Thursday, October 03, 2002

I promised this some time ago but have just now gotten around to typing it up. I have preserved the British punctuation etc. from the original.

The Conditions for a Just War

(as printed in “God in the Dock” by C.S. Lewis.)

Sir, In your January number Mr Mascall mentions six conditions for a just war which have been laid down by ‘theologians’. I have one question to ask and a number of problems to raise about these rules. The question is merely historical. Who are these theologians, and what kind or degree of authority can they claim over members of the Church of England? The problems are more difficult. Condition 4 lays down that ‘it must be morally certain that the loss, to the belligerents, the world, and religion, will not outweigh the advantages of winning’; and 6, that ‘there must be a considerable probability of winning’. It is plain that equally sincere people can differ to any extent and argue for ever as to whether a proposed war fulfills these conditions or not. The practical question, therefore, which faces us is one of authority. Who has the duty of deciding when the conditions are fulfilled, and the right of enforcing his decision? Modern discussions tend to assume without argument that the answer is ‘The private conscience of the individual,’ and that any other answer is immoral and totalitarian. Now it is certain, in some sense, that ‘no duty of obedience can justify a sin,’ as Mr Mascall says. Granted that capital punishment is compatible with Christianity, a Christian may lawfully be a hangman; but he must not hang a man whom he knows to be innocent. But will anyone interpret this to mean that the hangman has the same duty of investigating the prisoner’s guilt which the judge has? If so, no executive can work and no Christian state is possible, which is absurd. I conclude that the hangman has done his duty if he has done his share of the general duty, resting upon all citizens alike, to ensure, so far as in him lies, that we have an honest judicial system; if, in spite of this, and unknowingly, he hands an innocent man, then a sin has been committed, but not by him. This analogy suggests to me that it must be absurd to give to the private citizen the same right and duty of deciding the justice of a given war which rests on governments; and I submit that the rules for determining what wars are just were originally rules for the guidance of princes, not subjects. This does not mean that private persons must obey governments commanding them to do what they know is a sin; but perhaps it does mean (I write with some reluctance) that the ultimate decision as to what the situation at a given moment is in the highly complex field of international affairs is one which must be delegated. No doubt we must make every effort which the constitution allows to ensure a good government and to influence public opinion; but in the long run, the nation, as a nation, must act, and it can act only through its government. (It must be remembered that there are risks in both directions; if war is ever lawful, then peace is sometimes sinful.) What is the alternative? That individuals ignorant of history and strategy should decide for themselves whether condition 6 (‘a considerable probability of winning’) is, or is not, fulfilled?—or that every citizen, neglecting his own vocation and not weighing his capacity, is to become an expert on all the relevant, and often technical, problems?
Decisions by the private conscience of each Christian in the light of Mr Mascall’s six rules would divide Christians from each other and result in no clear Christian witness to the pagan world around us. But a clear Christian witness might be attained in a different way. It all Christians consented to bear arms at the command of the magistrate, and if all, after that, refused to obey anti-Christian orders, should we not get a clear issue? A man is much more certain that he ought not to murder prisoners or bomb civilians that he ever can be about the justice of a war. It is perhaps here that ‘conscientious objections’ ought to begin. I feel certain that one Christian airman shot for refusing to bomb enemy civilians would be a more effective martyr (in the etymological sense of the word) than a hundred Christians in jail for refusing to join the army.
Christendom has made two efforts to deal with the evil of war—chivalry and pacifism. Neither succeeded. But I doubt whether chivalry has such an unbroken record of failure as pacifism.
The question is a very dark one. I should welcome about equally refutation, or development, of what I have said.


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