‘Just War’ theory in the spotlight

I am briefly in London. Got here this morning. Heading to Wales on Saturday for some executive/management coaching… But recently, I was discussing with some friends the status of the whole body of theory called ‘Just War’ theory— in connection with it having coming under such stark attack from the strident Israel-first apologists of the so-called ‘Lawfare Project.’
So here I am, staying in the strongly Quaker-affiliated Penn Club in Bloomsbury, and what do I find in the library but a copy of Peter Brown’s important study of the life and work of Augustine of Hippo, who was the prelate who first introduced into Christian theology the idea that some wars could indeed be ‘just.’
Prior to that, most followers of Jesus of Nazareth had worked hard to follow in his pacifistic footsteps. But by the time Augustine, who was born in North Africa, got coverted to the faith in the late 4th century CE, Christianity was well on its way to becoming the religion of the Roman Empire. And it was after (‘Christian’) Rome was sacked by the Goths that Augustine sat down in North Africa and started writing the multi-volume work, “The City of God” that planted the first seeds of the permissibility of war.
So I sat and read a couple of the relevant chapters of Brown’s book. Then I went to the nearby British Museum and discovered that I had just, by about half an hour, missed attending a lecture on the sack of Rome.
It happened exactly 1,600 years ago this year… And the reverberations of the church’s subsequent “conversion”, under Augustine’s urging, to a doctrine that permitted war, have been strongly felt throughout Europe and indeed the whole world, until today.
Just War theory is really a sort of two-edged implement. It seeks to strictly restrict and regulate the occasions on which a ‘just’ ruler can have recourse to war. (Indeed it seems to be predicated on a realistically strong recognition that wars always cause harm, even when their cause is ‘just’, and that their course is always unpredictable.) But, for the first time in the history of Christianity, once Just war theory was promulgated and adopted, wars thereafter became permissible… which is one heck of a dangerous slippery slope to be sliding around at the top of.
Because if you think about it, no-one who has ever started a war has set out from the get-got with anything less than the firm conviction that this war is just.
But, um, in that case, how can two countries ever fight each other, if the causes for which both of them are fighting are just?
Imagine this: George W. Bush, to a still-skeptical Congress in late 2002: “Well, I admit our evidence on the Iraqi WMDs is kind of spotty; and it’s true we really haven’t exhausted all the diplomatic options for dealing with our concerns; and I realize that if we launch an invasion of Iraq things there may take a very unpredictable course… but I’m asking you to give me congressional backing to take the nation into war against Iraq, if need be.”
No, that’s not how leaders launch wars. First they convince themselves that this is a war of absolute necessity, then they set about convincing others, colluding in the manipulation of the evidence if that’s what it takes.
The Nuremberg Tribunal had it absolutely right when, in the statute establishing the tribunal they declared the launching of an aggressive war to be a crime against the peace. Too bad the provisions the negotiators for the 1998 Rome Treaty, which established the International Criminal Court, never gave substance to the (still-hollow) provisions made in its text for the (future) criminalization of the launching of war.
As I have argued on numerous occasions, waging war is the original Ur-atrocity that creates the circumstances in which all the other kinds of atrocity that were fleshed out and given teeth to at Rome, then occur and proliferate.
Well, anyway, what is there to say about all these “lawfare” people who smear and defame Judge Goldstone and everyone else who tries to call Israel to account for its actions; and who accuse all the human-rights and international humanitarian law activists around the world of “unfairly singling out Israel”?
Mainly, that we’ve seen it all before– from apologists for every single state that has ever been accused of committing atrocities.
These pro-Israel activists, however, have taken the defamation and smearing of Israel’s critics to heights few others have ever reached before.
Why on earth do they think that Israel, alone among the nations, should not be held accountable for its actions? Where do they get off, trying to persuade others around the world that Justice Goldstone, a very distinguished member of the Constitutional Court of South Africa and a key figure during his country’s transition to democratization, is some kind of a hate-filled (self-hating?) crazy guy?
Well, they won’t succeed in persuading very many people at all of this– except in those pockets of the U.S. Congress and administration that have been deeply manipulated for many years by Israel-first propaganda.
Mainly what they achieve is that they reveal themselves to be so consumed by fear and hatred that it seems to have addled their brains. Sad. Sad. Sad.

6 thoughts on “‘Just War’ theory in the spotlight

  1. Abdelhafid Dib

    Because of your titled article ” Just war ” Helena, you brought me 29 years back, exactly in september 1981 when I finished my Diploma dissertation on
    ” The ALgerian modal of Guerrilla warfare 1962-54 ” it was submitted under the subervision of Professor Richard Little at the University of Lancaster, UK.
    Saint Augustine was born in a small town in east Algeria named SouK Ahrass.
    Hafid

  2. Jack

    The concept of “just war” certainly is a slippery one. Even the concept. Is resistance to occupation a war? Is it just? Always or merely sometimes? Do we put the WWII French underground, Hamas, Iraqi insurgents, American revolutionary militias, the Viet Cong and the ANC in South Africa all in the same category?
    While any war sometimes brings out the best in some, in the way of sacrifice, it always brings out the worst in almost everyone involved. When a people’s survival as a particular form of nation is dependent on continual war, is the survival of that state just?
    Is the Quaker ideal of pacifism realistically workable?

