I have written elsewhere in this blog about just war theory in general. The theory rests most fundamentally on the insight that the true opposite of peace is not war but injustice. Since the tranquillitas ordinis (the tranquility of order) is a necessary condition for human flourishing, sometimes the greater good is better pursued through the prosecution of a just war than by toleration of very grave injustice.
In general, the recent history of American war-making fails the tests of the just war theory in several respects. For one thing, justice in going to war (jus ad bellum) requires that war be declared formally by the authority vested with the right to declare war by a given constitution. In the Constitution of the United States that right is vested in Congress, which has not declared war since 1941. It is arguable that various congressional resolutions and acts since World War II have virtually satisfied the constitutional requirement in a few other cases. This argument is probably sufficient to satisfy the conscientious scruples of military men concerned with just behavior. For citizens, however, concerned with careful fulfilment of rational moral requirements and with providing as much clarity as possible to military servicemen, this does not seem good enough. Furthermore, failure to obtain the greatest possible degree of clarity helps sow the seeds for future national dissent and demoralization, since initial ambiguity will tend to magnify over time in the face of military setbacks or mounting costs.
In any case, a formal declaration of war is a penultimate step before entering into a just war. Such a declaration both demonstrates national seriousness and intention and also gives the adversary an opportunity to retract the offenses or aggression that have led to the brink of war. It seems, therefore, that the most formal and solemn and, above all, clear declaration of war possible is needed to satisfy the reasons that call for such a declaration in the first place. At the least, American behavior for the last three-quarters century has allowed ambiguity concerning initial national entrance into a dozen or more major and minor wars.
Since wars almost always involve unforeseen and unexpected consequences, many of which are extremely damaging to life, property, and national tranquility, the goals of a just war traditionally are required to be clear, limited, and achievable. It would be wrong, for instance, to go to war to banish evil from the earth, because such a goal is grandiose and impossible to achieve. War is always at best a lesser evil, but if its goals and purposes are unlimited and ill-defined, and therefore potentially vast and inflated, then its results also may well prove more costly, damaging, and harmful than if war were never begun. Obviously if the war is in pursuit of unachievable goals, it would be better not to wage the war, and if the foreseeable results are worse than doing nothing, then nothing should be done.
The major ‘hot’ wars of the United States since World War II were Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf (under President G.H.W. Bush), and Afghanistan and Iraq (or Gulf War II, under President George W. Bush and ongoing). None of these wars began with a formal congressional declaration of war. The last, Gulf War II, was based on a dubious causus belli, but that flaw is not our immediate concern in this post. One major problem with several of these wars is the lack of a clear, limited, and achievable goal.
In the case of Korea and the first Gulf War, the main initial goal was to repel an invasion of an ally. In both of these cases, the goal was achievable: clearly so, because it was in fact achieved. The Republic of Korea has been free for many decades of North Korean or Chinese soldiers within its territory. And since the first Gulf War, Kuwait has been free of Iraqi invaders.
It appears that American leaders believed that their goals in Vietnam were unachievable, and prolonged the war for a combination of reasons: fear of domestic political consequences if they were to ‘lose’ the war; genuine repugnance for the North Vietnamese regime; fear of a ‘domino’ effect that might open other southeast Asian lands to Communist takeover; and a vague hope that something would happen to defeat Communist subversion if American leaders prolonged the war. Such goals were probably mixed in character and in the possibility of their achievement. It does not seem, however, that ‘clear, limited, and achievable’ really characterized those goals at any point. In fact, they seem more accurately described as vague, speculative, and chancy.
The worst of the five wars in question, however, in regard to goals are undoubtedly the two which still, as of 2019, are underway and costing lives and treasure. The Afghan war, in its 18th year, began, arguably, as an act of self-defense or vigorous response in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th 2001 attacks on the United States. Afghanistan was the site of the training camps of the Taliban and their allies who were fomenting international acts of terror and training the perpetrators thereof. Destroying the Taliban government in Afghanistan was quickly achieved by the United States military and our allies. That end seems clear and was achieved and would have been reasonable and just, particularly if pursued following a formal declaration of war by the Congress of the United States. That result, once achieved, might reasonably have been followed by an American withdrawal: ‘Here is your country back. Do with it as you will, but don’t allow the Taliban back in and don’t provide bases for attacking us, or we’ll be back.’ Instead of such a clear conclusion, we embarked on an apparently unending involvement, built around an extremely vague goal of ‘nation building’. The quagmire of Afghanistan is longer lasting and more expensive than Vietnam, but has proven less unpopular because it has been prosecuted without a civilian draft. But Afghanistan also does not qualify as a war waged with clear, achievable, and limited goals.
The Iraq war is, if anything, worse. The American invasion of Iraq was not a direct response to attack on the American homeland. The Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, was an undoubted tyrant, brutal to his own people, and capable of attacking his neighbors – as his Kuwait invasion and an earlier, vicious Iraq-Iran war both amply demonstrate. The immediate causus belli, however – a supposedly active cultivation of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (chemical, biological, and nuclear) – is now generally admitted to have been based on flawed information and interpretation. In general, at the time G.W. Bush’s administration invaded Iraq, Hussein was largely a chastened dictator, causing grave harm to his own people but little more than annoyance to his principal regional rivals and neighbors. An American attack on Iraq was not an act of self-defense, was not required by treaty, and, as events again abundantly prove, achieved nothing lasting. Brilliant initial military success was squandered by a disastrous subsequent policy. The end result is a cost of trillions of dollars, thousands of American lives lost, tens of thousands of Iraqi lives lost, and the destruction of a secular dictator who kept a lid on Islamic extremists. Even if the United States had jus ad bellum in beginning the war, the costs incurred were and are wildly disproportionate to any good achieved.
The chief geopolitical result of the Iraq War, apart from bleeding the treasure of the United States, was to turn one of Iran’s main regional rivals into something approaching a regional ally. One of the war’s chief humanitarian results was the destruction of the Christian community of Iraq. Hussein, like the Assad regime in Syria, was secular in ideology and protective of the Christian minority. The release of violent Islamic passions, whether Sunni or Shi’a, by the ouster of the Hussein Ba’athist regime, led to something approaching the genocide of the existing, and very ancient, Christians of Iraq. The destruction of the Iraqi Christians is a fairly direct consequence of American behavior.
For Christians, as well as secular proponents of the just war theory, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are unjust, immoral, wasteful, and supremely foolish as matters of public policy. These wars, even worse, have wasted and destroyed our co-religionists. A careful application of just war theory, far from being unworldly or naïve, would have avoided, in whole or in part, the practical and vastly expensive disasters of our two most recent land wars in Asia. The pursuit of justice in war is not only right and moral: it also is often worldly-wise.