Just War in theory and practice.

Some time ago I wrote a post detailing why I was opposed to the notion of a ‘just war’: essentially because the theory is basically a blueprint for ideological justification of war. Here’s an example of what I was getting at.

In a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, Cardinal Pell said that he opposed the war in Iraq, but believed the war in Afghanistan was justified.

So congrats on not supporting Iraq. Pell is not alone: 36 million people protested that war, but it just sailed ahead anyway.

What of Afghanistan? Let’s consider this in light of Catholic just war theory. Please remember that I am not endorsing this, or any other, theory of a just war – I oppose them all. Nor do I have any special agenda in mentioning the Catholic approach – it is just that Pell’s statement came to my attention, and the Catholics have a well-articulated theory of just war, which was the blueprint for the modern secular treatment.

The reasons for thinking Afghanistan more justified than Iraq are clear enough. The 9/11 attack was, in fact, initiated by Al Qaeda while they were being sheltered under the Taliban. With the best will in the world it is difficult to imagine that the Taliban could have been reasonable or responsible partners in any negotiations to bring Al Qaeda to justice.

Iraq, of course, had nothing to do with 9/11, and never posed any serious threat to the US, which is why a tissue of lies had to be invented to persuade the public to support the invasion. So while Pell’s opposition to the Iraq invasion is good, it hardly constitutes a vindication of just war theory. That war was obviously immoral, and no sophisticated analysis is needed to understand why.

Okay, so here’s the basic principles of Catholic just war theory, considered in the case of the Afghanistan war. According to catholicism.org, ‘the following conditions of a just war must be considered before deciding to go to war. All of these conditions must be present at one and the same time.’

  • Just cause: force may be used only to correct an evil to the nation or community that is lasting, grave, and certain.

Let’s allow this one. The attack on 9/11 was devastating and horrific, and while it has played a vastly disproportionate role in global events since then, there is no doubt that 9/11, and future potential attacks, demanded an effective response.

  • All other means of securing or defending its rights must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective.

Again, let’s allow this one. It’s difficult to be certain, as there is always another way; but the Taliban really were pretty impossible and it is difficult to see any other course of effective action.

  • There must be a serious probability of success.

This is where I would say the adventure in Afghanistan was totally misguided. There never was any prospect for genuine long-term success, and this is still true today. The US presence will fade away, the bitterness of the war will remain, and the extremists will regroup. Understand that ‘success’ here does not mean putting in schools for the Afghanis or making better conditions for women. If these things happen, then that’s terrific, but the war was not waged to improve the lives of the Afghani people, nor should war ever be waged for such purposes (according to the first principle above). The war was waged to get revenge on Al Qaeda and prevent future terrorist attacks, and needs to be assessed in that light. Al Qaeda has been massively damaged and Bin Laden killed, but the ‘terrorist threat’, according to people who believe in such things, has not significantly fallen. And for those of us who look to the causes of conflict, not just the effects, who can doubt that a whole new generation of extremists has been born out of the seething resentment at the unjust invasion and often horrific abuses? And meanwhile, thousands keep dying every year…

  • Proportionality: the expected good to be achieved must be greater than the destruction and disorder that will be caused by the use of force. (Modern weapons of mass destruction must be seriously considered when evaluating this condition.)

This criterion was clearly not met in Afghanistan. It is, of course, impossible to truly understand the scale of destruction that is caused by a war such as this, so let us keep the task manageable by relying on one reasonably quantifiable measure: the number of deaths.

The deaths from 9/11 were around 3000, so the deaths from any response to that should be similar. But this is not the case. Civilian deaths are in the order of 17,000-37,000; and I find the saddest part of that is the sheer volume of the uncertainty. In the majority of cases, no-one really knows. The real figure is probably much, much larger.

The coalition military deaths totalled 2765 by the end of 2011; that is, as many invading forces have died as perished in the attacks on 9/11. At least we know who these are, for these are people with actual names and lives, not just a faceless ‘enemy’ whose dead are not even worth counting.

In addition, between 36,482 and 40,658 Taliban have been killed. Interestingly, it is much harder to find these statistics than for the civilian or coalition deaths. The Taliban are the devil, so who cares how many die? Well, their mothers do. And the sisters and brothers and fathers and friends of the dead, most of whom, as always, were young and naive men pressured to go off and fight for what someone else has told them is just and right.

The total casualties would therefore be at least 60,000, probably 100,000 or more. In any case, with due allowance for margins for error, the number of deaths is massively disproportionate as compared to the initial attack.

  • Force may be used only as a last resort.

I have my doubts over this one, but let’s allow it to be generous.

