Israel on Gaza, On the Moral Justification for War

Israel on Gaza, On the Moral Justification for War

Saturday, May 18, 2024 7:55 pm

Opeyemi Oniya

Opeyemi Oniya, Sr

Opeyemi Oniya, Sr

The following treatise is not designed to look at the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) war in Gaza from a perspective of wrong or right, but to proffer an analysis of the ‘just war theory’ for the reader to consume and make his or her own inference(s) as to this war and contemporary international society. And as issues pertinent to the war have been brought before the International Court of Justice. And, too, beyond the political, of the overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe witnessed and being witnessed in Gaza, and amongst the Palestinian people.

“…So there’s really no reason today to be leery

Of applying traditional just-warfare theory.

No thinker today need feel any shyness

About using the wisdom of Thomas Aquinas,

We can’t know for certain when war may be just –

We just ponder and pray – and then do what we must.”

(W. A. Douglas – Just War or Just Murder)

The use of force or violence is the ultimate weapon in the foreign policy practices of nations. And pointedly, this is the language of war. Thucydides (in The History of the Peloponnesian War) chronicles the issues, the circumstances, the declaration and the inevitability of war. From Athens to Sparta, and to modern times the etiology of war has been fascinating and remains a preoccupation of contemporary international society, and an intrinsic part in the study of international relations. The phenomenon of war in its political utility can be examined from Clausewitz’s perspective on the instrumentality of the use and the monopoly of the agency of violence as an end, or the only end, to political quagmires. Why must recourse to violence be the only means to resolving issues of politics? And can arguments really be made about war as being Just or Unjust?

David Hendrickson (1997) and Robert Myers (1996) in their very extensive commentaries on the literature and Michael Walzer’s (1977) Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument With Historical Illustrations make a compendious case for an elucidation of ideals pertinent to the issues of morality and the justification for war. Realism, in international relations, advances the ideal that the primary issue in world politics is the pursuit of power and security. Therefore, the nation-state must engage in the utility of the use of violence (war) and threat thereof, and other realpolitik leverages as legitimate means in the pursuit of self-preservation. The underlining cognition relates to the Hobbesian state of nature, and the assumed anarchical nature of the international situation of states. Translated, realism argues from necessity, seeks to interpret reality in its own ideal, solve problems and lay the basis for international order.

Robert Myers, quoting Donald Kagan in On the Origins of Wars as asserting that people go to war out of “honor, fear, and interest”, questions the rationale of how we got into the idea of justice in war. The ‘just’ has ecclesiastical flavor dating back to the time of church-state relationship in Europe. As Myers puts it (paraphrasing Manent): “A state could declare war under any circumstances as a Machiavellian ‘necessity’ and leave the matter there. In practice, however, as a way of assuring domestic support and at least a minimum of international understanding and acquiescence, the state preferred to co-opt the moral authority of the Church. The Church, in turn, to keep its sword sharp, bustled in with piety and moral approval.”

Hence, the call to war in response to any of the three causes above demands a statement of “right” as being on the side of the initiator. That is, a declaration of war being right ought to be the idea of justice in war. Therefore, if a war is right, it must be just. Myers, again, asserts: “The goal of just war theory then is to limit the frequency of war and to burden conduct with moral opprobrium when just war rules are not followed. But why would anyone want to follow rules that interfere with victory and retribution, which often figure in the way enemies, old and new, pursue their aims once they have crossed the dangerous Rubicon of war? Can we – should we – judge the justice of wars on Basis of an unsound, perhaps immoral theory?”

Immoral? Perhaps, since for the realist or the politician of the ‘power politics’ school, whose preeminent worldview is primarily that of order and security, the question of immorality is not one of policy. With Kantian insight, what is deem right is right, and if a war is right the issue of morality does not arise. As Hendrickson reports: “In this world, right and wrong, justice and injustice, have no place. If war belongs to the realm of necessity, it makes no more sense to pass moral judgment on it than it would to pass moral judgment on catastrophes occurring in nature. These catastrophes – a flood or an earthquake – may have awful consequences, but they cannot pose moral dilemmas. They are neither just nor unjust. Realism is considered to say the same of war.”

The invocation of public safety and supreme emergency (salus populi suprema lex est) makes a declaration of war purposeful, and morality or legal constraints become non intrinsic – they do not matter! As Hendrickson (quoting Jefferson and Walzer) reminds us: “strict observance of the written laws is doubtless one of the high duties of a good citizen, but it is not the highest. The laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation.” “The survival and freedom of political communities – whose members share a way of life, developed by their ancestors, to be passed on to their children – are the highest values of international society.”

Primordially, then, morality for nations, on the invocation of public safety and supreme emergency, is a non-issue. War, per se, is just. In converse to the foregoing, for example, the “positive peace” agenda seeks a more social explanation of peace in terms of value judgment or the quality of societal interaction – as in contemporary western societies to see it as an issue of social equality, democracy and justice. The Catholic Pastoral Constitution declares the need to evaluate war within the context of human dignity as a fundamental imperative of the social, economic, and political world order. “The Catholic tradition has always understood the meaning of peace in positive terms. Peace is both a gift of God and a human work. It must be constructed on the basis of central human values: truth, justice, freedom, and love.”

Beyond the human capacity to prevent war, there will always be one. But for the Christian it must be just. Morality in international politics, particularly on questions of war, must not be an abstract, since imperfect man sees no gray areas in the human dimension. For in temporal affairs, the political antenna of the politician can be disguised as a moral one, and vice versa. In St. Augustine’s parlance (The Challenge of Peace): “…War was both the result of sin and a tragic remedy for sin in the life of political societies. War arose from disordered ambitions, but it could also be used, in some cases at least, to restrain evil and protect the innocent.” Hence the moral theory of the “just war”. If war must be, then the policy argument must be morally permissible. In The Challenge of Peace – “The determination of when conditions exist which allow the resort to force, in spite of the strong presumption against it, is made in light of jus ad bellum (the justice of war) criteria. The determination of how even a justified resort to force must be concluded is made in light of the jus in bello (just and fair conduct in war) criteria.”

So, war is evil and reprehensible but has not been banished out of human experience. Therefore, the Church and the United Nations establish a strong premise against war, which can only be abridged in morally justified circumstances. And in this regard, the jus ad bellum and jus in bello regime is operational. John Rourke (Taking Sides – Clashing Views On Controversial Issues in World Politics) summaries: “World opinion is less willing to tolerate injustices, whether they are suppression of democracy in Haiti, starvation amid civil war in Somalia, or ethnic cleansing in Bosnia or Kosovo…The U.S. administration made strategic arguments for some of these interventions…Humanitarianism was also cited as a reason to act…When President Bill Clinton went on television to justify to the American people his decision to commit U.S. troops in Bosnia, he told them that for strategic and humanitarian reasons, ‘It is the right thing to do.’…The ethnic cleansing and other tragedies only ended in Bosnia after a UN-authorized intervention led by the United States.” And in Gaza, today – what?

The issue of moral justification in war is not a simple one. Like our currency, to be genuine and legal tender both sides must be embossed. As William Douglas reminds us – What Might Make Right?: “When principles of justice oft’ conflict, And moral rules each other contradict, Depending which priorities apply, Some will live, and others surely die.”


Opeyemi Oniya Sr. teaches Microbiology and Biology in the U.S.A.

[email protected]

Join The Conversation

What do you think?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.