Just War and Conscience

'Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then?' ~ Henry David Thoreau

War means death. To kill intentionally, without just cause, is murder. Willful ignorance does not relieve a man from responsibility for the consequences of his actions. One who acts without thinking is a tool, and that tool can be used with equal ease by criminals or saints. The gun is an accessory to the murder. The difference between a just and an unjust war is the difference between a soldier and a murderer.

To be a man is to be responsible. To be a patriot is to demand the best of one's country and to act accordingly. To be a hero is to demand the best of humanity and to act accordingly. When faced with war, the man, the patriot, the hero must demand that his conscience is satisfied; if it is not, he must resist.

Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas and others have attempted to define a "Just War." Their various criteria may be helpful, but they are generally misapplied. The King, the President, or the Prime Minister are not God. The General is not God; nor is the Captain or the Sergeant. No man is God. All men are fallible. All commanders may be unjust rather than just. Indeed, war would cease altogether if some commanders were not the agents of injustice. Therefore, the decision on whether a war is just or unjust must be made in the conscience of each soldier and each supporter of a war. If, in good conscience, a soldier or potential supporter of a war finds the fighting is unjust, he must resist.

Adolph Hitler and the Nazis during World War II are commonly used as a clear example of an unjust war. But how many men did Hitler actually kill? How many times did Hitler pull the trigger? How much poison gas did Hitler personally release into the gas chambers? The reality is that Hitler did nothing but talk and threaten. Hitler alone was no more harmful than the average bigot. The atrocity of World War II was the tremendous failure of common men to act conscientiously. The atrocity was that soldiers did not question their orders. The atrocity was that citizens did not question their leaders. All evil in all wars, indeed all wars could be prevented if common men and common soldiers used their conscience and refused to violate it.

The just soldier, the patriot and the hero will say, 'I can justify no war until it passes the test of my conscience.' This same test is required of any and all participants in any just war.

'The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said, that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience.' ~ Henry David Thoreau

There is no moral obligation to act immorally. The killing in an unjust war is unjustified. It is murder. It is not moral to murder because one has signed a contract or owes a monetary debt or is under some other practical rather than moral obligation. Therefore, there is no moral obligation for a soldier to participate in a war that, that soldier believes to be unjust even if the soldier has other practical obligations to participate.

Circumstances change over time. Our knowledge changes. We may no longer believe what we once believed. The practical facts change. What may have been necessary at one time may no longer be necessary. A cause is not just simply because it used to be just or because we once mistakenly believed it was just. We should not kill the innocent man just because he was on death row. Similarly, a soldier should not continue to participate in a war that he now feels is unjust.

It is not moral to support a murderer simply because the murderer believes he must kill, or because he is under some practical obligation to murder. Similarly, one should not "support the troops" in an unjust cause. In the case of an unjust war, one should encourage the troops to act morally and therefore, to resist. It is immoral to say, 'I do not believe the war is justified, but I support the troops.' German citizens should not have "supported the troops" when they turned on the gas in the chambers, yet it is precisely this "support for the troops" that enabled the Nazi atrocities to continue.

Commanders are not God. The commander's conscience is not more moral because he is a commander. An unjust cause is not made just simply because others are tricked into believing in it, or because they are coerced into saying the cause is just. Those who are tricked or coerced into supporting a war as a "just cause" would, in truth, believe it to be an unjust cause. Therefore, those commanders who use deception and coercion to cause participants to make an incorrect conscientious decision regarding a war have ensured that the war they are attempting to prosecute will be unjust. In fact, the war will be unjust in exact proportion to the degree the deception and coercion was successful.

These then, are the requirements of a just war:

1. All participants at all times believe, according to their conscience, that their actions are just. All participants can, for reasons of conscience, refuse any order and can completely stop participating at any time.

2. No participant is, at any time, under any obligation, but to do what he believes is just. There is no risk to soldiers of negative repercussions from their commanders for refusing orders, stopping participation, or otherwise acting according to their conscience.

3. Commanders have not misled or coerced the participants into giving their conscientious support for the war.

A war is unjust precisely to the degree to which these criteria are not met.

I have been told by many military men that prosecuting a war under these conditions would be impossible. Armies could not be raised. Soldiers would not risk their lives. "We" cannot afford to be just because "they" are even less just. Therein lies the rub, and the irony. For "they" are saying exactly the same thing about "us." This logic traps humanity in a terminal spiral of injustice and war. Increasing numbers of people and ever smaller groups are acquiring the capability to fight in a way that will soon make humanity extinct. The law of entropy ensures that this proliferation of lethal knowledge will continue. It does no good to win the war and lose humanity. If there is truly a just cause, a war could and should be fought under the "just war" criteria I have described. A war that cannot be fought under these criteria is not worth winning because even that win would be the first step in a far greater loss. We must break the cycle. Only a commitment to justice and conscientious action can save us.

Your rating: None
David Wiggins's picture
Columns on STR: 12

David Wiggins is a West Point honor graduate and an honors graduate of New York Medical College. He left the Army as a Conscientious Objector, resigning his commission as an Army Captain on the Iraqi front lines during Operation Desert Storm. He is currently an Emergency Physician.  Visit his website at http://davidwiggins.net