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.


16 thoughts on “Just a war

  1. I just wonder whether it is possible for religions to take a position with regards to war. War is all about protecting, saving self, family, community, country or even the world and all religions have the basic concept of going beyond these. War is the crudest form of protection of self so how can religion which teaches people to go beyond self make a firm stand on this? Isn’t it like trying to apply Newtonian physics in a quantum world?

  2. Guptila de Silva :
    [S]elf, family, community, country, world… all religions have the basic concept of going beyond these.

    Well, this isn’t actually true, so the question you’re asking has a mistaken foundation. Most religions with which I am familiar in fact sacralize one or more of those very things, and thereby have something to defend, whence something worth the cost of war.

  3. Very interesting point – and one that often makes me ask myself if I am a Buddhist. Watching films of the second world war – Schindlers List, The Pianist etc. And knowing people whose families in Europe and Russia had to endure fighting and occupation by the Nazis – I wonder if I would have fought to keep these people off my family and my country. When I think of the freedom we enjoy to practice Buddhism and speak on this blogg etc, its because people fought against this terrible regime. I don’t know what the answer is. I’m very interested to hear other points of view as it would be lovely to think there would have been a way out of this situation which didn’t involve killing.

    • Of course, the perennial example of the ‘Just war’ – and an implicit admission that all wars since then, and most previous, were far more ambiguous.

      The problem is that WW2 is, like all, such a complex thing that we forget what we don’t know. Could other avenues have been pursued? I don’t know, but here are some possibilities: assiduously cultivate the industrialists of Germany, who had close financial ties with the allies; or cultivate an alliance with Stalin, which was unthinkable before the war, but an uncomfortable reality in it; or try to set up a coup among the German army; or…

      Would any of these worked? Who knows? I don’t believe in the inevitability of these things. And i remember a story that Ajahn Brahm tells. Apparently Churchill met Stalin and Roosevelt in 1943 or 4, and told them, ‘History will exonerate us – i know, because I’m going to write the history’.

      There is a narrative of just war, but I am suspicious of just believing it. Of course, Hitler was awful long before the war. But there is no doubt that war brutalizes everyone. I’m not convinced that the Nazis in general would have been so vicious in a different context. Not all Nazis were evil; for example, in Nanking the Nazi rep was horrified by the behaviour of the Japanese. If Hitler had just walked into France, what would have happened? Could he have sustained an empire for long? A hate-monger like him is usually far more successful in war time. If there had been no war, would his support have melted away?

      Without wishing to diminish the horrors of WW2 in any way, I think it is too complex, too uncertain, and too ideologized a conflict for us to draw any comfortable or general principles about what constitutes a just war.

    • I agree that there may well be other ways to resolve conflict other than war.

      For example the USA has put in years of effort and trillions of dollars into fighting in Iraq. What if the had put a tenth of that money into an equally well equiped Peace Corp whose mission was to find a peaceful solution to the conflict? If nothing else they could have bought most of the key decision makers in Iraq with a billion dollars in a Swiss bank account.

      Why is it country’s will put huge resources and effort into war, and very little into peace? It doesn’t even make economic sense.

  4. There is no such thing as just war, period. Every war is built up through a giving in to the three poisons, both on the individual level and collective level. There is a least one story – which sutra it’s from exactly, I cannot recall right now – of the Buddha actively trying to persuade leaders not to go to war. That may not make an anti-war stance, but I personally see no value in continuing to look at WWII for example, for justifications. Why not make the effort to be non-violent in this world, to actively support non-violence in this world, even if your nation ends up going to war?

    • Hi Nathan, I appreciate your comments. Just to clarify my own position. I’m not looking at WWII for justifying war. I’m trying to extrapolate from that experience to imagine what other options there would be when faced with the reality of being invaded by someone like the nazis and my life and family were going to be wiped out by a terrible regime doing terrible things. People are still being faced with these choices in parts of the world in different ways today so it’s real. In my own life in the UK I do make the effort to be non-violent in this world and actively support non-violence. But I’m not staring into the face of annihilation or extreme oppression. It’s a very interesting question. Is it ever just to fight back when threatened. In the Bhagavadgitta (not Buddhist) Krishna gives instructions to Arjuna on the correct attitude to take when doing his duty as a warrior. Its also a debate about just and unjust wars. I’m interested in Ajahn’s reference to black and white kamma in relation to fighting wars. Can we hear more please. With metta to all.

  5. Correct me if I am wrong but it seems to me that the Buddha of the Pali suttas made few, if any, comments on societal issues in a wide sense. He seemed to be almost exclusively concerned with declaring what was appropriate behaviour for an individual and that was usually framed in terms of the consequences of that behaviour.

    For example while he never said “War is wrong” he did say that killing people as a soldier would have bad consequences – in fact leading to rebirth in the hell realms.

