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Shellshocked by the WAR : THINKING ABOUT IT : In a World of Shifting Rationales, Can a War Be Just or Unjust?

February 03, 1991|Martin E. Marty | Martin E. Marty, a professor of religion at the University of Chicago, is a senior editor of the Christian Century

CHICAGO — "It is a just war." On the 13th day of the Gulf War, President George Bush made that pronouncement. In his State of the Union address last week, he repeated the claim: "Our cause is just. Our cause is moral. Our cause is right."

These words were no surprise. For the past 15 centuries, ever since people in the Western world began to use the concept of just or unjust wars, both sides have proclaimed their cause moral and right.

Bush's proclamation was designed to rally the nation before a ground war against Iraq was expected to begin. That stage of the war is almost certain to take a fearful toll in lives. The commander-in-chief needed to reinforce his view of the war's righteousness and to confirm that notion to the American people. All thoughtful citizens--whether they consider the war just or unjust--are forced to continue rationalizing it along with their President.

For Bush, the need for such rationalizing must be urgent. He knows his name will forever be associated with the decision to carry the nation into war. He knows that, as casualties mount, the public will hold him accountable. If the war does not go well, there will be tears of sorrow and rage; the pages of history books bearing his name will be stained. He has to live with himself, his constituents, his allies, his God.

Speaking of God, Bush did just that--as have all Presidents when they set out to rationalize war. Yet by doing so, Bush took risks--and not only among the non-believing minority. Many believers, even those who support Bush's course of action, are edgy about the sort of words he used. Overlooking the mixture of motives that inspires the allied coalition, Bush recently told an audience that, in opposing Iraq, "The world is overwhelmingly on the side of God."

The audience he made this claim to was the National Religious Broadcasters Assn. As evangelists, they work on an opposite assumption: The world needs rescue and souls need saving precisely because the world is overwhelmingly not on the side of God. Though the audience applauded, plenty of their colleagues back home were keeping their fingers crossed, less sure about the world and their cause being so simply on the side of God.

They can all sympathize, however, with the President. Religious leaders and their constituencies join the larger company of those in the ethics professions. These include people in philosophy departments, think tanks and wherever politicians and pundits reflect on rationales for war. They all agonize over the right and wrong of the course.

The religious setting of the President's pronouncement is an issue because it points to a profound set of disagreements in American society. Bush and his advisers know that many religious leaders resisted his carrying America into war and pronounced the war's terms unjust.

After the conflict began, however, the rationalizing took a different cast. Only a few people had it easy assessing the war as a whole. Among these are the pure pacifists--opponents of all wars under any circumstances. They are matched on the opposite side by the equally small minority that feels no pain for civilians in the theater of war, fears no aftermath in a destabilized Middle East and is always ready to "nuke 'em."

The vast majority of citizens, to their credit, speak haltingly. They're of two minds about each aspect of war-making and this war. They will be changing their rationales with the changing fates of the allied coalition.

The notion of such moral vacillation may be shocking to some. Why can't rationales for war be settled "under God," or by changeless philosophical absolutes? Can't the ethicists and moralists find firm grounds for their positions? Why can't they just agree with those critics who persist in reverting to their prewar language about the war's unjust character? Or, conversely, why can't they all follow the self-appointed moral custodians who retire to their think tanks, emerging to announce that the war is morally just?

It seems strange, almost antique, to bring up the concept of "criteria for a just war." These are no part of the U.S. Constitution. They are not in the religious or ethical memory of many coalition partners. These principles have often been neglected--or used, as Bush did, to legitimize already-made choices. But they remain a part of our civilization's heritage.

During the conflict, the idea of pronouncing the whole war just or unjust has to yield to a different framework of moral questioning. This is where piecemeal ethics and piecemeal appraisals come into play. This allows for continuing conscientious inquiry when there are temptations to silence all dissent in the name of patriotism.

Should Catholic bishops, Protestant leaders, concerned pastors and troubled lay people or philosophically trained ethicists be given no bearing when particular acts of war violate their cannons and consciences? Must all moralists give an ethical carte blanche to the military?

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