So there we have it. According to the tenets of the Catholic just war theory, the war in Afghanistan is clearly unjust, as it fails to meet the criteria of having a ‘serious probability of success’, and of being proportional. Failing just one of these is enough to render it an ‘unjust war’. I think there may be room for disagreement as to the probability of success, but not regarding proportionality. This is so clear cut as to be beyond any reasonable doubt.

And yet Cardinal Pell supports it. Why? Because the purpose of just war theory, when it comes right down to it, is to justify war. If the theory doesn’t fit the current war, then it can be ignored or argued around. The nominal purpose of the theory is to clarify thinking so as to make a proper moral decision in a difficult situation. But in practice, it doesn’t work.

9 thoughts on “Just War in theory and practice.

  1. Ajahn Sujato.

    (1) I remember hearing that some some Buddhist leader said that there were two wars that had to be fought – have you ever heard that? I can’t imagine any Buddhist leader saying so I hope I am wrong, but have you ever heard it?

    (2) What do you/early Buddhists think of the Tibetan book of living and dying?”



    • (1) No, I haven’t heard that. There are various Buddhist positions on war, and practically speaking most Buddhist-dominated states have some kind of ‘just war’ notion. But it has never, to my knowledge been as clearly articulated as it has been in the western tradition.

      (2) I haven’t read that book.

    • Ajahn Sujato,

      I read somewhere here that this scientist you talk about Stevenson? doesn’t claim that the moment of death is important for the next life or something like that …sorry I can’t find the sentence again.

      Is it. I mean it does seem abit unfair – abit like the HSC accounting for all that you have done at school and where your future lies; what if you have a bad day that day.

      What do you think is this right or not?


    • I haven’t read anything by Stevenson where he discusses the ‘moment of death’ thing specifically. There do seem to be relevant details in some of his studies that relate to this: for example, a man who is shot and in his next life has a birthmark corresponding to the bullet wound.

      What you may be thinking of is that Stevenson’s work, while supporting the idea of rebirth, does not (so far as i am aware) show that rebirth is determined by kamma. People who do bad things, for example, still get reborn as humans. This does not necessarily contradict the teachings on kamma as found in the Suttas – as there are texts such as the Mahakammavibhanga Sutta that warn against drawing overly quick conclusions from insufficient data – but it certainly does not support it.

      As for myself, I do not believe that the last moment has any special significance kammically, except in some exceptional circumstances. Cases mentioned in the Suttas include Dhananjani, who after a life of corruption had a deathbed conversion, or a warrior who dies when in the throes of trying to kill others. These kinds of very powerful actions at the time of death can have an effect, but for most of us it is the everyday kamma that counts.

  2. If there is a distinction to be made between these two wars then I tend to think of Afghanistan as inevitable and Iraq as avoidable. The distinction lies in the reality behind each war. Opposing the war in Afghanistan, even through peaceful means, would have been futile and perhaps have led to further violence.

    • Practically speaking, you are probably right. Although given the massive public resistance to the Iraq war initially, one wonders whether, post 9/11, there was any chance of avoiding either war. It is, I think, important to consider these things now, before we embark on the next one.

  3. Bhante, there was a sense of unease on reading your generous comment about the first of the Catholics’ conditions for a just war in relation to the war in Afghanistan. Was the war really about correcting the evil of 9/11? My unease diminished when I came to your comments on probability of success and proportionality. These are serious constraints that rightly draw some of the criticism that could be levelled at the first point. Even so, we must surely question whether such a war was ever about correcting evil. Maybe, from the Catholic point of view, in the sense of ‘an eye for an eye’ but this does not sit well in a Buddhist context.

    Perhaps the key lies in your comment that 9/11 ‘demanded an effective response’. I would be most grateful if you could offer your thoughts on what might constitute an effective response in this case.

    • Hi Robert,

      I think you’re right, I was also a little uneasy about this one. My main point was to focus on the clear-cut cases, since failing even one criterion means it is no longer a ‘Just War’ according to the Catholic standards. So I didn’t want to divert attention by discussing the first point in detail, since I think that there are a range of reasonable opinions there. And of course, I don’t personally agree with the criterion myself.

      So yes, all wars have complex causes, so the Afhanistan war was about more than 9/11, though to be fair it is pretty clear that 9/11 was the primary motivation.

      An effective response. In an ideal world: abolish the military and spend the entire military budget on effective, genuine humanitarian aid. Then the whole world will love you and no-one will want to attack you. And if anyone does attack you, the rest of the world will rush to your defense.

      In this world: I have no idea. Suggestions, anyone?

  4. Bhante,

    Probably, there is really nothing we can do in this world. You can’t possibly abolish military, police, jail etc.

    The path to material gain goes one way,
    the way to Nibbana, another.
    Realizing this, the monk,
    a disciple to the Buddha,
    should not delight in [receiving] esteem,
    should cultivate disengagement instead.
    – Dhammapada 75


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