Monday, April 27, 2009

The sad reality of an oxymoron: Just War Theory

Being a peace lover at heart, I’ve never cared for the concept of just war theory. Even the thought of self-defense gives me pause. Who can say my life is more valuable than one which may threaten my physical existence? Not that I am a fan of pain; far from it! But after one too many (another oxymoron!) news stories of a paranoid homeowner killing a burglar to protect his ‘stuff’…well, that slippery slope just gets slipperier. Where do we draw the line?

Hugo Grotius (aka Huig de Groot) laid out one of the first complete definitions of the modern just war theory in his 1625 The Law of War and Peace when he outlined the law of nature versus the law of nations. Contrary to Thomas Hobbes’ later contention in Leviathan that man is a creature of ‘Warre,’ Grotius preferred the idea of man possessing “an impelling desire for society” rather than battle. He traced the development of modern laws from covenants and pacts which arose naturally in the evolution of communities, noting that humanity needed such agreements – the social contracts – for the “maintenance of social order.” Grotius took this form of “mutual consent” a step further, to the relations between nations, insisting that “the state which transgresses the laws of nature and of nations cuts away also the bulwarks which safeguard its own future peace.” He found the only acceptable cause for a just war was in fact self-defense and then went on to lay out strict guidelines for the conduct of such a war, including the safety of non-combatants, the “moderation of laying waste” of enemy lands, property rights, and the peaceful passage of mediators, among other rules. Grotius’ comment that “I observed that men rush to arms for slight causes, or no cause at all, and that when arms have once been taken up there is no longer any respect for law, divine or human” is an eerie reflection of our world today.

Just war theory has had many proponents over the centuries from Cicero to Aquinas to Kant, as well as other more recent philosophers, but most seem to ignore the possibility that the concept is the oxymoron I feel it to be. Pacifism has acquired a negative connotation, especially in the past eight years and even with Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as notable role models. Thich Nhat Hanh offers a current view of peaceful coexistence that we would do well to emulate and I cling to such examples in an increasingly confrontational and violent world. Until mankind accepts that life is indeed transitory, that we will all die some day, and that ‘stuff’ is never more important than life, there will be those who will continue asserting the validity of just war theory. I guess the rest of us are left to take comfort in what little restraint it offers.

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