    He also did not declare equality among the castes. But he did say that nobility was defined by ones actions not ones birth.

    Its interesting to speculate why this was:
    Maybe this reflects his intent to only teach dukkha and the ending of dukkha and that making declarations about war and equality do not help end dukkha.
    Maybe war and inequality are inevitable in society and there was no point making declaration about them.
    Maybe he was just leaving it to his disciples to draw the obvious inference that engaing in any sort of violence would lead to bad results and hence war would always be bad.

    • Hi Wtp,

      I would agree with you in a sense of emphasis – the Buddha was clearly interested primarily in liberation, and didn’t think this could come about through social reform. Nevertheless, the statements on social issues, though relatively few, are important. The best known example is the teachings regarding the Vajjians at the start of the Mahaparinibbana Sutta.

  6. Bhante-

    Excellent post. Very good points that you don’t hear about very often.

    I am wondering why you brought your race and (former) class into it at the end?

    Florentyna, I think Bhante point wasn’t that war is always wrong, but that there should be no just war doctrine.

    Wtp, the Buddha did not say he did say “that killing people as a soldier would have bad consequences”. This is what he said:

    “When a warrior strives & exerts himself in battle, his mind is already seized, debased, & misdirected by the thought: ‘May these beings be struck down or slaughtered or annihilated or destroyed. May they not exist.’ If others then strike him down & slay him while he is thus striving & exerting himself in battle, then with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the hell called the realm of those slain in battle. But if he holds such a view as this: ‘When a warrior strives & exerts himself in battle, if others then strike him down & slay him while he is striving & exerting himself in battle, then with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the company of devas slain in battle,’ that is his wrong view. Now, there are two destinations for a person with wrong view, I tell you: either hell or the animal womb.”

    So the point is that being a soldier is risky.

    • I am wondering why you brought your race and (former) class into it at the end?

      No major reason; i’m just staying conscious of my own limited experience and comfortable upbringing and how that might affect my attitudes towards such an uncomfortable topic…

      Florentyna, I think Bhante point wasn’t that war is always wrong, but that there should be no just war doctrine.

      I was kinda skirting round the topic. Perhaps instead of ‘just war‘ and ‘unjust war’ we should speak of ‘dreadful war’ and ‘even more dreadful war’. There’s still clearly a moral gradient – some wars are worse than others. And there’s clearly a moral ambiguity – part of the motivations for some wars are good. In such cases i think of the Buddha’s teaching on ‘black and white kamma that leads to black and white results’. I do find it hard to believe that there is any war where the ‘white’ outweighs the ‘black’.

  7. An interesting post

    Maybe no wars are Just but some are Necessary on a material level if one wants to live in a reasonably free society.

    I believe that the Buddha only saw one way to end the suffering of the world and that was through his teachings all else was immaterial. If you remembered as many lifetimes as the Buddha you would have seen it all…….millions of times!

    We look at things from our tiny lifetime , but doesnt Karma even it all out in the end? Could not Wars, injustice and persecution be considered to be the ” harvest of our Karma” The second world war and its aftermath show that conflict resolves nothing. The Jews for example were freed from the concentration camps and established Israel and then began treating the Palestinians in an abominable manner. There are thousands of other examples we see and hear of them every day through our news services.

    Its like watching some peace protesters on TV their faces contorted with anger and rage…….they want peace but the cause for war is within themselves.

  8. Interesting. Having been in hundreds of anti-war protests, I’ve never seen “peace protesters … their faces contorted with anger and rage.”

    Quite the contrary. When we held our demonstrations agains the Iraq War, those who shouted obscenities and raised their fists calling us traitors and bums, inviting us to leave the country if we didn’t love it, and telling us to get a job, were the ones with the hateful faces. (Yeah, get a job. We regularly demonstrated on Sunday 😉 and the only ones not employed were retired — our oldest member was 95 years old.)

  9. Since the article on fundamentalism is ancient history, perhaps this timely background on an uncoming war over holy places should go here. Prof. Juan Cole is a tremendous scholar (U of Michigan) and a fine blogger http://www.juancole.com/ .

    This analysis of the nationalizing of everything to do with Abraham (whose life is important to Jews, Muslims and Christians) anticipates, predicts a very dangerous war in which all sides will be claiming right and God on their side.

    Monday, March 01, 2010
    Al-Khalil/ Hebron and Jerusalem Protests Point to the Dangers of Nationalizing Sacred Space
    Abraham has been an important figure for theologians, philosophers, chroniclers and religious poets and lyricists among Jews, Christians and Muslims. All three monotheistic religions honor him and claim him as a patriarch or in Islam’s case as a prophet of the one God. All tell the story of his willingness to sacrifice his son for God. Jews and Arabs see him as an ancestor, Jews claiming descent through his implausibly aged first wife Sarah and Arabs through his second wife (held in some Jewish and Muslim traditions to have been a Pharaonic princess), Hagar. They hold him to be buried in the Cave of the Patriarchs in al-Khalil in the Palestinian West Bank, which the Israelis call “Hebron,” where Muslims erected the Mosque of the Abraham, which is split, with part of it used by Jews and the other part by Muslims.

