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.


A condom confusion

Pope Benedict has stirred up another storm of controversy over a few, apparently offhand, remarks on the use of condoms. He made a mild point that use of condoms by gay prostitutes could be seen as a sign of spiritual progress, as it indicated they were thinking of the welfare of others. It’s not entirely clear whether the remarks apply to male/female intercourse as well, and everyone seems agreed that it does not, in itself, constitute a radical break from the received Roman Catholic dogma that opposes all forms of artificial contraception.

There are a few points here that we should take note of from a Buddhist perspective. The first is that for Buddhism, sex is not simply for procreation, but is for both procreation and pleasure. It is universally accepted in Buddhist teachings that people have sex for pleasure, and that this is a normal part of life, except for those few who have taken up the path of celibacy (“nomosexuals”!) There is, accordingly, no basis in Buddhist ethics for making pronouncements on what kinds of sex acts should be allowed or prohibited, or to denigrate different forms of sexuality – gay, bi, and so on – or to insist that contraception is an ethical issue.

The ethical issue, rather, revolves around trust, love, and hurt. As long as what you do is honest and does not harm anyone, it is not an ethical issue. And monastics shouldn’t be poking their noses into people’s bedrooms!

In the case of condoms, we don’t just have celibate religious telling people how to have sex – which just gets weirder the more you think about it – but they are telling people to follow practices that cause untold suffering and death. The death toll from Aids is horrific, and while it may be falling slightly, there are still nearly 2 million dying each year. The deaths themselves only tell a part of the picture; the number of Aids-related orphans is estimated at 16.6 million.

That’s a lot of human beings, and a lot of suffering.

The Roman Church is a powerful and influential body in Africa, where the brunt of Aids-related suffering is borne, and they have a clear and pressing moral duty to help stem this suffering. The current dogma, an insistence on abstinence and restraint, is rejected by secular authorities on the issue as an effective policy. The science is clear: condoms help prevent the spread of HIV.

The most frustrating thing about this unnecessary moral outrage is that it is barely even a legitimate Roman Catholic dogma. There is, of course, nothing specific in the Bible on these issues, and in 1966 a papal commission on birth control voted 30 to 5 that the opposition to birth control be relaxed. They were overruled by Pope Paul VI. It should come as no surprise that most Catholics are too sensible to let these rules actually affect their choices; and yet it is typically in the developing world, where Aids is the greatest threat, that the Church’s opinion will be taken most literally.

In some interesting interviews with African Catholics on this issue, they repeatedly raised the opposition between science and religion: they accept that science justifies the use of condoms, but religion does not. Officially, of course, the Church disagrees, arguing that it has science on its side. But it seems that few are convinced.

From a Buddhist point of view, science should never be seen in opposition to religion. Science provides us with information and perspectives that enable us to make more informed, effective, and ethical decisions. The problem is not the schism between science and religion, but in the manner in which religion is undertaken.

Despite the abundant riches of wisdom, insight, reflection, and spiritual depth within the Catholic tradition, it is still possible for so many intelligent and sincere men (I would guess that women have had no hand in formulating this dogma) to hold to such an obviously harmful teaching. Religion, of whatever form, has the potential to free us and lead us to a deeper and wider life. Yet it does not do so automatically. It is up to us to ensure that our religious sensibilities do not blind us to suffering and lead us towards darkness.