beyond one school of thought.

As threats of violence continue to evolve, theories on how to respond are likewise adjusting. Yet given the longevity of just-war theory, its essentials seem likely to endure. "It's in the nature of moral theories," Hehir says "They don't drop easily out of existence."

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