Thursday, May 5, 2011

“Just War,” “Humanitarian War,” or Just War?

"Bin Laden Dead" was the two-inch headline at the top of The Kansas City Star, which I saw early Monday morning. (Since I get up quite early, I also go to bed early, so I had not heard the news when it broke late Sunday evening.)

Reading more of the newspaper and then watching some television reports about the killing of bin Laden, it was evident that there was considerable rejoicing over his death. And certainly that is understandable, since he was the mastermind of the terrorist attacks on 9/11/01.

A little later on Monday morning, I saw that Thinking Friend Tyler Tankersley had posted “Proverbs 24:17” on Facebook Sunday evening. Also fairly early on Monday morning Dr. David Gushee, writing for The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, quoted the same verse in a perceptive posting about the killing of bin Laden. (The link to that article is here.)

Shortly after reading Dr. Gushee’s article I received an e-mail from Thinking Friend David Nelson, who wrote: “This is a day for sobering reflection as we hear of the death of Osama bin Laden. The celebrating in the streets feels wrong for me. It is a day to ponder how we can make this a safer and better world for all our sisters and brothers.”

From early in the Middle Ages, Christian theologians and ethicists have affirmed the possibility of what is called just war. When certain conditions are met, war is considered to be just or right. Most Americans believe that all the wars the U.S. has fought have been just wars, although there are many who question that about the war on Iraq.

The “war on terror” has certainly been considered a just war by most Americans. Writing for the 10/29/01 issue of The Nation, Richard Falk (b. 1930; professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University) said, “The war in Afghanistan against apocalyptic terrorism qualifies in my understanding as the first truly just war since World War II.”

Just over a decade ago (at the time of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999) a new term was introduced for military activity: humanitarian war. That term is now being used by some people to refer to what is currently taking place in Libya. And I am in sympathy with the efforts to protect the rebels in Libya from what appeared to be sure slaughter by the forces of Muammar Gaddafi, who has been the tyrannical ruler of that north African country since 1969.

Nevertheless, back in 2001 the December issue of The Progressive, Howard Zinn (1922-2010) raised these questions about whether the war on terror was just:
How can a war be truly just when it involves the daily killing of civilians, when it causes hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children to leave their homes to escape the bombs, when it may not find those who planned the September 11 attacks, and when it will multiply the ranks of people who are angry enough at this country to become terrorists themselves?
If he were still alive, my guess is that the inimitable Zinn would raise similar questions about the “humanitarian war” now being waged in Libya by NATO, which includes the U.S., of course.

While I am glad bin Laden is no longer alive in order to plan more terrorist attacks, and while I will be glad when Gaddafi is no longer able to carry on his reign of terror in Libya, still, I think we have to be careful about our terminology and the justification of violence.

The terms “just war” and “humanitarian war” may sound quite acceptable, but maybe both of those forms of military action end up being just war. And we must not forget that, as General Sherman said, “War is hell.”


  1. Today is the national day of prayer. A good time for contrition, repentance (especially of our personal evil ways), but most importantly for petitions in the unity of the Church here in the United States to the Most High, that He would have mercy on us, forgive us, and grant wisdom to our leaders and representatives - locally to nationally. This is a good time as our country struggles and has big issues to face.

    There were those who signed a petition to pray for our representatives and President during the last administration. It would be good to reaffirm that and sign again.

  2. Well said, Leroy.

    I think just-war theory was developed in contexts that were fairly "universal," at least in the sense that "nations" share a common culture. In part, that's why it's been so problematic trying to apply it. True just wars are probably quite rare, and the just conduct of war is probably even more rare, maybe even non-existent.

    I have the suspicion that in this modern-postmodern world of nationalism and patriotism, Christians have to work much harder at critiques of nationalism and national interests for them to have any kind of plausible witness for peace.

  3. P.S.: By "plausible," I don't mean convincing. I mean clarity of Christian witness, which, in fact, would probably make us even less relevant and less convincing to those outside a serious Christian commitment.

  4. Answer: Just war, as in "War is a Racket" (book title by US Marine Corp Major General Smedley Butler).

    Like many sensational us-vs-them battle tales, this one too is in all likelyhood a truthy lie, fabricated to temporarily (and predictably) boost the sagging popularity of President Obama, and to manufacture consent for continued (and possibly elevated) US imperial presence in Pakistan. As Theologian David Ray Griffin has quite methodically documented in his book, "Osama Bin Laden: Dead or Alive?" and as former CIA and FBI officials and even Oliver North have stated, available evidence (as opposed to corporate "news") indicates that OBL has been dead for several years. He has only been kept "alive" with occasional blips of crackly audio tapes and video appearance by (sometimes ridiculously obvious) fake OBLs, to maintain the public fear and racialized hate that the war racketeers NEED to keep their death-eating gravy train chugging along.
    I cannot, therefore, feel glad that OBL is dead (again). If anything, I wish he were alive to tell his side of the story. When the ubermensches of the transnational oilygarchy, or the "coalition of the willing," are exposed and dethroned (but not decapitated; I am against capital punishment), and when their corporate media offers news that is significantly closer to "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth," that will be the day of my gladness, and of the Lord's justice. Proverbs 24:7 is indeed a cogent passage, but Habakkuk is the book that most comes to my mind. Our present situation is expressed in 1:4. The question raised in my mind by a reading of Habakkuk is this: With no violent power in sight to surpass and crush our own rot on the Lord's behalf, what are we to do? I suggest our first task is to "snap out of it" and stop accepting the war racketeers' lies as our reference points for moral and ethical discourse.

  5. Excellent thoughts, Dr. Seat. I really appreciate your quoting of Howard Zinn, as well as your exploration of Just War Theory, a direction in which I had not thought about this whole mess yet.

