Flat White

Can war be just?

2 May 2018

6:30 PM

2 May 2018

6:30 PM

The recent furore over the use of “death iconography” by the current Chief of Army raises important questions as to the moral legitimacy of our nation’s military. And what we need is an informed and intelligent re-application of the Just War framework to engaging in armed conflict.  Jane Marwick, a Perth journalist, drew attention to this in a recent article based on an interview with Andrew Hastie, the Federal Liberal Member for Canning and former SAS captain:

‘What Lt-Gen. Campbell is affirming is the Just War tradition, where violence is the very last resort and the taking of life is not to be celebrated’.

But Hastie ‘adds that a culture of political correctness, enforced under ex-army chief David Morrison, has eroded morale, and means a lot of guys have had a gutful. Some very good men have left as a result’, Hastie included.

The Just War ethical and theological framework has a long and illustrious history going all the way back to the church father, Augustine. Unfortunately, not many people are familiar with what it actually teaches. Simply put, it outlines the conditions in which it is ‘right to fight’ (Jus ad Bellum, or, “Justice toward war”) as well as how one should morally conduct themselves when they do (Jus in Bello, or, “Justice in War”)

As Darrell Cole, in his book, When God Says War Is Right: The Christian’s Perspective on When and How to Fight (Waterbrook, 2002), argues:

The Christian tradition has typically settled on five criteria for jus ad bellum: (1) proper authority, (2) just cause, (3) right intention, (4) war as the only way to right the wrong and (5) reasonable hope of success.

The just war doctrine is meant to restrain and control the use of violence in a just cause, but it also concerns the formation of leaders and soldiers who have to obey the doctrine…

Arising from this principle of never doing evil that good may come are the two guidelines of discrimination and proportion. Discrimination (or non-combatant immunity) says that we ought to target only those who deserve targeting; we discriminate between those who are proper military targets and those who are not. Proportion reminds us that the good results from our acts of force need to be worth the suffering they cause.

Unfortunately, there is an increasing ignorance, especially in Western culture, as to the moral legitimacy of war. In particular, military action is viewed as only producing negative consequences for the individuals involved. For instance, consider the Leunig cartoon published in The Age on Anzac Day last week.

Dr Michael Evans, a Fellow at the Australian Defence College in Canberra, expresses the growing intellectual crisis we face as a society in regarding when it comes to thinking about the moral legitimacy of a “profession of arms” as follows:

The greatest challenge to the Western profession of arms comes not from our external enemies, formidable though some of them are, but from within our own society. The rise of postmodernism and anti-rationalism since the 1960s combined with the celebrity culture of the mass media and the social revolutions in youth pacifism, radical feminism and the rise of psychotherapy have created a self-esteem society based on moral relativism. 

Evans goes on to suggest that the answer to this ‘existential crisis’ is a rediscovery and application of the ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism. However, having spoken to a number of mates who have gone through the ADF, they view Evan’s approach as overly complicated as well as essentially impracticable. We already have a tried and tested rationale for thinking about a ‘profession of arms’ in the Just War tradition.

This is something that we need to be reminded of as a nation – especially those who are preparing for military service. For rather than being a necessary ‘evil’, armed intervention can be an act of great virtue; in particular, of justice and, most of all, love. As Cole explains:

The classic just war doctrine as articulated by the Church does not view all use of force as evil; rather, it declares that war can actually be a positive act of love entirely consistent with the character of God. Love of God and neighbour impels Christians to seek a just peace for all, especially for their neighbours, and military force is sometimes an appropriate means for seeking that peace.

A quote such as this—especially coming from a Christian—might come as a surprise to many people. They think that Christ, as well as the apostle Paul, exhorts disciples to turn the other cheek in all circumstances (See Matthew 5:38-41; Luke 6:29-30; Romans 12:17-21). However, as Cole rightly points out:

Jesus’ goal is to restrain personal retaliation, not to restrain political force, which is, after all, an agent of His Father’s wrath and love.

Andrew Hastie—as well as Michael Ayling, who also argues for a similar position in his recent Spectator article—is correct when he says that, ‘What Lt-Gen. Campbell is affirming is the Just War tradition, where violence is the very last resort and the taking of life is not to be celebrated’. And clearly, Campbell is a man of deep principle and conviction. But his recent directive banning a range of icons used by military personnel in combat roles seems to be more inspired by political correctness than just war doctrine. As Peta Credlin wrote in The Sunday Telegraph:

I have enormous regard for Lt-General Campbell. I got to know him when he ran Operation Sovereign Borders… He gave me good counsel at times, and I learned a lot from his steely determination not to let any impediments get in the way of his mission to stop the boats, and keep them stopped. But in issuing this directive, I think he’s let the political correctness swamping Canberra’s institutions wash away his own good sense.

War is grim and people in combat face horrors we will never know about or experience. As long as soldiers follow the rules of engagement, do not target civilians and treat enemy prisoners humanely, what’s the problem with their comic icons? In 1987 the Australian government used the Grim Reaper to great effect in warning about the dangers of Aids. And for a morally appropriate purpose, they were completely justified in doing so.

Mark Powell is the Associate Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, Strathfield.

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