Since the end of World War II, Western governments have shifted their postures on armed conflict and war. This was understandable given the potential for nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States. But the postwar peace has increased the conviction that the world’s real problem is not evil leaders who harm their own people or act as aggressors toward other nations. Rather, war itself is the problem. And so, many in the United Nations, the European Union, and the US consider war the real evil that should be prevented at all costs.
The post-World War II epoch has been an era of unprecedented, even hyperbolic, peace. Europe, which had been a ceaseless morass of interstate conflict, has lived in relative peace for a good 70 years. Instead of seeing hyperbolic peace as an accident of history, many in the West assume this is our normal state of affairs and that we should do anything to maintain it, even if that means appeasing tyrants and cutting deals with despots.
Following this mentality, in the early 1980s the US Conference of Catholic Bishops argued in their influential pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace” that the Just War tradition starts with a presumption against war and for peaceful resolution of conflicts. So, use of armed force is immoral but permissible under some circumstances. In order to prevent wars and raise the standard for when force could be used, the letter asserted that “last resort” to the use of force is a criterion for deliberations about the justice of going to war (jus ad bellum).
The Conference made a mistake that should be undone. James Turner Johnson, our best contemporary historian of the Just War tradition, has shown that on these points the bishops are not in step with the tradition. Their misstep has resulted in a growing sense that any resort to war or force in any conflict is a failure and violation of the tradition. While we ought never be eager or too quick to use military force, the Just War tradition should primarily focus on the just application of force with the aim of restoring peace.
Some have used recent history to justify the Conference’s conclusions that force is immoral and that we need to reinterpret last resort to prevent war. Yet in these cases we have learned the wrong lessons. For instance, the Iraq War has left the public deeply skeptical about the use of war for just ends, but the use of force was not the real problem. Instead, the Bush administration’s post-war plans and their bungled execution should bear the true blame. When we conclude war cannot be used for just ends, we have overlearned the Iraq War’s failures.
If we look at our most recent humanitarian catastrophes—Syria, Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia—earlier intervention in a limited but effective way could have headed off or greatly mitigated those tragedies. In Syria, President Obama should have enforced the redline with a limited strike. In Rwanda, most would agree some sort of limited military response could have prevented the Hutu massacres. This does not mean the US should launch full-scale invasions, but we could use drones, airstrikes, and special forces akin to what we have recently done in fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria. With military technological advancements, the precise, limited, and more just application of force is now a reality.
The Just War tradition is a practical doctrine geared toward the just application of the use of force. In the instances mentioned above, the just use of force was warranted and would have made a significant difference in changing these conflicts’ outcomes for the better. Lives would have been saved, the length of the wars shortened, and destruction lessened. If we use last resort to prevent war in almost all circumstances because we see the use of force as evil, we do not preserve peace but instead allow injustices to go unchecked.
It is time to show last resort the exit. A more nuanced and supple approach to dealing with international conflicts will require the use of force, and the Just War tradition can serve as a powerful moral compass for guiding our leaders.
Daniel Strand is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at the Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in history of political thought, religion and politics, and the thought of St. Augustine of Hippo.
Photo Credit: A US Marine Corps sniper with Task Force Southwest (TFSW) sights in with a M107 .50-caliber Special Applications Scoped Rifle during a security post for an advising mission with 1st Brigade, Afghan National Army (ANA) 215th Corps as they conduct Operation Maiwand 12 at Camp Shorserack, Afghanistan, on March 13, 2018. Operation Maiwand 12 is an Afghan-led, TFSW-assisted, operation with maneuver elements from the ANA, National Directorate of Security, and Afghan National Police forces to expand the security belt around Helmand Province. US Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Conner Robbins.