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Tuesday, 30 August 2011

How do you know that a war is a war?

 The following post was put up on an Ekklesia Project website  in response to the Nobel Peace Prize address by President Obama in 2009 and is now about to be taken down. I have reproduced Stanley Hauerwas's comments because there are a couple of critical issues he raises that I think  are worth noting.

You tube Obama speech 

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

How Do You Know a War is a War?

by Stanley Hauerwas
Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at the
Divinity School of Duke University

I think President Obama’s speech was remarkable. It was so because he makes articulate the defense of war and that is unusual for someone in his position. But the kind of defense he makes, he admirably acknowledges, is required by his being in a particular position, that is, the Presidency of the United States. The question for Christians is: how did he get in that position? Could he have been elected if he had said something as basic as “I am a Christian and Christians have a problem with war”?

Instead Obama says what a President is required to say. As head of a state he reserves the right to unilaterally go to war if the people he has pledged to protect are in jeopardy. Yet he well knows he is not the head of just any state, but America. He clearly thinks that to the extent “peace is possible,” America has done it. He is, therefore, not hesitant to represent a country that thinks it is in control of history. Thus his claim early in the speech that he believes we can bend history in the direction of justice. That seems such a worthy ideal, but it hides an arrogance that can result in imperialism.

There is, however, another perspective that suffuses the rhetoric of the speech. He genuinely feels the horror of war. Nowhere is his humanity revealed more clearly than in the paragraph early in the speech in which he acknowledges that because we are at war some will be killed, but others will have to kill. I thought it quite telling for him to recognize that part of the tragedy of war is not that you may be killed but that you may have to kill. The pathos of such a recognition can be a resource to make war less likely.

But there is a deep conceptual issue that he does not raise concerning war. That issue is: how do you know a war is a war? He begins with the claim that war in one form or another appeared with the first man. One assumes he’s referring to Cain and Abel. But what happened between Cain and Abel was not war. It was murder. His lack of clarity about what distinguishes war from other kinds of violence becomes the basis for his claim that because evil exists then war is necessary. Thus his suggestion that war is simply “there,” requiring acknowledgement. To recognize the necessity of war is to simply acknowledge history. But that is simply an assertion without argument.

I realize it seems odd, but I think one of the crucial critical questions for those that would so justify war is to ask them what they mean by “war.” I have tried to raise the question by asking, “If a war is not just, what is it?” The question is designed to challenge the assumption that war is just “out there.” Those who use just war criteria often seem to assume war is just “out there.” You then see how many of the criteria work, but even if you only get two out of six (depending on how you count) it is assumed it is still a war and therefore has moral justification. But why should that be assumed? If a war deserves the description “war” surely it must have been just from the beginning.

Though Obama assumes war is a necessary response to evil, he also thinks it can be regulated by just war considerations. He notes that later philosophers, clerics, and statesmen sought to regulate the destructive power of war, resulting in the development of just war criteria. But it is interesting that in turning to the criteria he doesn’t offer a clear statement of all the criteria. In particular he does not mention that the war must be declared by a legitimate authority, that the aims of the war must be declared to the enemy, and the intention to go to war cannot be different than the declaration. These criteria are very important if “just war,” as Paul Ramsey argued, is to be limited by making war serve a limited political end. That the intention to go to war be declared means, moreover, that war can never be fought for unconditional surrender. These are the kinds of considerations that Obama should have engaged if he was to give us a better understanding of what he means by war.

I suspect Obama thinks the crucial moral distinction is between wars between armies and wars between nations where civilians become blurred with combatants. He certainly would prefer wars between armies, and he may think just war is closer to that. But he needs to be clearer than he was in this speech about why he prefers the former. One assumes it is primarily because the latter involves civilian deaths.

While acknowledging the importance of King and Gandhi he nonetheless thinks that, though it is an evil, war is necessary and as he puts is,” it is on some level an expression of human feeling.” I have no idea what he means by “an expression of human feeling,” though I assume it suggests that there is a justice that shapes the necessity to go to war. He even underwrites the view that war is somehow fought for peace. But if just war thinkers are correct, the idea that war should be fought for peace is a mistake. War should not be fought for peace, but rather for relative justice. If Reinhold Niebuhr is informing his understanding of the necessity of war, it seems that we should be a bit more “realistic”.

Of course the idealism that is shaping his justification for war is extremely dangerous. Thus his claim that a “just peace” should be based on the inherent right and dignity of every individual. He then underwrites the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a basis for accomplishing the peace that war makes possible. But to make rights the rationale for going to war will make war even more difficult to control. It may be, as he maintains, that peace is unstable if most rights are denied. But it is just as likely that claims for rights will lead to what some call war.

Obama’s idealism, I thought, was most apparent in the paragraph where he praises Nixon for dealing with Mao, John Paul II for reaching out to Walesa, and Reagan for his embrace of perestroika. He is right, of course, that you never get to choose between good and evil, but it seems to me he’s going to need a more complex case than the examples this paragraph provides. He needs better examples because of the claim that America is exceptional just to the extent that we were always an aspiration with commitments that are universal. That is a deep unrealism that can lead to war. So his speech comes full circle, back to the beginning in which he asserts that America is the people who have bent history in the direction of justice.

That the speech ends with appeals to love I suppose seems a good. But, again, I worry that such appeals make peace an ideal which war becomes the means to achieve.

Overall I think this is a remarkable speech that we would all do well to attend to. I plan to use it as the first reading for a seminar on War and Peace I will be teaching next semester. I continue to think that peace should be a more determinative reality than war. And hopefully Obama’s articulate defense of war will provide grist for that mill.

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