  3. epppie

    You say …
    “Well, they won’t succeed in persuading very many people at all of this– except in those pockets of the U.S. Congress and administration that have been deeply manipulated for many years by Israel-first propaganda.”
    WTF?!! Small pockets? Virtually our entire political system is totally insane when it comes to the Middle East. But hey, I guess you missed the forest for the trees or something…

  4. Salah

    Why on earth do they think that Israel, alone among the nations, should not be held accountable for its actions? Where do they get off, trying to persuade others around the world
    here the answer:

    Someone wrote and asked me, “Why are there Israeli- but not Mexican-American Dual Nationals?”

    Before I begin I’d like to day something important. There is a new law — the so-called “Hate Speech” law, that just passed the House and is expected to pass the Senate and become law very soon. It was originally designed to guard against discrimination of oppressed minorities but was soon recognized as a way for Israel to forever end any criticism of the state of Israel and Zionism. When it is law, this page, and many like it will be deleted from the internet as yet another mile marker of the infringement of truth and free speech by certain dual-nationals at the expense of true and patriotic Americans. Enough said.

    Dual Citizenship — Loyal to Whom?

  5. Alex Cachinero-Gorman

    A few things on a great little piece, Helena–
    1) Peter Brown is an amazing genealogist. His work, “The Cult of Saints” ( http://www.amazon.com/Cult-Saints-Function-Christianity-Religions/dp/0226076229 ) is a greatly underappreciated book; one of the best meditations on the spatial significance of early Christian rituals of martyrdom in the graveyards outside the classical Roman city & the meaning of sainthood. I haven’t read anything else by him but he is one of my favorite writers on Christian history.
    2) Talal Asad rips apart theories of “just war” in his book, “On Suicide Bombing” ( http://www.amazon.com/Suicide-Bombing-Wellek-Library-Lectures/dp/0231141521/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1272825191&sr=1-1 ), specifically through some tragically incomprehensible and bigoted work by Michael Walzer on the topic. Very astute and wonderful.
    3) For more on Christian theology & war, see a tiny little tome called “How Christians Made Peace With War”, http://www.amazon.com/How-Christians-Made-Peace-Understandings/dp/0836134613
    4) Love you for this: “Mainly, that we’ve seen it all before– from apologists for every single state that has ever been accused of committing atrocities.” This is the point that we need to drive home when fighting for a free Palestine–that a little history can go a long way in realising that the subtext, more than the content, of Israel apologist’s argument is practically indistinguishable from all sorts of arguments justifying state atrocities in the past. The point? Israel is a nation-state! This means it deserves the same amount of criticism granted to any other nation-state. Israel is a state, a state, a state! We can’t allow ourselves to argue on their purely “Biblical” terms which portray Israel as this ethereal entity with a heart, a soul, and the motives of a beleaguered individual (sound like corporations being treated as individuals in US law, anyone?)–it is a state with a bureaucracy and a military, first & foremost! Postscript: I have commented on the use of this word in other circumstances such as saying “al-Qaeda activists.” They are not activists! Take a lesson from Hannah Arendt; good and evil are fundamentally different in their delivery & function!
    5) A personal project of mine is to pipe up whenever I hear the word “activist” thrown around too casually. Your work is rigorous and almost always on point, and so I ask that you reconsider the use of the word in a phrase like “These pro-Israel activists, however, have taken the defamation and smearing of Israel’s critics to heights few others have ever reached before.” If we are to believe that we have any deeper philosophical reasons for waging the fight we do to liberate Palestine, then we also have to recognise that real grass-roots organising around social justice is fundamentally different from the interventions of folks supported by a comprehensive social status quo backed by a complex formal & informal network of wealthy and powerful institutions, some connected to the US/Israeli gov’ts and others not. The former is people power, the latter is biopolitical manipulation of what is, in this case, the unspoken catalyst to a lot of anti-Palestinian bigotry: white privilege. Not enough critical race discourse is present in the debate about the ability for white Jews to imagine that the Jewish world is entirely comprised of Ashkenazis and no one else. The history of manipulation of Jewish populations and pressure to assimilate is really important to recognise where anti-Semitism really comes into play and what the importance of staying vigilant to anti-Jewish racism really is for radicals in the long run. See also James Baldwin’s short lecture at UMass in 1984 on the historical relationsip between blacks & jews in civil rights struggles, and this highly problematic (in some spots) but also very insightful zine, “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere: Making Resistance to Anti-Semitism a Part of All of Our Movements”– http://www.pinteleyid.com/past/
    Cheers!

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