Lord Guthrie on the Just War tradition

Field Marshal Lord GuthrieIn my recent post on the ethics of chemical vs conventional weapons, I mentioned in passing the view expressed by Field Marshal Lord Guthrie, former Chief of the Defence Staff, that military intervention in Syria would not have been a “Just War”.

This is a subject close to Lord Guthrie’s heart: he and Michael Quinlan published a book in 2007, Just War – The Just War Tradition: Ethics in Modern Warfare, which provides a short overview of the Just War tradition, illustrated with applications to modern conflicts based on Lord Guthrie’s military experience. It’s a short book – less than fifty pages of text – and provides a compact and clear introduction to the Just War tradition.

Guthrie and Quinlan start with a brief history of Christian attitudes towards war. The early church was “predominantly pacifist”, but this changed when Constantine adopted Christianity in the early fourth century. Once Christianity became the religion of emperors (and ultimately the official religion of the state), “Christians had from then on to face up to and work out the tough and awkward practical responsibilities of running a state and protecting its citizens” (p.6). This thinking was articulated, in particular, by St Augustine in the fifth century, and then developed further by St Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth.

Sometimes this is portrayed as the church “selling out” to the state, betraying its earlier principled stance against war. Guthrie and Quinlan present it, though, as a necessary response to a “massive practical problem which ordinary people, or those who carried public responsibilities, could not be asked simply to ignore”, especially in an era like Augustine’s which saw Attila and his Huns sack Rome. As Guthrie and Quinlan observe:

The reality that had to be faced was the pervasive fact of armed aggression and oppression in human affairs … It was no good saying that in a well-ordered world Attila ought not to exist, or that if someone or other had done something different or wiser some time ago he would not have got here. The fact was that he was here, and Christians had to decide what to do about him. (p.7)

Just War theorists concluded that armed resistance to an Attila, say, could not simply be forbidden. Rather, we had to work to find ways in which effective armed resistance could be carried out in “the best moral discipline – the most rational, the most consistent with basic principles of natural law – that careful and prudent thought could devise”.

The result was what Guthrie and Quinlan are careful to refer to as the Just War tradition. They prefer this term to the “Just War doctrine”, because this implies “something handed down from on high, or fixed”:

The tradition is not like that. It is naturally indebted to great thinkers from the past, but it is a living and evolving body of thought, undergoing modification and enriched by addition as understanding widens under the impact of changing circumstances, the challenge of debate, and collective learning from varied new experience.

The tradition is “open, and based upon practical reason and humanity-wide values, not scriptural or institutional authority”. Thus, while it emerged from the Christian tradition (specifically, the western Catholic tradition to which Lord Guthrie is a convert), it has potentially universal application across all religions and cultures. (Guthrie and Quinlan add a very short appendix on Islamic and Jewish approaches to the ethics of war.)

Finally, Guthrie and Quinlan address a point which has often concerned me, and made me reluctant to embrace the concept of “Just War” without qualification. They explain how the concept of “Just War” is not saying that war is ever a positive good. They quote US General Bernard Rogers, who said in a debate in Oxford:

Anyone who has ever been in combat knows that war is a bad and stupid way of doing business. (p.11)

Or as Knut Lier-Hansen, a Norwegian resistance veteran from the second world war, put it (in words quoted by Max Hastings in this FT piece from last weekend):

Though wars can bring adventures which stir the heart, the true nature of war is composed of innumerable personal tragedies, of grief, waste and sacrifice, wholly evil and not redeemed by glory.

But while war may, in itself, be a “great evil” and never “positively good”, the Just War tradition recognises that “it is not always the worst thing”. The criteria that the tradition sets out – jus ad bellum (which Guthrie and Quinlan loosely translate as “the right to fight”) and jus in bello (“how to fight right”) – are intended to help identify those times when war is “not the worst thing”. The remainder of the book then describes those criteria in more detail.

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