    (Update: Francis Boyle writes in to say: “The Muslims and the Jews do not “share” the Ibrahimi Mosque. In fact, Israel confiscated the chamber of the Mosque where Ibrahim, Isaac, Jacob and their wives are buried, then built a synagogue in there. In other words, the Israelis desecrated the Mosque by building a synagogue within it. I have seen it myself, truly disgusting. This regime is enforced by armed Israeli soldiers within the Mosque—further desecrating it. This was clearly a war crime in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, inter alia.”)

    Abraham is frequently cited as a figure who should unite Jews, Christians and Muslims, since all view him as the first monotheist and a founder figure for their traditions. But last week the Israeli government designated the Cave of the Patriarchs an Israeli heritage site. Since it is on the Palestinian West Bank, it cannot be an Israeli heritage site, though it certainly is a Jewish one.

    Palestinians are afraid that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s action is a prelude to an Israeli claim on the annexation of al-Khalil to Israel. The town of 150,000 is completely made up of Palestinian Christians and Muslims, though 400 Israeli settlers, some of them armed and all under the protection of the Israeli military, reside there. There have been constant frictions between the small Israeli colony and the Palestinian townspeople.

    The move provoked protests in al-Khalil, with youths throwing stones at Israeli soldiers and threatening a third popular uprising or Intifada. As a result of this atmosphere of tension, the Israeli military locked down the Palestinian West Bank on Sunday as Israeli colonists there celebrated the festival of Purim.

    (Purim, based on the Book of Esther, commemorates the deliverance of the Jews of the Achaemenid Empire in ancient Iran and Iraq from a hostile minister to the Persian king, Khsayarsha II, called by the Greeks Artaxerxes II and in the Bible Ahasuerus [r. circa 405 to 358 BC]. He was married to a Jewish woman, Esther, though he was unaware of her religion, and his life had been saved by her cousin, Mordecai. His gratitude causes him to turn against his minister, Haman, who wanted to kill all the Jews, and to have him hanged. The shah then gave permission to the Jews to defend themselves from attacks by Haman’s supporters, which they apparently did with rather excessive zeal, polishing off 75,000 Iranians. Ancient numbers are not reliable and one historian suggested we always subtract at least one zero. You have a sinking feeling that some hawkish Israelis see President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a contemporary Haman.)

    But Purim in al-Khalil has other connotations, since it was the day on which Dr. Baruch Goldstein opened fire on innocent worshipers at the Mosque of Abraham, shooting 179 in cold blood, and killing 29 of those. This site gives you an idea of how Palestinians remember the incident. Israeli apologists often refer to Goldstein as deranged, but people who met him before his attack deny this charge. He is more likely to have simply been the Israeli equivalent of a suicide bomber, i.e. acting out of ideological conviction.

    Anyway, the coincidence of the anniversary of the Goldstein massacre with the designation of the tomb complex an Israeli heritage site was enough to inspire fear, outrage and anger in the Palestinian residents of the city. The cabinet of the Palestine Authority is meeting in al-Kahlil/ Hebron on Monday, just to reaffirm its sovereignty or at least future sovereignty over the town.

    On Sunday, the tensions in al-Khalil/ Hebron spilled over onto Jerusalem, where Muslims and Jews uneasily share the area around the Wailing Wall and the Haram Sharif above it. Muslims venerate the Aqsa Mosque on what Israelis maintain is the site of the ancient Temple as sacred soil, associating it with a miracle of the Prophet Muhammad. Some Israeli extremists wish to destroy the mosque so that the Temple can be rebuilt, and in 1969 a fanatic set fire to it. Muhammad Bin Laden, the Saudi developer and father of Usamah, got the contract to repair it. Palestinians gathered in the mosque, having apparently heard rumors (which circulate frequently) that it would be attacked by militant Israelis. They pelted visitors to the site with stones. Some 17 persons were wounded in the clashes, including two Israeli policemen. The Israeli security forces went into the mosque and arrested the protesters.

    Israeli soldiers in the Aqsa Mosque is a provocation, since it is the third holiest site in the Muslim world. King Abdullah II of Jordan and Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called for international protections for Muslim holy places in Jerusalem, several of which they said were threatened by unilateral Israeli measures. A recent controversy, which is probably related to Sunday’s violence, has centered on a bizarre Israeli decision to build a ‘Museum of Tolerance’ on top of a Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem. For a fact sheet On the Mamilla Cemetery, see this site.

