Just War Reasoning Overcomes Moral Ambiguity on War and Peace

As we consider House Resolution 1009, I would like to draw our attention to some distinctly American historical elements and then argue that this type of initiative is needed today due to the increasing moral fuzziness of America’s ethical debates.

Although we don’t really see just war thinking clearly articulated in our history books, the omission is historically problematic: just war language has very much been part of the lingua franca of presidential addresses and legislative statements throughout U.S. history.  Allow me to give one example, from the very founding of the country.  In July 1775, a few months after the shots at Concord and Lexington that essentially started the American War for Independence – and a year before the July 4, 1776 Declaration of Independence – the Continental Congress sent a declaration to London: the Declaration of the United Colonies on the Causes and Necessities of Taking Up Arms.  

The 1775 Declaration begins with a question about legitimate authority: Does God grant to government “unbounded authority…never rightfully resistible, however severe and oppressive …” or is it “instituted to promote the welfare of mankind”?  The colonists argued that London lost its moral authority to govern when it violated its basic responsibility to protect the well-being of citizens within the Commonwealth, whether through arming Native American Indians, attacking commerce, violating basic legal norms, or killing colonists.  The 1775 Declaration then transitions from a discussion of legitimate authority to one of just cause:

Parliament … in the course of eleven years, [has]:

undertaken to give and grant our money without our consent, though we have ever exercised an exclusive right to dispose of our own property; 

statutes have been passed for extending the jurisdiction of courts of admiralty and vice-admiralty beyond their ancient limits; 

for depriving us of the accustomed and inestimable privilege of trial by jury, in cases affecting both life and property; 

for suspending the legislature of one of the colonies; 

for interdicting all commerce to the capital of another; 

and for altering fundamentally the form of government established by charter, and secured by acts of its own legislature solemnly confirmed by the crown; 

for exempting the” murderers of colonists from legal trial, and in effect, from punishment; 

for erecting in a neighboring province, acquired by the joint arms of Great-Britain and America, a despotism dangerous to our very existence; 

and for quartering soldiers upon the colonists in time of profound peace. 

It has also been resolved in parliament, that colonists charged with committing certain offences, shall be transported to England to be tried.

This is a damning list of trampled liberties that continue to cite various aspects of economic warfare.  Thus, the self-defense under the authority of the colonial legislature is just because the intention is self-preservation, not violence or the setting up of a new and independent empire.  

Lest this declaration should disquiet the minds of our friends and fellow subjects in any part of the empire, we assure them that we mean not to dissolve that union which has so long and so happily subsisted between us… We have not raised armies with ambitious designs of separating from Great-Britain and establishing independent states. We fight not for glory or for conquest…[but] in our native land, in defense of the freedom that is our birthright…. for the protection of our property…against violence actually offered, we have taken up arms.

The colonists counted the cost, and they reminded London that there would be a strong likelihood of success if the colonies were forced to defend themselves.  Despite the powerful British Navy, the colonists could turn internally for all of the basic resources of life.  The North American continent was rich in resources and space, and the colonies had a robust population.  The colonies spread over a wide geography that would not be easy for London to tame, particularly if the colonists could achieve some sort of alliance with foreign powers.  Such an alliance would not be surprising and would have been seen as clearly threatening by Great Britain: there is little doubt that France, Spain, and others could become involved in a global war like that of the Seven Years War (French and Indian War).  Furthermore, if some in London believed that they could split off rebellious Massachusetts from “loyal” New York or the southern colonies, the signers of this 1775 Declaration insisted on the unity of the colonies.  The 1775 Declaration concluded with a summary of the strategic milieu: 

Our cause is just. Our union is perfect. Our internal resources are great, and, if necessary, foreign assistance is undoubtedly attainable. We gratefully acknowledge, as signal instances of the Divine favor towards us, that his Providence would not permit us to be called into this severe controversy, until we were grown up to our present strength, had been previously exercised in warlike operation, and possessed of the means of defending ourselves.

More could be said about Presidents Washington, Adams, and Madison arguing that the weak federal government had a moral responsibility to arm itself in order to secure its populace and promote justice.  Fast-forward to Lincoln’s moving Second Inaugural Address and its emphasis on the fight for justice, or FDR’s December 8, 1941 speech to Congress following Pearl Harbor.  In every instance one finds important assumptions about government’s responsibility to deter enemies, punish wrongdoing, act on just causes with right intentions, and seek peace.  

In short, the language of the just war tradition is in our DNA. It is rooted in our Greco-Roman (i.e., Cicero) and Judeo-Christian (e.g., Augustine, Aquinas, Vitoria) heritage.  Thus, one might say, “Why is such a House Resolution needed?”  The answer has to do with the lack of a moral center in today’s discussions of the ethics of war and peace.  

Let me cite three examples of the moral ineptitude one finds in certain quarters.  The first is the bizarre notion that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”  That is absurd. It is a moral equivocation that is false and misleading.  George Washington was no terrorist.  Although he led a Colonial army resisting the British Crown, he acted under the authority of the Continental Congress.  Washington desperately tried to build a professional army and he abided by the laws of armed conflict.  Washington punished his own troops who violated the laws of armed conflict.  He was not Osama Bin Laden nor was he was Che Guevara.  Washington led with rectitude, so much so that his adversary, George III, called him the greatest man of the age.  

A second area of moral fuzziness is that international political situations are labeled as entirely either legal or illegal, rather than taking the moral trade-offs seriously.  Here is an example.  In 1999 the U.S. led a NATO coalition to rescue Kosovo’s Muslims from yet another genocide at the hands of Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic.  Just a few years before Milosevic and his henchmen had slaughtered tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims, and it looked like it was going to happen again in Kosovo.  Here is what was so bizarre: The cover story of the world’s greatest foreign policy magazine said that the intervention by NATO to stop this ethnic cleansing was illegal but moral.  Now how do we get to that point that saving an entire people group could be illegal but moral?  The way we get there is the same way that we bumbled into World War II, which is by elevating legal frameworks such as the non-intervention clauses of the Kellogg-Briand Pact or the UN Charter to the point that we feel restricted from stopping genocide.  It is as if we would obey a “do not walk” signal when we could violate it to save a child who fell in oncoming traffic. This is the ethics of absurdity.  

A resolution such as HR 1009 would force us to at least debate key moral principles rather than appease dictators and forsake our responsibilities to international security and self-defense.  This brings us to my third point, and that is that HR 1009 rightly calls on those responsible for national security to discuss and debate the morality of making the choice to employ force or not employ force.  It is crucial to have these debates in the House of Representatives among the duly elected leaders of the American people.  This is not just a procedural matter but, rather, a moral good.  Our Republic is preserved and strengthened when the legislature rightly considers its responsibility for authorizing military force, counting the cost while not shirking from purposeful action.

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