The first casualty of war is truth. Running a good second comes reasoned discussion about a war’s legitimacy, whether it is a just war. Over the years the scale and horror of modern warfare has increasingly called into question the traditional concept of a just war. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has begun to re-surface these doubts. As yet there has been little critical discussion of Britain’s role in it.
Beginning in the 5th century Christian thinkers developed criteria for a war to be just: it must be a last resort, called by a legitimate authority, have a just cause and intention with benefits outweighing the costs (the principle of proportionality), and have a reasonable chance of success. War should be conducted so as to avoid the killing of non-combatants and any actions causing more harm than the injustice combatted. Just war considerations inform the Geneva Conventions and the need for UN approval for military interventions, and apply in practice to the rules governing military targeting. They are the positive products of centuries old attempts to limit the barbarity of war.
In 2020 Pope Francis published his wide-ranging encyclical Fratelli Tutti addressed to ‘brothers and sisters all’ - that’s not just Catholics. Its six paragraphs on war feed into the long just war tradition developed since the time of St. Augustine (354-430). One sentence in Francis’ reflections seems particularly, but not exclusively, applicable to Russia. “War can easily be chosen by invoking all sorts of alleged humanitarian, defensive or precautionary excuses, and even resorting to manipulation of information’. Even though European secular governments are accustomed to ignoring, or deploring, the advice and statements of Church leaders, the Pope’s thinking may still be of interest to secular readers. Just one caveat, internal debate in wartime can, and does, result in national Bishops’ Conferences taking a different position from that of Rome.
“We do not uphold Augustine’s theory in our own day” writes the Pope in a teasing, unelaborated footnote to his conviction expressed in Fratelli Tutti that the risks of war “will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits”. Weapons of mass destruction, notably tactical nuclear weapons with the threat of a nuclear war, create “evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated” This is the principle of proportionality, a constraint on military action emphasised by the US Catholic bishops in their 1983 pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace”. Both follow John XXIII who almost 60 years ago in Pacem in Terris wrote that war may no longer be regarded as a “fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice”.
Question NATO’s role in the Ukraine war and you will be given short shrift as a left- wing, or right-wing, fanatic. But was the Pope so wrong when he told Corriere della Sera earlier this month that it would be going too far to say that NATO’s expansion eastwards provoked Putin’s lurch into war but that it perhaps facilitated it? Remember that Francis’ primary concern is peace-making. In a mid-March video conference with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, a supporter of Putin’s invasion, Francis, trying to reach out to Kirill while implicitly condemning Putin’s ‘special military operation’, said: “There was a time, even in our Churches, when people spoke of a holy or a just war. Today we cannot speak in this manner. Wars are always unjust since it is the people of God who pay. Our hearts cannot but weep before the children and women killed, along with all the victims of war”.
Is this all just a utopian vision divorced from reality? The Catholic catechism itself acknowledges the right to self-defence encompassing a country’s resistance against an oppressor once “the rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy have been met”. Fratelli Tutti spells out the Christian position in terms I first heard in South Africa during the apartheid struggle of the early 1980s. “True love for an oppressor means seeking ways to make him cease his oppression; stripping him of a power that he does not know how to use that diminishes his own humanity and that of others”. But how? This, as Mahatma Gandhi demonstrated, the Pope implies and the Christian peace movement advocates, could, and should, be active non-violent resistance. And it calls into question even the courageous self-sacrifice of Ukrainian security forces fighting for their homeland and national identity with imported NATO artillery and anti-tank weapons.
The just war principle that there must be reasonable chance of success should give us, NATO, and our Press, pause. If success means multiple Mariupols, very heavy troop losses and civilian mass graves all over the country, Ukraine destroyed, the question of proportionality becomes decisive and difficult. But can anyone predict what Putin will do – a seemingly sick man conducting a perverse legacy-war – or what the outcome of one highly motivated military force’s fight on home ground against an invading force with superior destructive power will be? Without military supplies from the West, Ukraine would be overwhelmed. Getting questions about our role right is not some abstract moral calculus but a matter of hundreds of thousands of lives potentially lost or saved, and some would argue, a stable world international order.
The only path to follow - other than into relentless destruction and loss of life - is to persevere with diplomacy. President Macron led the way on this. It will mean at some point putting into play with Putin wider and innovative concessions that do not project weakness, nor the dismemberment of Ukraine. And that in turn requires sieving scraps of truth from Putin’s and Russia’s perennial paranoia and nostalgia. If we believe with the Pope that war can no longer be a remedy, then, as Georgetown University’s Eli McCarthy and some other US academics propose, we need to begin now to use a different set of tools to build a just peace long term – not simply react to wars with further militarization.
Advocating such a parallel pathway sounds naïve, defeatist, even a national security risk. But in a world in which national security is also about climate change, famines and pandemics, it is realistic. War divides and holds back common action on such vital issues. However seductive the comparison, and though Putin’s Russia shows many features of fascist rule, this is not 1939 come round again.
As things stand, the most probable outcome of Putin’s invasion is prolonged military conflict drifting eventually into a guerrilla war, Ukrainian partisans against a brutal Russian invader, the only victors arms manufacturers, the wheat fields and cities of Ukraine the latest testing ground for new weapons systems. And these could be the very weapons of mass destruction, chemical or nuclear, whose existence calls in question the possibility of a just war.
See TheArticle 02'06/2022