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"Just War Theory" and the War on [T]error - The Ornery American

"Just War Theory" and the War on [T]error
By Brian Moresonner June 4, 2004

While terrorism itself is a fairly old practice, the "War on Terror" is a fairly recent development. The "War on Terror" is a new type of war that challenges the previous conceptions of very the nature of conflict, especially that of "Just War Theory." Paul Gilbert seeks to discuss the question of the new "War on Terror" and its relation to "Just War Theory" in his book: New Terror New Wars. Ultimately, as Gilbert admits, this discussion only serves to ask more questions than it answers, and while the larger question of "Is the 'War on Terror' just?" remains relatively unanswerable, one can conclude that at the elements of "Just War Theory" do not apply well to the "War on Terror."

The concepts and principles of "Just Wars" have been developed over the course of human history with roots traceable to as far back as ancient civilizations such as the Greeks and even the Sumerians. The idea of "Just War" usually evolves when two or more similarly cultured peoples engage in combat over and over, as they share the same cultural values the two or more peoples set up conventions and perhaps even codes of what is acceptable in combat with each other. "Just War Theory" as academically propounded has a much more recent history beginning largely and most notably with the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas. In his Summa Theologica Aquinas laid down the principles of "Just War" which have been expanded upon by writers such as Vitoria, Pufendorf, Vattel, and contemporaries such as Michael Walzer.

Before one can discuss whether the "War on Terror" is a just war in the "Just War" tradition, or whether that is even a reasonable way to analyze it, one must take into account all the principles of Just War Theory." "Just War Theory" is twofold, as it takes into account not only the principles of the justice of war, but also the rules of engagement. The principles of the justice of war are: having a proper and honorable cause, the war having been declared by the appropriate authority figure, having the correct intent, a reasonable chance of victory and the end of the conflict being proportional to the methods used to get there. The rules of engagement deal with which peoples constitute an acceptable target of the fighting and how much force is morally allowable to use in the conflict.

Gilbert's approach to the question of the justice of war is to establish the right to self-defense, specifically that of nations. Gilbert discusses the two bodies of international law that establish the case for war of self-defense: the UN Charter and the Hague and Geneva conventions. These institutions establish the case of a nation to make war if their sovereignty is endangered. While infringed sovereignty itself is a rather specific and often irrelevant motivation, Gilbert contends that at the very least: "War is rightly waged, if all else fails, in defense of a political community's vital interests and must stop at that". While it may seem possible to apply all the principles of "Just War Theory" to the old, conventional wars between two easily identifiable entities such as states, this situation complicates with territory-less peoples such as terrorist organizations.

Gilbert deals with the question of the "War on Terror's" motivations by discussing the causes behind the 9-11 attacks and the perceived, and in some cases declared, Jihad against the United States. Gilbert says that it is meaningful to ask the question of whether the terrorists had a just cause in mind when initiating their brutal and horrifying attacks. He discusses what opponents of the US and the "West" term as economic and cultural imperialism embodied by such things as sanctions against Iraq, moral denunciation of Arab cultural practices, etc. While Gilbert contends that such accusations and stated motivations do not match up with the known goals of such groups he concedes that mixed motivations serve to fuse to push these trans-state movements past the brink of inaction.

The United States, in Gilbert's opinion, was undoubtedly defending itself after the 9-11 attacks. Gilbert states that the United States has a just cause, that it is the proper authority to declare its war of self-defense and that the US has the right intention -- albeit a lofty one. When looking at the chance of success and evaluations of appropriately apportioned force being used in the "War on Terror" is when Gilbert admits that it becomes difficult to use "Just War Theory." Gilbert acknowledges that the chances of a state being able to fully conquer a decentralized, amorphous entity like Al Qaeda are quite low. Gilbert contends that the larger goal of eradication terrorism is ultimately too ambitious and unrealistic to ever be achieved and at any reasonable cost. A good analogy of this would be a giant swinging a sledgehammer at a swarm of mosquitoes. The proportioned force necessary for an appropriate end to the war is also hard to judge. This is due to the fact that not only are lives lost in pursuit of the war's objectives to be counted, but also all the various costs -- both military and civil -- incurred by the actions and policies of the government on its own\ citizens and the citizens of other nations. An example of this would be the controversy over the United States' PATRIOT Act and its impacts on civil liberties and freedoms for US citizens.

On the conduct of war Gilbert presents us with more analysis on the misfit of "Just War Theory" to the "War on Terror." As Gilbert rightly points out, the discrimination principle becomes muddled in the "War in Terror" when the lines between civilians and combatants blur. Normally in old wars it was clear that attacking civilians was out of boundaries in accordance with Hague law and Geneva conventions, but when new wars like the "War on Terror" include one side declaring all members of a society/culture as enemies and do not encourage any kind of discernable period or threshold of when it is acceptable to surrender and stop fighting, to them all civilians and military become acceptable targets. Due to the nature of these new wars being mounted against cultural identities, civilians perceived to be culturally significant - such as religious leaders, economic leaders and civil servants - become the primary, and actually preferred, targets.

Without embarking to fully describe the concept of identity politics, it is sufficient to say that Gilbert contends, that, under new wars groups make use of trans-state affiliations through calls of ethnic, religious and other types of national unity that usually do not reflect state allegiance. Gilbert also contends that this non-state roll-call serves to also bring about a certain aspect of extremism that is not found in conventional wars between states. Often times these calls for unity are to individuals whom are often several lifetimes removed from an ancestor who was actually directly involved with the specific ethnicity and sometimes even religion. An example of this is the Ayatollah's call to Muslims worldwide to oppose and destroy the United States simply for virtue of Islam being a reason to obey him as their spiritual leader even in matters of making war.

When Gilbert talks about proportionality he raises another problem that new wars present to "Just War Theory." It would seem natural to assume that since a state is not dealing with something as powerful as another state that it would use a very weakly powered offense to go after small, decentralized terrorist groups. However, due to the often extreme nature and devoted willingness to die of members of these groups states must often employ even harsher methods than they would use on other states. Whereas with other states assassination was not a viable alternative due to international law, public relations conventions and other checks, with terrorist groups it sometimes becomes the last viable alternative. This is especially the case when dealing with enemies willing to kill themselves to do damage or avoid capture. Issues like this also beg the question of what is acceptable weaponry and equipment.

Paul Gilbert raises many questions about the justice of new wars as applied from theory derived from old wars. Though he acknowledges the differences that make applying "Just War Theory" on new wars, and specifically the "War on Terror" he establishes a clear case of evaluation that shows that while the goals, motivations and justifications of states in the "War on Terror" are just, their implementation of the war will remain to be seen as so. Practical problems such as methods of fighting, capture, imprisonment and who is to be considered an enemy are only some of the incredibly monolithic procedural problems the United States and the other nations in the alliance against terror must face. It is particularly worthwhile to note that while the "War on Terror" is certainly not just from either side by the current "Just War Theory," that over time, a new theory of determining the legitimacy of these new wars will arise.

Copyright © 2004 by Brian Moresonner

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