Experts differ as to how the just war tradition should be applied to real-life conflicts. Hard as it may be to believe, some regard it as an academic exercise with no bearing on the real world. For others, it is a calculus for decision makers, with no relevance for others, whether other authorities or the general public. Some in this camp go so far as to insist that no one besides political and military leaders, not even church officials, have any business making public judgments on issues of war and peace.
The Catholic Church and the leading Protestant churches continue not only to teach the morality of the use of force, they also employ it to comment on foreign military policy. The United States bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace commented on specific issues of nuclear deterrence and nuclear warfare. Though it distinguished between principles of the teaching and judgments applied to specific issues, it nevertheless expected that its readers would join in its “no” to waging nuclear war.
Critics of just war analysis have contended that the just war system lacks ethical bite. When, they ask, has a war ever been condemned? As the late John Howard Yoder argued in When War Is Unjust, condemnation is one benchmark for evaluating the effectiveness of just war theory. Granted the moral complexities of prudential judgment, it is difficult to fathom why the churches that opposed the invasion of Iraq so emphatically on just war grounds did not condemn it. (They included all the major denominations save the Southern Baptists.) One cannot help but wonder whether public condemnation would have helped cut short the catastrophe.
The Challenge of Peace insisted on the role of the public in setting limits to the military actions of their political leaders. The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace (1993) also underscored the role of the professional military and the general public in preventing armed conflict and containing combat within just war limits. Unlike those who see the just war theory as an exercise for armchair philosophers, the bishops regarded it as a sociological reality—“not just a set of ideas, but also...a system of effective social constraints on the use of force”—actively shaping when and how nations take up arms.
Just war theory also has to do with personal conduct. Two weeks ago Michael Griffin wrote in these pages (“A Soldier’s Decision”) about the difficulties faced by Catholic military personnel who in the course of the current war in Iraq have become selective conscientious objectors. Selective conscientious objection is a logical corollary of the just war theory: If we are morally permitted to fight in a just war, we are likewise forbidden to fight in an unjust war.
The late John Courtney Murray, S.J., made a case for S.C.O. “in the name of the traditional moral doctrine on war and also in the name of the traditional American political doctrine on the rights of conscience.” He went on to add, “Strictly on grounds of moral argument, the right conscientiously to object to participation in a particular war is incontestable” (see http://woodstock.georgetown.edu/library/Murray/1967L.htm). The problem is a practical one: how to implement the right in American law. Murray himself failed in that effort, when the Commission on Selective Service Reform, on which he served, rejected his proposal for allowing S.C.O.
Of course, military law requires all personnel to refuse to obey illegal orders, such as killing or torturing prisoners. Such principled disobedience is hard enough even when there is legal backing; dissent is all the harder when one’s moral posture lacks legal protection. Both the refusal to carry out illegal orders and selective conscientious objection, however, are means of implementing the just war system, helping insure in their way that our country’s resort to arms will be rare and conducted only by legitimate means.
The United States bishops urged legal protection for selective conscientious objectors in 1971, and they reiterated that request in 1991 and 1993. In their 1971 declaration, they wrote:
As we hold individuals in high esteem who conscientiously serve in the armed forces, so also we should regard conscientious objectors and selective conscientious objectors as positive indicators within the church of a sound moral awareness and respect for human life.
The war in Iraq provides occasion once more to pursue implementation of selective conscientious objection as a corollary of the just war tradition.