The Jig is Up: Just War Theory Can No Longer Be Used as a Cover for State Policies of Mass Homicide

For more than fifteen years – a sizable chunk of my adult life – I have been criticizing the just war paradigm which has undergirded calls for war by the leaders of states for centuries. My first essay on the topic was published in 2000: “The Injustice of Just Wars,” but that was only the beginning. I also published essays on “legitimate authority”, the dehumanization of soldiers in the just war framework, the “metaethical paradox” of just war theory, the incompatibility of universal human rights with just war theory, and so-called “humanitarian intervention”, which is even more hawkish than the traditional framework, insisting as it does on the necessity–rather than the permissibility–of going to war (see publications list).

I have also published explicit critiques of the number one just war theory guru since the Vietnam era, Michael Walzer, whose 1977 book,Just and Unjust Wars, has been held up in academic circles as a veritable Holy Book for decades. In an early 2001 issue of Dissent magazine (before 9/11), Walzer and I even sparred over our differences, as he wrote a text in response (without, I hasten to add, answering my critiques!) to my essay “Violence & Hypocrisy”.

You may have noticed the dearth of outspoken war critics in academia. It is no mere coincidence. The unsettling truth is that many an academic has secured tenure by writing footnotes to just war theory – especially Walzer’s reading of it – and this has had a trickle-down and stifling effect on criticism within the academy. That is because homogenization is intrinsic to institutions in general (which are conservative by nature) and to values-based scholarship such as philosophy, in particular (the subject of my first book, Philosophy Unmasked: A Skeptic’s Critique).

Perhaps you have wondered on occasion whether Noam Chomsky would ever have become a full professor with tenure had he started out writing on foreign policy rather than linguistics. Fortunately for us, Chomsky received tenure before directing his powerful intellect to the highly contentious topic of war.

Stated simply: You cannot mosey about the marketplace of ideas like the barefoot madman with his lantern muttering blasphemies such as “Just war theory is a bunch of bunk.” Well, you can, but if you do, you will never earn the esteem of the people whose esteem is needed to succeed in academia. In addition to Chomsky, there are several other extremely high-caliber thinkers currently writing and speaking out against war – David Swanson, Justin Raimondo, Tom Engelhardt, Nick Turse, Scott Horton, to name but a few – but good luck finding people like them within the hallowed halls of Ivory Tower academia.

Yes, the depressing truth is that the primary reason why the vacuous framework of just war theory continues to hold sway is that for a very, very long time, anyone who wanted to do normative scholarship on war was required, as a matter of survival, to fall in lockstep with the party line. There are plenty of places to add little embellishments and epicyclic curlicues to the theory, so lots of things to make and do, including ample dissertation fodder to be transformed eventually into scholarly volumes assigned in seminars and absorbed by new followers of the creed.

Perhaps the ideas first articulated in the early Middle Ages needed a bit of updating! was the general perspective even of graduate students imbued with a modicum of skepticism about the ends to which just war theory had been put during their lifetime. Why not devise some jus post bellum conditions to supplement the jus ad bellum and jus in bello list of bullet-pointed “Let’s Roll” line items parroted by leaders from Hitler to George H.W. Bush to, yes, the first self-styled “Drone Warrior”, President Barack Obama.

I am delighted to report that the Catholic church appears finally to have come around to the harsh but undeniable truth: that just war theory has indeed served over all of these many centuries primarily as a tool of warmongering propaganda – just as I have been arguing all along. Here’s a stunning – and most welcome! – recap of a recent Vatican conference on just war theory:

The participants of a first-of-its-kind Vatican conference have bluntly rejected the Catholic church’s long-held teachings on just war theory, saying they have too often been used to justify violent conflicts and the global church must reconsider Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence.

Members of a three-day event co-hosted by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the international Catholic peace organization Pax Christi have also strongly called on Pope Francis to consider writing an encyclical letter, or some other “major teaching document,” reorienting the church’s teachings on violence.

“There is no ‘just war,’” the some 80 participants of the conference state in an appeal they released Thursday morning.

When I published War and Delusion: A Critical Examination in 2013, I felt that I had basically produced a book’s worth of simple truths. All of what I wrote seemed so obvious to me – like the proverbial Elephant in the Middle of the Room. The Emperor’s Theory had no content, and it was high time for someone to share the news with the untutored masses, so I decided to explain in intricate detail how and why so many apparent platitudes upheld by so many people about war are not at all what they seem to be.

To this day, I believe that much of what I have written on war borders on banality. And yet those nearly trivial truths are not recognized for what they are, just as surely as the prevailing “platitudes” are false. How is it that truth and falsehood about war have been so abysmally confused? Because, sad to say, Western culture has been inextricably mired in the death industry for as long as anyone alive can remember.

It takes a serious inversion of the Necker Cube to see the problems with the just war paradigm. But the people in power have much too much invested in maintaining the status quo. The co-opted many include not only political leaders, but the heads of corporations, the mainstream media, and the many, many scholars who receive funding from the military-industrial-congressional-media-academic-pharmaceutical-logistics complex.

