Thursday March 6, 2003
"Moral Conflicts"by Paul MacInnes
Would a war on Iraq be a just one? It is a question that many people have been asking themselves, not least - it seems - our prime minister, who insists he is a firm believer in the moral case for war.
But what is a "just war"? Is it something that can be judged objectively? Is such a question still relevant in a world of 'pre-emptive' conflict? To understand the complexity of the theory of a just war, it helps to know that it is one of the longest running and most vigorously debated of philosophical ideas.
The Greek philosopher Plato (428-347BC) had already made demands for a limit to the actions of war before the Roman orator and statesman Cicero (AD43-106) defined a first principle. He wrote that a war must be declared by a state and only after "an official demand for satisfaction had been submitted or warning had been given and a suitable declaration made".
It was a consummate politician who made the first substantial contribution to just war theory, before it went on to be dominated by religious scholars. St Augustine (354-430AD), one of the founders of the Christian church, wrote that subjects should follow their leaders into war unless it was against the teachings of the Bible, and that war was only justified in defence of the state. "A just war is wont to be described as one that avenges wrongs," he wrote.
It was not until the middle ages that St Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 1274) addressed much of Augustine's thinking, revised it and, in his work the Summa Theologicae, distilled the criteria for declaring a just war. The terms were defined as having a just cause, being declared by a proper authority, possessing right intention, and having a reasonable chance of success and an end proportional to the means used.
These principles have largely remained intact in the succeeding centuries (with the addition of two more: that war be a last resort and that peace be its intention) but that does not mean to say they are not open to varied interpretation. Distinctions over what constitutes a proper authority, for example, have been debated by philosophers: Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) believed the state required total obedience from its subjects under any circumstances, while John Locke (1632-1704) believed a state lost its authority if it was badly run.
Interpretations only become more complex as we enter the world of modern warfare. The idea of a proper authority grew in the 20th century from that of a state to an international body, exemplified by the United Nations. A "reasonable chance of success" may have been absent when Britain went to war in 1939, but few would say it was an unjust decision.
Even in the past 15 years the framework for a just war has been reshaped. The idea of "the end being proportionate to the means" depends very much on what you mean by proportionate. During the Gulf war, Colin Powell, then commander-in-chief of US forces, espoused a policy of conducting war with the maximum possible force in order to minimise US casualties. Known as the Powell doctrine, it has redefined the military outlook of the world's only superpower.
Now, with the US conducting a war on terror of which they claim an attack on Iraq is part, there is talk of "pre-emptive" war - a conflict that is fought to stop a potential threat to a state's defence. As President George Bush put it in a speech to the American nation: "The war on terror will not be won on the defensive. We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans and confront the worst threats before they emerge."
The American administration would say that this change is necessary to cope with a changing world. Others would say it is unjust, and contravenes Article 51 of the United Nations charter - declaring military support for its members only in conflicts arising from self-defence.
The chosen course for a war on Iraq, if there is to be one, will likely redefine the concept of a "just war", certainly in terms of its interpretation in law. The debate over the morality that underpins it is unlikely to stop either.