Just War Theory & the Question of
November 10, 2004
Contextual Note: In the recent election, about 20% of those leaving the polls said moral values determined their vote, and about 80% of those making that statement voted for the incumbent president. Yet when asked about the question of moral values, most of these respondents limited their responses to questions of religion, abortion, gay marriage, and the like. Intellectual integrity— lying, for example—was not a moral issue often mentioned, and Iraq, although an issue, was not discussed as a moral issue. Yet history shows that the questions of honor and integrity, of going to war, conducting war, and ending war are among the deepest of moral questions. Does their absence from the panoply of moral values suggest a hole in our moral outlook? Or are they merely settled questions?
The attached essay by Gary Wills (be advised: he is one of my favorite writers) is one of the best critiques of Just War theory I have ever read. And it ends on a surprising note, by emphasizing the moral question of competent authority in making a decision to go to war. Since the establishment of the primacy of the nation-state, this is a question that has been largely regarded as settled, yet Wills lays out a devastating argument, in a surprising and deeply disturbing way, for reconsidering it anew.
Long-time readers of the Comments will recall our frequent discussions of 4th Generation Warfare, where at least one of the belligerents is a non-state actor. The increasing incidents of 4GW reflect the wider ongoing breakdown in the primacy of the nation state as an organizing principle, particularly in less developed parts of the world. In a strange and unintended way, Wills' question of competent authority in decision to go war by supposed democracies may also be a reflection of this escalating breakdown.
I hope I am wrong. But I urge you study Will's argument critically; examine its premises and their linkages to conclusions, and judge for yourself whether or not he has put the question of competent authority on the table as an important moral issue facing all the citizens of United States.
"A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." - James Madison, from a letter to W. T. Barry, August 4, 1822
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