Rest assured that the card-carrying just war theorists out there are not going to accept without protest the Pope’s long overdue encyclical on matters martial any more than they took heed of the “screed” of what have up until now been facilely dismissed as “lunatic fringe cranks”. (That would be any- and everyone who has attempted to advance anything approaching a foundational critique of the war system.) At the very least, however, it will become progressively more difficult for the holders of endowed chairs to persuade their doe-eyed acolytes to write footnotes to their footnotes to Walzer, and for that I am grateful.

In an odd sort of confluence of my life’s work, credit for the Catholic church’s relatively recent recognition of the deficiency – and danger – of a paradigm which started with the venerable thinkers Augustine and Aquinas may well lie with the institutionalized practice (new to the twenty-first century) of executing terrorist suspects using lethal drones. Both President Barack Obama and CIA Director John Brennan have repeatedly – and perversely – claimed that their use of lethal drones to hunt down and premeditatedly kill unarmed persons is permitted under the theory of just war.

Happily, a few good souls at the Vatican have come to see that if this sort of intentional and serial killing of human beings is permitted by just war theory, then, in fact, everything is permitted. Not the sort of view which anyone at the Vatican wants associated with Augustine and Aquinas, one surmises.

War and Delusion will appear in a (hopefully affordable!) paperback edition in September 2016. In the meantime, here are a few of the key points to mull over:

  1. Modern war is not an instance of self-defense because the two practices have nearly nothing in common (the conflation of the two is analyzed in chapter 1). States are insentient, unconscious artifacts. They are not moral persons. To ascribe to states the rights of persons is to commit the fallacy of composition. To annihilate persons in a quest to defend the state is an abomination.
  2. The leaders of states have no more access to the deliverances of God’s will than does anyone else. Modern leaders are successful politicians, no more and no less. From their positions in democratic societies, we know only that political leaders know how to get elected. (See the 2016 US presidential election for more on that.) In nondemocratic societies, they are plain-old, self-appointed tyrants.
  3. In addition to being contingently appointed to their positions of power by arbitrarily assembled groups of people (at the limit, themselves), political leaders govern over conventionally delimited territories. Any group of people could band together to form a nation and confer “legitimate authority” on their leader. A group of one could confer that same “legitimate authority” upon the sole member of the group (himself). But if just war theory implies that the same person both may and may not intentionally kill other human beings – which is a contradiction – then it is rationally untenable.
  4. The word ‘war’ is used today to denote practices which would not be recognized by the fathers of just war theory. Among other stark differences, means of aerial transport did not exist until the twentieth century. Nonetheless, just war theory is used to rationalize the flying of large aircraft over vast distances to drop enormously destructive bombs on other people’s property, even while knowing that scores of innocent persons will be annihilated, terrorized and/or maimed in the process. Applications of “The Doctrine of Double Effect”, so often invoked to absolve military killers for “collateral damage”, rests on a prior assumption regarding intentions: “We are good (and have intrinsically good intentions), and They are evil (and therefore have intrinsically evil intentions).” (For my most recent thoughts on this topic, see the Appendix of We Kill Because We Can: “Drone Killing and the Doctrine of Double Effect”.)
  5. In the twenty-first century, the concepts of just war theory – last resort, just cause, proportionality, legitimate authority, etc. – have been trotted out by Obama and Brennan in support of their ghastly practice of hunting down and assassinating individual people none of whom can be said to pose an “existential threat” (as the warriors-cum-assassins are so fond of claiming) to the state allegedly being defended. Augustine and Aquinas would, I suspect, shudder at the horror of the practice with which their names have been associated (as the fathers of just war theory) by bureaucratic killers running an industrial killing machine from which many parties stand to profit.
  6. Therein lies perhaps the starkest distinction of all between what the early just war theorists spoke of and what goes on today: in the Modern world (as opposed to when Augustine and Aquinas wrote), industrialized war has become a highly lucrative business venture.

For an introduction to just war theory and some of the most basic problems with the paradigm, these two interviews on the Tom Woods Show might be helpful:

Laurie Calhoun, a philosopher and cultural critic, is the author of We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age(Zed Books, September 2015; paperback forthcoming in 2016) and War and Delusion: A Critical Examination (Palgrave Macmillan 2013; paperback forthcoming in 2016). Visit her website.

2 thoughts on “The Jig is Up: Just War Theory Can No Longer Be Used as a Cover for State Policies of Mass Homicide”

  1. The jig is far, far from up. When the 28 pages is released and it’s made to look like Saudi has a part in 911, the demonization of Saudi is a leadpipe cinch for the people.
    Or even with the successful and holding agreement with Iran, the only reason the jig could be up is because Obama’s admin has gone and ruined everything by signing on to the deal along with the other parties to the deal. Now, the gods forbid, Russia can come forward with it’s MAD threat and be totally legitimate in the minds of the parties to the agreement in doing that!

    So will Trump “make America great again” in the way he deals with that problem? And won’t it be wonderful when he makes America great again after Obama has made America so un-great by being a part of the Iran deal!

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