Just a war
There’s a long tradition of religions delivering judgments on what can be considered a ‘Just War‘. Recently I was at a interfaith gathering at Camden High School. They brought us there because there is a proposed Muslim school, and the local community, which is fairly old-fashioned and not very ethnically diverse, were concerned. One of the questions we were asked, along with the inevitable questions about the role of women, was about war. Since religion is seen as a driving force in many conflicts, what is our real position? Each of the panelists, from Jewish, Muslim, and Protestant backgrounds, had some definition of a ‘just war’. I decided to stick to my (metaphor) guns and just say no: there is no Buddhist concept of a just war.
This is certainly true as far as the early Suttas go. Obviously Buddhist States have gone to war, probably no less often than others, and frequently with each other. Presumably there is a long tradition of justification of war from a Buddhist perspective in these countries. But I’d like to sidestep that and consider why it is that the Buddha himself never made any declarations on such a crucial matter.
It seems to me that the very notion of a just war is immoral and indefensible, and I suspect that this is why the Buddha never pronounced on it. The aim of just war theorists is, of course, to limit the damage that war causes. It can be justified from a pragmatic perspective. I doubt, however, whether it actually achieves this goal, and suspect it does the opposite.
Just war theory is developed in comfortable offices and studies, by learned men steeped in their religious and philosophical traditions. They have the leisure to sit and quietly contemplate the metaphysical and ethical ‘issues’. And they choose to spend their time thinking of the ways that war can be justified.
So at the end of the day you come up with a list of criteria. The current 4 essential criteria as suggested by the Catechism of the Catholic Church are:
* the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
* all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
* there must be serious prospects of success;
* the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.
This sounds all very worthy and reasonable. But a minute’s reflection shows that these criteria are essentially meaningless.
‘The damage must be lasting, grave, and certain’ – these are simply subjective descriptions of an incident. The perception of ‘lastingness’ or ‘gravity’ is developed in a culture through ideology, media, and governments. Some cultures think that flushing a sacred text down a toilet is a matter of grave concern, whereas for Ajahn Brahm the only problem is that you have to call the plumber!
‘All other means are ineffective’ – but how can you ever know this? There’s always another way. If you want a 100% effective tool against oppressive regimes, try patience: no matter how awful a dictator or aggressor is, they only last for so long and no more. I’m not suggesting that patience is always, or even often, a good tool against oppression, I’m simply pointing out how arbitrary this condition is.
‘There must be serious prospects of success’ – how do you define success? Is this as defined by the women, the dead, the maimed? Or is it success as defined by the top-hats, who get to get on with business as usual?
‘The use of arms must not produce evils greater than the evil to be eliminated’ – again, how on earth do you evaluate this? Do you compare life against life? The moral equation is simply too complex and uncertain to have any meaning. I find it difficult to accept that war, at any time and under any circumstances, leads to a better outcome.
What I am concerned with here is the use to which such statements are put. Effectively, i think they act as a blueprint for war. Any government, if it has any concern for how it morally appears, can take such a list, give it to their spin doctors, and come back saying, “See, this is a just war according to your own criteria. Now you go and tell your people that this is a just war. We need your help to accomplish our Just Cause.”
Some years ago I saw a stunning documentary, The Fog of War, which was essentially a series of interviews with Robert McNamara. The metaphor of the title conveys the uncertainty and confusion that reigns in any war. Society is disrupted, fear is everywhere, each side is spinning facts furiously; the complexity is just so great that it’s impossible to come to clear decisions. In such a context, the neat ethical abstractions of the just war theorists come apart. They assume that decision makers can have a clear knowledge and understanding of events, and this is just what they don’t have.
I understand that just war theory addresses genuine ethical issues. It may be one thing for Jesus or the Buddha to say ‘turn the other cheek’; but what if the person being attacked is not you, but the people around you? What if non-violence becomes an opportunity for even greater oppression?
I don’t have answers for these questions, and it would be ridiculous for me, a middle-class white man in a safe country, to pretend I did. But I do think that it is ethically imperative for religious people, philosophers, and people in positions of ethical leadership, to put their energies into creating peace rather than justifying war.