Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Just war and the military vocation

I went and listened to Charles Lord Guthrie giving the first of the Lent 2011 Faith Matters lectures at Westminster Cathedral Hall yesterday evening. I have missed out on the more recent series of these lectures, but did go to those of March-April 2009 - you can find me among those contributing to the on-line debates on one or two of those lectures.

At the time of posting, the video of Lord Guthrie's lecture can be found here, but the promised on-line debate is not yet up and running. Lord Guthrie presented what was a quite traditional kind of exposition of the criteria for commencing and then engaging in a just war. His criteria for going to war were: just cause, proportionate cause, right intention, right authority, reasonable likelihood of success and the use of war as a resort when all other efforts to resolve the issue have been exhausted. His criteria for justice during the execution of war were discrimination between those who cause harm and those who do not and proportionality in the use of force and destructive power.

Lord Guthrie recognised the difficulty in applying these criteria to the situation of modern warfare where the complexity of practical judgements made using them might not be as easy as in earlier times. A question that was not asked, but would have been interesting to consider, is that about how these criteria can be used in the conduct of an insurgency - and there can be circumstances where the conduct of such a type of warfare might be as just as the conduct of a conventional conflict.

Given that the common theme to this series of lectures is drawn from Pope Benedict's address at Westminster Hall in September 2010:
Westminster Hall was the scene of an historic event on 17 September 2010. On the eve of Pope Benedict’s visit to our Cathedral, centre of Catholic life in our country, the Holy Father addressed various representatives of public life in a place of great historical significance, reminding us of the often hostile relationship between Church and State. It was here that he called us to an authentic dialogue between faith and reason, between religion and society. “I would invite all of you, therefore, within your respective spheres of influence, to seek ways of promoting and encouraging dialogue between faith and reason at every level of national life”.

my own question was about how the principles of a just war might be reflected into an articulation of what it is that constitutes the vocation of a member of the armed forces. The teaching of n.79 of Vatican II's Constitution Gaudium et Spes offers a context for this question: seems right that laws make humane provisions for the case of those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms, provided however, that they agree to serve the human community in some other way....

Those too who devote themselves to the military service of their country should regard themselves as the agents of security and freedom of peoples. As long as they fulfill this role properly, they are making a genuine contribution to the establishment of peace.
Each year since 1958 an International Military Pilgrimage (and here) has taken place in Lourdes, a pilgrimage that expresses the idea that military service is, correctly understood and lived, a service to peace.

It is very easy to see the conscientious objector as being on the side of peace and the soldier as being on the side of war. But is it possible to use the principles of a just war to produce a more specific articulation of the mission of the soldier that would overcome this polarisation? An individual might be called to one or other of these two ways of life - and the judgement of conscience might be seen as one of judgement of a particular vocation in the specific situation.

Going to a lecture like this is not just about the substance of the lecture and discussion itself. It also gives an opportunity for "meeting" the person of the lecturer, for getting a sense of them as a person. In that sense it is interesting to meet someone of Lord Guthrie's standing - he is a former Chief of the Defence Staff. Though he did insist on the relevance of the theory of a just war for today on the grounds that it provides a reminder that moral and ethical questions should be asked by those who make decisions to go to war, I was a little disappointed in the lack of a deeper justification of this insistence. In part, I think this is because the question was not brought down to the level of the individual soldier as would have been needed to answer my question; in part it was also due to what one might consider quite "conservative" answers in favour of Britain's possessing a nuclear weapon and in favour of the justness of the Falklands conflict. I wondered whether, in retirement, Lord Guthrie might have undertaken a moral assessment of greater depth than was apparent.

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