    I put together a little post as well, late Sunday night, as I was troubled by all the rejoicing. Mine mostly deals with perceptions of truth, who is good and who is evil (as Shakespeare wrote in "King Lear": "Handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?"

    I would love to hear your thoughts.


  6. Seeing the cheering crowds gather out of the blue Sunday evening at the White House and at Ground Zero, was quite unsettling for me. I shed no tears for bin Laden's demise, but I'm not sure I join with those who celebrate and cheer his death.

    I must say straight out that I'm sure I would feel differently if I'd had a relative or close friend die on 9/11.

    What struck me as interesting--and many analysts have mentioned it this week--was that the great majority of those who spontaneously gathered Sunday night to celebrate were mostly young adults 25 and under.

    Some ask what was their stake in celebrating. It has been pointed out that for many young adults, their outlook on life has been greatly shaped by the events of 9/11 and being taught to live in fear of bin Laden and his followers.

    I have been pleased to hear so many commentators on PBS, NPR, CNN ask why we are celebrating someone's death, especially given the circumstances that we hunted him down and "took him out."

    My immediate comparison in modern history is knowing how relieved and even exuberant people were when news of Hitler's suicide came to light. These circumstances are different, but the long term waiting is not. When Hitler was dead everyone knew the Third Reich would not survive. Unfortunately, bin Laden's death does not mean the same thing for the Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups who dislike Americans and the West.

    Thanks, Leroy, for your timely post.


  7. These words just received via e-mail from a local Thinking Friend:

    "And as General Robert E. Lee said, 'It is well that war is so terrible--lest we should grow too fond of it.' There is much to be learned from the U.S. Civil War whose sesquicentennial we are now observing, though I fear many will miss the real lessons."

  8. I would have to mostly agree with your comments Dr. Seat. When the news was released, I thought "Oh, no the comments on facebook would be bad." I checked right away and a little later and was quite happy that people were not gloating. I also checked the next morning and still no crazy responses. I think we are all somewhat relieved, and I think that the President is also right to keep it low key, however I would like to see some proof, although I do not want to see a lot of gruesome pictures either. People will always be unhappy, and it may even be the ones of us who would like to see proof. Definitely agree that "war is hell."

  9. Having cleaned up after gun shot wounds, I have a deep respect for the tragic human cost of war. St. Clement lays out the economic cost. Benjamin Franklin presented a good balance on the horrors of war and the need to eliminate tyrants and despots with the cost of war. Having seen first hand the human cost of despots and tyrants, just war makes full sense.

    Thank you Leroy, Anton, and David for keeping the balance in with ancient Christian belief in peace.

  10. Rather than tying ourselves into ethical knots, perhaps we should take the death of bin Laden as an opportunity to look at the big picture, the big picture of the world as it is, and as it ought to be. We live in a chaotic, dangerous world. We feel it spinning out of control, we know our exploding population is unsustainable, our climate overheating, our jails overflowing, our civilization precariously balanced, and our policies frequently far from optimal, sometimes even counter-productive.

    Let us remember the vision of Micah 4, a vision of a world where nations practice arbitration, swords are beaten into plowshares, people sit under their own vines and fig trees, no one is afraid, cast-offs are made into a great nation, and sovereignty flows from learning. Is all this just a dream, or is it also a recipe?

    Perhaps our problem is not that nations wage war, but that faith has failed to equally wage peace. When the most unlikely of places is presenting us all with the challenge of the "Arab Spring," perhaps it is time for all of us to pledge to try just a little harder to give peace a chance.

    I believe one of the best ways to do that is to deeply review what we ask of our governments. In America, what we have mostly asked for is a free lunch. The results have frequently not been pretty. What we need is a good lunch at a fair price. Now all we have to do is define "good" and "fair."

  11. Yesterday I received by e-mail the following comment that Thinking Friend Don Wideman tried to post here:

    "Triumphalism is never attractive and especially when practiced by Christ followers. We have way too much of that in our Baptist wars. Sadly, it is another example showing that believers more often reflect the culture of the age rather than the example and teachings of our Lord."

  12. From an esteemed Thinking Friend in Kentucky:

    "I fully agree with that thoughtful comment, Leroy. I rejoice that President Obama discouraged 'dancing in the streets' and refused to allow publication of the Bin Laden photos. We should be sobered by what has happened."

  13. The comment by Pastor George, a Thinking Friend in Canada:

    "I too make reference to Proverbs 24:17 and also to the Gospel message of our Lord. Evil must be dealt with and, for sure, bin Laden and others are evil men. I guess what was disturbing was the enthusiasm displayed by many American people on hearing that bin Laden was dead. War is never the answer to world problems. Having said that, of course justice must be dealt with but in what manner?"

  14. Having an internal place for libertarianism and cynicism of government bureaucracy, it has been disappointing in recent years for the increase in paperwork from the US Department of State for those actively involved in international relations, especially the untimely and dramatic increase in paperwork this year. However, the rationale given was very positive, and made me willing to adapt non-grudgingly.

    A paraphrase of the rationale was that "public diplomacy" (not diplomatic) is the positive face the United States needs - both of those going to other countries and those coming from other countries. Cultural/religious differences and language barriers are key are key to misperceptions by all. Too bad. A smile and laughter are universal.

    There will continue to be despicable despots, warlords and other evil vermin who will need to be addressed appropriately, but some dedicated public diplomacy here and abroad would be appropriate from all who are generally people of goodwill.

    As a start, many of us speak another language at least marginally. We should employ that as a tool of friendship in our own hometown to build some international goodwill. (There are certainly more here than "all those illegal Mexicans" - which is another good topic.