War: Possibly Justifiable, but Never Just
I have for some time held the position that the criteria of just war theory cannot knowingly be met, but I’ve lately come to the conclusion that there can be no just war. There never has been a war that was just, and there never will be. War cannot be just, even if it can be justified.
To say a war is just is to say that it embodies—in its devastation and dismemberment of bodies—justice. To say a war is just is to say it is morally good, and this I cannot say. The reasons for which a war is fought may be just reasons—self-defense, for example—and, yes, honorable actions of heroism and virtue may accompany the bloodshed and ruination of lives, property and environments; but the mass destruction that indelibly marks the war and gives it breath and blood and body cries out not for the word “justice” but for the word “evil.”
When assessing particular wars, I intend to speak no longer of just war theory, but maybe, regrettably, of justified war theory. If by some tragedy I conclude the criteria of the theory are met, I will see not a just and righteous endeavor, but a justified yet nonetheless nightmarishly evil failure.
I must admit that this conclusion places me in a morally problematic position, for I seem to be saying that one may legitimately commit evil for the sake of some good end. I seem, in other words, to have accepted consequentialism in rejecting just war theory.
One way I can escape the consequentialist view is to say that a justified war is a physical evil, but not a moral evil, but I’m not willing to say this. That war can be undertaken only as a last resort, and then only with the meeting of other limiting criteria, implies that war is not merely a physical evil, like surgery, nor indeed a just and righteous undertaking, but something to be avoided morally. I have to say, therefore, that war is a moral evil. Yet in saying that this moral evil may be justified, I seem to be embracing the idea that evil may be done for a good end, a position I have up to this point rejected.
I’m wondering if the case of justified war discloses us to a difference between types of moral evils, some that may be justified and some that never can be done licitly. To speak in religious language, are there moral evils that are not sins? If there are such evils, I’m not sure what to call them. Justifiable evils, perhaps? Tragic evils? I don’t know.
Moral theologians and philosophers have throughout history given moral cover for doing horrible things. They’ve made distinctions between formal and material cooperation with evil, and posited principles such as double-effect, but these comforts to the conscience don’t appear to help me here. I’m willing, I think, to go the route of denying even the justifiability of war, of giving myself wholeheartedly over to pacifism, but I’m still far from certain that this course is my only option.
Whichever step I take and in whatever direction, I remain, as a religious man, haunted by this reminder from John Caputo: “Just-war doctrine is already a failure of faith, treating unconditional peace and forgiveness as simply impossible, even while repeating the words of Jesus that with God all things are possible.” The very idea of just war, Caputo says, was “the result of sitting down to the table with the powers of this world.” The idea makes sense, but it “weakens and attenuates what St. Paul called the folly (moria) of the cross. It adopts the views not of Jesus but of Cicero, not of the Kingdom of God but of the Roman Empire.”
“Just imagine the challenge Jesus would have faced trying to work “just war” into the Sermon on the Mount!” Caputo exclaims.
Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer and editor with a background in literature, language, and philosophy.