Looking at history, one has to conclude that war isn’t so much an aberration as the norm. Some people always fight some wars somewhere, killing one another with gusto.
That observation is as true today as it was in the 13th century BC, when Moses was vouchsafed God’s commandments, one of which said “Thou shalt not kill”.
The Israelites must have been perplexed, as they had every right to be. Neither history nor scripture records their ensuing question, but I’m sure it had to be asked. “Then how are we going to reclaim the Promised Land if we aren’t allowed to kill those barbaric squatters? They aren’t going to roll over, you know.”
There was only one possible, if unrecorded, answer to that, and I’m sure Moses had to give it: “Fighting a just war doesn’t violate that commandment.”
That had to be the gist of what he said, but it’s St Augustine who is credited with coining the term ‘just war’ (jus ad bello, as he put it in The City of God). War is a sin, taught Augustine, but it becomes justified if fought to prevent a greater sin. Such was a belated Christian answer to the next likely question doubtless put to Moses: “But what makes a war just?”
The doctrine was further developed by St Thomas Aquinas in his Summa. A war is just, he wrote, if it promotes the advancement of good and the avoidance of evil. He also stressed that it’s not only jus ad bello, but also jus in bello that matters: even a just war must be conducted by just means.
Such has been the general framework of thought on this subject throughout subsequent Western history. Later humanist thinkers, such as Hugo Grotius, added a pragmatic twist to the moral tale: for a war to be just, it also has to be started with a clear and achievable end in mind.
The problem with humanism is that it ignores human nature. Because it lacks the anthropological insights of St Thomas, it becomes impractical specifically when trying to be practical.
One would have expected Aquinas, ever the realist, to add that pragmatic consideration to his criteria for just war. If the moral aspect of a realistic end to a war was obvious to Grotius, it must have been as obvious to Aquinas – and yet he sagely ignored it.
He must have realised that, whatever desired outcome rulers put forth as justification for war, once the shooting starts the number of imponderable permutations becomes so vast that no man’s reason will be able to sort them out. To quote a renowned modern philosopher, Mike Tyson, “Everyone has a plan until he gets punched in the nose.”
No decent person would deny that Israel’s response passes the Christian test with flying colours. The oasis of Western decency in the region was attacked by savages, and its cause is just. And should a present-day Grotius insist that a moral and achievable end to the war were identified with utmost clarity, Israel could do so with one word: survival.
However, in yesterday’s article Philip Collins cited Grotius to suggest Israel’s cause isn’t necessarily just: “Yet this is where we friends of Israel need to invoke Grotius… not on the grounds that [her war] is wrong in intent but that it cannot hope to succeed. Prudence on this point is not just a problem after the fact. It is part of the moral case for the intervention itself. If an action has no feasible hope of success, the moral case for war is damaged.”
So what would be the solution, according to Messrs Grotius and Collins? “Terrorism,” writes the latter, “cannot be defeated by military means.” That may be true, although it isn’t immediately clear by what other means it can be defeated.
Negotiations, for example, are off the table when one side refuses to recognise the other side’s right to exist. “You cannot negotiate peace with somebody who has come to kill you,” as Golda Meir once put it.
What else? UN resolutions? Paying a king’s ransom in perpetuity? Surrender, the method chosen by Tony Blair when dealing with IRA terrorism? What would Grotius suggest as a way of keeping the moral case for Israel’s war undamaged? Such questions must have occurred to Mr Collins, which is why he changed tack:
“Israel can, and must, choose to maintain the supply of water and electricity to Gaza and continue to issue warnings about forthcoming bombardment.” That’s backtracking three centuries from Grotius to Aquinas’s jus in bello.
So would keeping Gaza in water and electricity somehow clarify the ways of defeating terrorism? Would that satisfy Grotius’s practical criterium of just war? I am confused.
The problem is that, though Collins calls himself a friend of Israel, he is a left-wing friend. That breed is characterised by muddled thinking in general and on the subject of Israel in particular. Israel is like a bull in the ring for them, an animal allowed to fight but usually not allowed to win.
Hence even Israel’s few allies always gang up on her whenever she tries to solve the problem of pan-Arab terrorism by unrestrained violence, which is the only way it can be solved. The current situation is no different.
Jus ad bello in this case means that jus in bello includes every means at Israel’s disposal. If that involves bombing Gaza flat, then so be it. There are no civilians there, only terrorists with blood-dripping machetes and those who dance in the streets every time Israelis are butchered – implacable enemies all.
Invoking Grotius, or else Tolstoy and Gandhi, in today’s context betokens a woeful misreading of Augustine and Aquinas. Good must stop evil, otherwise it itself becomes a sin.
There have been few wars in modern history where the moral lines were drawn with indisputable clarity. Even in the Second World War, the West had to side with red fascism to defeat the brown variety, which might have pleased Grotius but possibly not Aquinas.
We are fortunate in that the two on-going wars, with two of our allies desperately fighting for survival against evil, are an exception. In both wars, qualified good is fighting unqualified evil, which ought to preclude any moral dilemmas.
They only appear when people like Collins muddy the waters, looking for moral problems where none exists. Israel’s war is just, and neither Aquinas nor Grotius would disagree.