Or, What Is Just War Good For?

Daniel M. Bell, Jr.

It is widely recognized that we have entered a new era of warfare. With horrible poignancy, on September 11, 2001 terrorism announced that it had come of age. No longer are wars waged between symmetrical powers—state versus state. Now we are immersed in asymmetrical warfare, where states face non-state enemies who are palpably post-modern: trans-national, decentralized, more closely resembling a fog or that mythic beast with multiple and multiplying heads, the hydra, than the traditional more or less well-defined and (at least potentially) containable national enemy. Moreover, this hydra is one given particularly to living amongst and preying upon civilians. In other words, as the smoldering ruins of Ground Zero reminded us, this is an enemy who does not respect the traditional moral parameters of warfare.

The response to this new kind of enemy—the "global war on terror"—has been no less remarkable for the novel directions it has taken warfare. Consider, for example, the strategy of "shock and awe," with its stated aim of inflicting the psychological equivalent of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the enemy population; the policy of pre-emptive war as outlined in the US National Security Strategy of 2002; the illegitimacy of neutrality as implied in President Bush's address to a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001: "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists"; the collapse of the international principle of national sovereignty and self-determination as the enemy is pursued across national boundaries around the globe; or the softening of international conventions on war as enemy combatants (and in many cases, civilians) are stripped of the protections of the Geneva Conventions and imprisoned under brutal conditions, often after being "disappeared" to clandestine locations inaccessible to the likes of the Red Cross through the process of abduction called "extraordinary rendition." And these are only some of the characteristics of this new manner of waging war. No doubt, much is happening about which we know nothing, given that this form of warfare involves not only more conventional, visible campaigns like those in Afghanistan and Iraq , but also "ghost wars," fought covertly in ways such that, as President Bush said, we will not know that they have begun or ended.

Accompanying this recognition is the suspicion that these developments have finally rendered the just war tradition obsolete, irrelevant, impossible. In these changed circumstances, the traditional criteria just do not seem to fit. The global war on terror and the demands of waging it successfully defy such antiquated notions like legitimate authority, last resort, and the possibility of distinguishing between combatant and non-combatant.

Put more starkly, are we not now in a perpetual (color-coded) "supreme emergency," to use Michael Walzer's well-known concept, one that does not permit us the luxury of the moral purity or "clean hands" that the just war tradition, in more amenable times, afforded? Or, to echo the logic some have used in defense of suspending key protections of the Bill of Rights, surely the just war tradition is not a "suicide pact," rigidly binding us to a code of conduct in the face of a vicious enemy that does not share our moral vision of war? Or as the US administration's briefs suggest, does not the "military necessity" of crushing the evil of terrorism overrule the binding character of just war criteria?

The challenges presented to the just war tradition by the current situation are real. For example, as warfare shifts from the nation-state model to conflict with and between non-state actors, the criterion of legitimate authority, which has traditionally conferred the power to wage war upon heads of state, is called into question. Likewise, the current situation appears to many to render the criterion of "last resort" obsolete. After all, it is argued, when facing a purely evil, irrational, nihilistic enemy like a terrorist movement, war becomes the only possible means of response. In a similar manner, many proponents of the war against terror note the difficulty both in identifying what the successful end of such a war would look like and how to measure the probability of its attainment. Consequently they have effectively replaced this criterion with what might be called a "sincere hope for success." Lastly, the difficulties the current situation presents for the criterion of non-combatant immunity are obvious. The predominantly civilian context of this war has led some to suggest that the civilian/military distinction may disappear altogether and that prohibitions on practices like torture are anachronistic.

Although the challenges are real, the shadow of suspicion cast over the just war tradition by the current situation is itself not a novel development. The tradition has consistently faced questions concerning its viability since at least the advent of nuclear weapons. Furthermore, public perception notwithstanding, neither is the changed context of terrorism and the global war on terror unprecedented. The just war tradition arose and came into its own before the advent of nation-states. Indeed, it was precisely the variegated threats posed by decentralized bodies of fighting men in the high middle ages—brigands, mercenaries, pirates, and even feudal lords themselves—that prompted the just war tradition to further limit the scope of justified violence by narrowing legitimate authority and enhancing non-combatant immunity.

So, if neither the question put to the tradition, nor the circumstances that currently prompt such a question, are new, then why the generalized sense that the just war tradition is perilously close to being eclipsed? 

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Source: Cross Currents, Spring 2006, Vol. 56,  No 1.