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A review of Just War and the Gulf War. By James Turner Johnson and George Weigel.

Jan 8, 1993

Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1991.

Exactly two years ago Kuwait was an occupied nation. In the West a tremendous debate took place as to whether the use of force in expelling the Iraqis from Kuwait was morally justifiable. The churches were especially active in the debate. Many argued that any military intervention would be morally and politically inappropriate, while others took the line that the concepts of justice and morality demanded the expulsion of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.

Overall, the debate was a fairly muddled affair, both intellectually and morally. Rhetoric and emotion usually triumphed over reasonable analysis – academics, journalists and churchmen all falling trap to this.

Just War and the Gulf War attempts to examine and clarify some of these issues. Indeed, this volume is really three books in one: a look at just war theory and the Gulf War; the response of American church bodies to the conflict; and major documents arising from the debate about the war.

James Turner Johnson covers the first topic. Turner, along with William V. O’Brien of Georgetown University and the late Paul Ramsey of Princeton, is the leading contemporary expert on just war tradition. Author of a number of books, including Can War Be Just? (1984) and The Quest for Peace (1987), Turner is more than competent to deal with questions about the morality and justice of the Gulf War.

Just war tradition has deep roots in ancient Hebraic, Greek and Roman thought. Churchmen such as Augustine and Aquinas further developed the tradition. Modern international law, starting with Grotius, further refined the concept.

In a nutshell, just war thinking aims to do two things: one, to ascertain whether any war can be justifiably entered into, and two, to judge whether that war is being fought justly.

Turner examines the historical formulations of just war doctrine and its recent American expressions. He holds up the Gulf War to the two main components of just war teaching, justice in going to war (jus ad bellum) and justice in waging war (jus in bello). The tenets of jus ad bellum (just cause, right authority, a reasonable hope of success, last resort, etc.) and jus in bello (noncombatant immunity, etc.) are applied to the Gulf conflict in an attempt to ascertain its justness.

Concerning jus ad beIlum Turner argues that military intervention was justified: “It is my judgment that all the just war criteria providing guidance on the justified use of force were amply satisfied in the case of the decision to use military force against Iraq. The decision not to continue with negotiations or economic sanctions after January 15,1991, did not violate the criterion of ‘last resort.’ The failure of the Geneva talks, the continued military buildup by Iraqi forces, the continuing systematic rape of Kuwait, the history of Iraq’s relations with its own dissident population and its neighbors, and threats of violence by Iraq against those neighbors all provided ample reasons to conclude that non-military means held little possibility of success, and that the continuing atrocities in Kuwait necessitated action.”

In regard to jus in bello Turner concludes: “The Gulf War showed that contemporary warfare may in fact be conducted within the limits imposed by these two just war principles [discrimination and proportionality].” That is, the use of “smart weapons” and the like allowed the allied armies to perform surgical strikes against enemy positions with a minimum of collateral damage. The graphic footage of guided missiles going down chimneys and through air vents is a perfect illustration of how modern technology has enabled today’s armies to fight wars with fewer civilian casualties.

George Weigel, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, and author of many books, including Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace (1987), looks at the response of American churches to the Gulf conflict.

As Evangelical Protestantism and the Jewish community made relatively little comment on the Gulf War, Weigel focuses primarily on mainline Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.

The mainline Protestant churches – Episcopal, Congregational, Presbyterian, etc. – and their ecumenical agency, the National Council of Churches, offered an intellectually and morally i m p o v e r i s h e d contribution to the war debate says Weigel.

What the NCC demonstrated, states Weigel, “in a veritable blizzard of ‘messages,’ ‘resolutions,’ and faxes to the President … was how utterly beholden it remained to the politics of blaming America first, and how little it had to offer to serious moral debate about the ends and means of U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf.” Indeed, what the NCC offered was neo-isolationism, pacifism, and a double standard of condemnation, wherein it remained silent about Iraqi atrocities while denouncing American imperialism.

The paucity of the NCC’s position confirms the viewpoint used to describe its decline that it has moved from the mainline to the oldline to the sideline.

The response of the Catholic Church in America was of a higher calibre of moral reflection than that of the NCC, says Weigel. Yet it too suffered from several weaknesses. The U.S. Catholic bishops’ position laid great stress on the efficacy of economic sanctions. But this failed to take into account the fact that “economic sanctions would be felt first and hardest by those whom just war tradition requires us to treat as noncombatants (i.e., the ordinary people of Iraq)”.

A further problem of the bishops’ position was an overemphasis on the criterion of “last resort”. They were ever looking for “one more” non-military initiative that could be tried, stretching the just war principle beyond its limits. Also, like the NCC, the bishops’ tended to renounce Bush while mitigating the conduct of Hussein.

All in all, the churches’ contribution to the debate about the war was simplistic and superficial. Summarizes Weigel: “Mainline/oldline Protestantism and a considerable part of the Catholic leadership, having abandoned Christian Realism of the sort taught by Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Ramsay, and John Courtney Murray, have substituted in its place psychologized and quasi-utopian understandings of international public life, which suggest the possibility of a world without conflict.

What has been lost in this doctrinal shuffle is the classic Christian tradition’s understanding of “peace as trauquillitns ordinis: rightly ordered and dynamic political community, in and among nations, in which legal and political institutions provide effective means for resolving the inevitable conflicts that will define public life until the End of Time.”

Part three of this book presents ten key documents about the war, from church bodies, church leaders, and President Bush.

Taken together, this three-part book adds a significant contribution to questions war and peace in general and the ethics of the Gulf War in particular. Despite the book’s brevity, it represents how intellectual and moral debate about such subjects can and should be conducted.

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