    The events should alarm Americans. The Israeli occupation of Jerusalem and therefore of the Aqsa Mosque complex, was one of the grievances that drove Bin Laden to declare war on the United States, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s provocative demarche on the mosque complex in 2000 caused Bin Laden to try to move up the date of the planned attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., as ‘punishment’ for Sharon’s implicit threat.

    One obstacle to American understanding of the events of the past week is a lack of understanding of the position of Abraham and of Jerusalem in Muslim scripture and in Muslim religious and folk practice. The Qur’an sees Abraham as an early monotheist who came into conflict with his own father on behalf of the one God. Abraham starts being mentioned in the early, Meccan, chapters of the Qur’an (contrary to some Orientalist assertions). Muslim belief even holds that Abraham resided in Mecca and built the Kaaba, the cube-shaped shrine around which Muslims circumambulate during the pilgrimage. When Muslims first conquered Palestine in the seventh century, sources say that Jews showed them the Cave of the Patriarchs, and that Jews and Muslims both worshiped there and made pilgrimage to it. (Jews in Palestine are said to have welcomed the Muslim conquest, preferring them to the Byzantine Eastern Orthodox empire).

    The Jews of the Roman province of Palestine were not for the most part expelled in the second century CE, as popular history sometimes has it, but went on farming there and gradually converted to Christianity. The majority then later gradually converted to Islam and became what we now call the Palestinians. Most Palestinian and Jewish men share the same distinctive haplotypes or genetic patterns in their Y chromosomes, showing common descent. If promises were made to Abraham’s putative descendants, then they share in the promise. The promise could not possibly be to adherents of Judaism, since that religion did not exist until many centuries later.

    The authoritative Encyclopedia of Islam notes that al-Khalil/ Hebron is at a high elevation and traditionally lacked water save for some nearby springs, saying: “Since during the later Middle Ages and the Ottoman period, large numbers of pilgrims came to the city [Hebron] and passed through it on the Hajj route to Mecca, the need for greater reserves of water necessitated the construction of two large reservoirs in the Hebron valley.”

    That is, historians are aware that the Tomb of the Patriarchs has been sacred to Muslims for 1400 years and they have been going on pilgrimage to it for much of that period, combining visits to Jerusalem and Hebron with their pilgrimage to Mecca. (If you were living in Turkey, Northern Iran or coastal Syria, Jerusalem and Hebron are on the way to Mecca by a popular route.)

    It is worth noting that the figure of Abraham as described in the Bible is in any case not historical. Abraham is said to have been the forebear of the twelve tribes of Israel, including that of Benjamin or Bin Yamin. But the Banu Yamin are mentioned in clay tablets in the area dated to 2000 BC, so they precede Abraham’s alleged advent. The kings he is said to have met don’t correspond to any known historical figures. He is said to have bought the Caves which allegedly became his tomb from a Hittite, but the Hittites did not then exist and they didn’t come to geographical Palestine until the 1400s BC. He is said to have been a monotheist, but there is no evidence in the archeology of anything but polytheists in Palestine (then Egyptian-ruled Canaan or Retenu) for many centuries after he supposedly lived.

    Moreover, if Abraham were from south Iraq (Ur in what is now Dhi Qar) he would have likely been ethnically Sumerian, whereas the genetic signature of a majority of Jewish men most resembles that of Palestinians and Lebanese, not of southern Iraqis. For the same reason, he is not the direct male ancestor of the Hijazi Arabs. (If he existed at all and lived 4000 years ago and if his descendants flourished, he would likely be an ancestor of most people in the greater Mediterranean by now, I.e. Arabs and Europeans and Jews from both worlds; note that only uninterrupted descent in the male line would show up in the Y chromosome.)

    But the Abraham stories are no more historical than those of Gilgamesh and Utnapishtim, other ancient Middle Eastern mythical figures. The jumbled stories about him were written down in the Babylonian exile, when scribes made an attempt to establish a historical timeline into which he could be asserted. Ur was a classy place to be from, as Shlomo Sands points out, and so the Babylonian Jewish authors of the written Bible endowed themselves with a distinquished Iraqi parentage.

    It is modern nationalism that lies behind the current tensions over Abraham’s tomb and the Haram Sharif. Jews and Muslims shared pilgrimage sites all through history, most often amicably. Israeli, Arab and Palestinian nationalisms are reconfiguring sacred space as sites of national authenticity and as exclusive.

    The Palestine Authority should declare itself a state and offer citizenship to the 400 or so Jews in al-Khalil/ Hebron. And there are lots of Palestinian heritage sites it could then designate inside Israel. And ideally the two would share them, and allow free circulation and pilgrimage, including for international religious tourism, which would be good for the economy. I predict that eventually all these things will come to pass. It may however be decades.

    In the meantime, the danger to the Aqsa Mosque complex is a danger to world and American security.

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