What should we then do?

A Just-War perspective on how to respond to 9/11/01

It is well that war is so terrible, else we should grow too fond of it.

-- Robert E. Lee

This is a revision and expansion of an essay that was delivered by me, as the token Just-War proponent, at a discussion forum at Bluffton College (now Bluffton University) on September 21, 2001. Bluffton University is a Mennonite institution that takes its religious heritage seriously, and therefore its official position is pacifist.

Most of my fellow BC faculty are pacifists, and I am honored to be associated with them. They base their pacifism largely on principles best set out by John Howard Yoder in The Politics of Jesus and other works. For Yoder (as Stanley Hauerwas has pointed out) pacifism makes no sense if Jesus Christ was not raised from the dead. This I proudly affirm, though I am not a pacifist.

This essay, needless to say, bears no relation to the opinions of Bluffton University, nor is it claimed that it represents the opinion of any other person at the College. See my disclaimer.

I also wrote a letter to the President of the United States immediately after the attacks. A year later, I was asked to speak at a commemoration; here are my comments.

In June 1985 I raised my right hand and swore to defend the constitution and obey the lawful orders of those in authority over me. Before I did this I had to decide that I was capable of pulling a trigger on another human being. I can still conceive of circumstances in which I would feel duty-bound to kill another person. This is the essential difference between pacifism and non-pacifism, even though Just War is very close to pacifism in practice. [1] If you think you are a pacifist, and yet you can conceive of a situation in which you would do violence to another human being, you'd better go back and re-read Yoder.

Just War has three components: just cause, just intent and just means. [2] Just cause is self-explanatory; it means that the war is defensive or protective in nature, is not aggressive, and is used only as a last resort. Just intent means that the war is carried out to right wrongs or to defend a weaker party rather than for revenge or from hatred. Just means inflict minimum damage upon the enemy and do not involve harm to innocents.

The three conditions are not necessarily, or commonly, all present in any given war or at different times in the same war. Robert E. Lee, who did his level best to have just intent, was careful to use just means in the American Civil War, but I think we can agree that Lee's cause was unjust--though he did not think so. On the other hand, the Allies in World War II fought a war with an indubitably just cause, by means that were unjust: the Allies pioneered strategic bombing, which I and many others believe to be inherently unjust; and American treatment of Japanese soldiers was often barbaric. Allied intentions were also unjust; most if not all of the Allied nations fought for revenge. This was especially obvious in the Pacific War between the US and Japan, and on the European Eastern Front between Russia and Germany.

How should we respond to September 11?

It is important that war be difficult and costly, in both money and the lives of soldiers--ours, not just the enemy's--so that we will hesitate long and consider well before engaging in it. Overuse of air and artillery bombardment as a substitute for infantry makes war into a video game in which "nobody important" is hurt. [3] But the more costly war is in human lives, the greater the temptation to descend into the abyss of hatred and revenge, which make a war unjust because our intent is thereby unjust. In the case of the mass murder of September 11, the condition of just cause has been met; but any military action must use just means. A just military response would include:
  • Following norms of international law. The goal should be to capture terrorists and indict them before recognized national and international courts of justice law. [4] Islamic courts would be preferable so as to convince the Islamic world that our aim is justice, not persecution.

  • An international coalition must be willing to commit to the long term, including the use of infantry in situations in which they will take casualties. This sharing of risk with the population within which criminals shelter is a feature of good police work, and I see it as central to any war that is just in both cause and execution.

  • Great care should be taken to avoid harm to non-combatants whenever possible; and unjust means (area bombing, blanket artillery bombardments, indiscriminate use of mines) should be renounced--at least in private. [5]

  • We must present the real costs of the war, both human and material, to the public, so that the public can make an informed decision whether the war is worth it. It is noteworthy that few Allied veterans of the Second World War regret the war itself, but they rightly think that the public did not and does not understand what they suffered because civilians are sheltered from the realities of the battlefront. This was true in every country, including Japan, Germany and England where civilians suffered from terror bombing and lived with their own harsh realities.

I think that the current policy of going after those responsible for September 11, AND those who sheltered and encouraged and financed them, AND international terror itself, is both justified and capable of success. What I fear is that unjust means will be used because--especially since World War II--no military planner thinks of NOT using them.

And how shall we think about just intent? As Christians, we must remember that those we kill, even with just cause, means and intent in a just war, are people for whom Christ died. And so we must do penance rather than exult in victory. This was the position of the early Church, which often denied the Sacraments to killers--including soldiers and those who killed in self-defense--unless they were actually on the point of death. Even in the Middle Ages, combat was strictly regulated--at least for those for whom receiving the Sacraments was important--and soldiers were expected to do penance after the conclusion of a campaign.

In the same way, we must do our level best to compensate those injured--whether by accident or design--in this war; to take care not to cause more injury than absolutely necessary; and to do penance for our wartime sins, early and often.

I recognize that this argument is incomplete. There are those who will dismiss my conditions as impractical, and for them I have no answer, except that if a Just War is impossible, we have no moral Christian alternative but pacifism. See Joseph Allen's little book, War: A Primer for Christians. Allen, incidentally, believes in the possibility of a Just War, as do I.
I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.

-- Faramir of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings

  1. It is important to understand that neither Just War Theory nor Pacifism are "practical" or "pragmatic." Both contend that it is better to die than to permit or acquiesce in injustice, even if the death may have no "practical" result. They differ partly in what they consider an acceptable way of dying in the service of justice.

  2. There are other aspects, such as the principle that the war be carried on by legitimate authority and the distinction between combatants and non-combatants, that are more-or-less debatable and can be shoehorned into the three main categories.

  3. And let's not forget the sound military principle that you don't own a piece of land until you stand at least one 19-year-old with a rifle on top of it.

  4. I am reminded of Oliver Wendell Holmes' comment that the duty of a judge is not to administer justice, but to uphold the law.

  5. It is probably useful that an immoral enemy thinks we will do unto him as he does unto others. It creates a climate in which the enemy will not be able to predict what we will do.

Copyright © 2002 by Daniel J. Berger. This work may be copied without limit if its use is to be for non-profit educational purposes. Such copies may be by any method, present or future. The author requests only that this statement accompany all such copies. All rights to publication for profit are retained by the author.

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