I was listening to a lecture by Lord Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury on the theme of the ‘Just War’ and thought I’d share some of his reflections.
He argues that when the idea was formulated it made a sort of sense – wars tended to be relatively small scale and fought between armies. Yes, civilians, as ever, got in the way and suffered from depredations, but battles, however bloody, were usually brief and had a determined outcome when one sovereign called time because he did not want his throne to be further threatened – or because the victor had dethroned him. Now, civilians are not just hit as a by product of the conflict, but are often deliberate targets, and, as we have seen in places as diverse as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, they can last for years, with dreadful atrocities – and no determined outcome.
Just War theory said that war was justified by a defence against the aggressor, but that was in an era when we did not have the diplomatic and peace-keeping resources which now exist in an international scale; the emphasis now must be on the defence of the innocent. Can wars be fought in a way which avoid mass slaughter now? The 1949 Geneva convention provided protection for the vulnerable, but every modern war has seen that convention broken. The old defence that soldiers who commit atrocities were ‘only obeying orders’ has not been accepted since Nuremberg – but given the devastating effects of many modern weapons is it possible to use them without committing atrocities?
If we take the most difficult modern example – ISIS – even the current Archbishop of Canterbury has admitted that it is so evil that we should be willing to bomb them, but then found it, as so many of us do, necessary to include so many caveats that it almost amounts to saying that in practice it would be impossible. But it seems to me that however much we might want wars not to exist, they do, and that however much times change, the necessity of fighting to protect those who cannot protect themselves remains.
Lord Williams is right that our modern wars can be much more destructive more easily, but of we think about the campaigns of Attila the Hun or Tamur the lame, they devastated whole regions and massacred whole peoples, so I don’t see that much has changed in that respect.
Defining a ‘just war‘ is not necessarily easy. In World War I both sides claimed they were in the right. In the World War II it is easier to see who was in the wrong, but then was it right of the Allies to do things such as the bombing of Dresden? Did the fact that the Nazis had done these things justify our doing them, or were we, as the bishop of Chichester, George Bell, argued at the time, resorting to measures of barbarism ourselves? That did not, I think, make the war not a ‘just’ one, but it did degrade us, and was not worthy of the cause we were fighting for. It is a reminder that even in a good cause, we are not empowered, morally, to do what is wrong.
Of all the signs we are a fallen race, war is the greatest and most obvious. As I work with refugees from the wars in Syria, I am struck by the sheer horror of the experiences these people have been through. Those involved in the war, on all sides, seem to have disregarded any moral sense at all and have resorted to whatever methods of barbarism they thought would win. As it has happened, all these methods have done is to destroy much of their own country and traumatise millions. Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy – and bless Pope Francis for his compassion and for highlighting the plight of so many suffering people.