Critics have often asked, “When has the just-war theory ever led to the condemnation of a war?” Seldom, if ever, it would seem. As the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir has written, the Just War Theory provides reason “to pause analytically” before going to war, but an outright condemnation of a war on just-war grounds is hard to find. It is news, then, when a leading just-war thinker declares that the Iraq war, as well as the decision-makers who initiated it, ought to be disowned.
The proposal comes from John Langan, S.J., the Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Professor of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University and the current president of the Society of Christian Ethics. In a talk to the Pacific Section of the Society last spring, Father Langan argued that among the issues that need to be addressed in the aftermath of the war in Iraq is “a repudiation of those politicians and their advisors who brought the war about.”
Langan explained, “Our way of resolving the current problems in Iraq must show that our democracy understands that both the general policy of preventive war advocated in the 2002 National Security Strategy statement and the exercises in deception and self-deception which led up to the invasion of Iraq constitute an unacceptable aberration from the concern for maintaining international order and for building a peaceful world of free and equal states which has been at the heart of U.S. foreign policy over the last century.”
Langan is an experienced moral philosopher. A consultant to church, military and intelligence officials, he is known for his detailed analyses of complex questions rather than for daring judgments. His call for repudiation of the Iraq war, therefore, comes as a surprise, but a surprise that should bring the rest of us to attention. I would take Father Langan’s proposal a half-step further and recommend that adherents of the Just War who opposed the war in prospect, now, in retrospect, ought to condemn it.
With the intelligence that appeared to justify the war discredited and large numbers of Americans now believing it was wrong to go to war, why push for public condemnation of the war and its authors? First, condemnation would provide a firmer barrier against repetition of the abuses that led to this war: misrepresentation of the causes for war, spurning alternative courses of action, indifference to world opinion, and, most of all, setting a precedent for preventive war. Whatever critics’ private reservations about the war may be, only public rejection will make hard-bitten leaders set on war, as the “Vulcans” around President Bush were, think twice before attempting similar campaigns in the future. The road to war followed by the Bush administration must be closed for good.
Second, with the Congress at first supine and now hampered by a hard-driving House majority, and with the media as compliant as ever, the avoidance of unjust war in the future requires more than at other times that just-war thinkers practice their craft, as Langan has done, with uncommon honesty. With the fighting over and the transition to an Iraqi government accomplished, the time is right for moral theologians and other just-war analysts to say, “This war was unjust.” Condemning the war is not mere rhetorical escalation, but an act of responsible moral judgment.
Finally, condemnation will serve to uphold the integrity of the Just War Tradition. A refusal to condemn a war that was so evidently misguided compromises the Just War both as an intellectual doctrine and as a system of social control over state violence. If waging this war is not unjust (on ad bellum grounds), then it is hard to know what an unjust war might be. It is time, then, for those who opposed the war on just-war grounds or who had grave reservations about it to stand and condemn the war in Iraq and its architects. Then future critics will not be able to ask, “When was an unjust war ever condemned?” That question will be moot, because this generation will have demonstrated the courage of its convictions.