Just War, Civilians, and Double Effect

In the announcement last month of its policy for the use, or threatened use, of weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration said that it would retain "all options." This includes preemptive military action and "overwhelming force" -- meaning the threat of nuclear weapons. While the strategic necessity of retaining "all options" is understandable, the policy raises critical questions. Is our announced policy justified under just war doctrine -- a Christian doctrine that has shaped Western thinking for 1,600 years? Two weeks ago, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called eight religious leaders in to discuss just such questions. At the meeting, I told the secretary that preemption can be justified. Just war doesn't require us to wait until we have been attacked to respond. In the case of Iraq, we know that Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction. We also know that there is a disposition for terrorists to use those weapons against us; they proved that on September 11, 2001. If there's evidence that Saddam is willing to give the terrorists access to his weapons, we are clearly justified in taking preemptive action. However, such justification isn't the only requirement of the just war doctrine. It also requires that civilians not be targeted and that unintentional civilian casualties be kept to a minimum. Our military's effort to do this in Afghanistan has been commendable. The problem in Iraq is that the facilities housing the weapons of mass destruction are deliberately located in civilian areas, in part to deter our attacks. If we had to respond, horrible as it is to contemplate, we could not avoid some civilian casualties. In a commentary on December 16, I cited the use of the atomic bomb against Japan as precedent to justify such an attack. We hit two civilian cities, but the bomb saved more lives than it took -- and, therefore, was justified. My good friend Dr. J. Budziszewski at the University of Texas challenged my reasoning correctly. He said that I came too close to justifying evil -- that is, the targeting of civilians -- so that good -- that is, preventing terrorist attacks -- might result. As Budziszewski pointed out, St. Paul, in Romans 3, condemned this idea. I stand corrected: Nagasaki and Hiroshima are not good precedents. But any such use of weapons on our part now would have to be aimed only at military targets. Our intent must be clear, even if there are unintended civilian casualties. Some Christian ethicists refer to this as the "double effect," in which a morally justifiable action has undesirable, even sometimes foreseeable, side effects -- but never effects deliberately intended. This means striking military targets with surgical precision that, so far, this Defense Department has gone to great lengths to do. This is one of the toughest issues our policy makers have to wrestle with. We can be thankful that they are weighing the moral questions involved. And Christians must weigh them as well. As the debate rages on, it is our task to use our biblically informed worldview and the moral reasoning that flows from it to speak to the moral issues -- not just with policy-makers, but with our neighbors as well. For further reading and information: "A Decade of Deception and Defiance" is the background paper for President George W. Bush's September 12 speech before the United Nations General Assembly, providing examples of how Saddam Hussein has violated sixteen United Nations Security Council resolutions over the past ten years. Also see the White House Iraq update page. BreakPoint Commentary No. 021216, "Fighting Fire with Fire: Weapons of Mass Destruction and National Security."
  1. Budziszewski, "Just War Revisited: Another Look at Just War Doctrine," BreakPoint Online, 17 December 2002.
Also see BreakPoint's "Fact Sheet on Just War Theory." William Bennett, Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism (Doubleday, 2002). "Security in Dangerous Times" -- In this interview with "BreakPoint" managing editor Jim Tonkowich, Edwin Meese III brings his experience and faith in Christ to bear on issues of terrorism today. Meese was U.S. Attorney General during the Reagan administration and currently is a distinguished fellow holding the Ronald Reagan Chair in Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. This CD also includes a speech, "Just War Tradition and the New War on Terrorism," by Wilberforce Forum board of reference member Dr. Jean Bethke Elshtain. Vernon Loeb, "Bursts of Brilliance," Washington Post Magazine, 15 December 2002, W06. David E. Sanger, "Bush Welcomes Slower Approach to North Korea," New York Times, 7 January 2003 (free registration required).


Chuck Colson



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