John Howard Yoder was a well-known Anabaptist theologian and ethicist. In his little book When War Is Unjust (Augsburg 1984), he makes an indirect case for pacifism. He tries, by process of elimination, to establish pacifism by unhorsing its leading contender, the just-war doctrine.
And he goes about this by contending that no one really believe in just-war theory in actual practice. What makes a just war just is the satisfaction of just-war criteria. But he says that, in real world situations, the field commander or just-war theorist finds it necessary to fudge in various ways, and define downward the just-war criteria, with no principled least-lower threshold.
The one compelling objection to pacifism is that pacifism is unrealistic. Yoder’s counterargument is that just-war theory is unrealistic as well, so in that primary respect, just-war theory enjoys no advantage over pacifism.
This is an interesting argument, but the obvious counterargument is that pacifism is not the only alternative, that if just-war theory is unrealistic, then we can move in the direction, not of pacifism, but of a toughened-up version of just-war theory.
Yet Yoder will counter that when you try to introduce more flexibility into just-war criteria, you end up with no clear criteria whatsoever; instead, you’re left with a sliding scale in which you do whatever the enemy does, to win at any cost, by any means.
The heart of his book is chapter 5. Although few believers will be won over to pacifism, it is useful to test and refine our position against a critic like Yoder. He helps to keep us intellectually honest, from slipping into special-pleading, slack reasoning and a moral freefall.
Yoder lays out a number of examples where theory and praxis loosens up just-war criteria:
He notes that this distinction breaks down in guerrilla warfare. He also cites George Orwell as saying that "it is better to get the war over quickly by whatever means—once you have resolved to accept war at all—rather than let it be strung out and its total destructiveness increased by placing artificial limits on your most effective weapons. When the enemy's troops are draftees, they may well be no less morally 'innocent' than the aged. What should a war be better which kills only healthy young men" (58).
To add an illustration of my own, Paul Linebarger, although a Cold Warrior, was opposed to the Viet Nam war on the grounds that little wars don't change very much. What he seems to mean is that only a big enough war to shift the geostrategic balance for the better justifies all the inevitable mayhem.
These are good questions, well worth weighing. But how do they constitute an argument for pacifism? True, they're inconsistent with classic just-war theory, but let us not fall into the semantic trap of supposing that a war is only "just" if it coincides with "just-war" criteria. Many words have both general and special senses. The fact that we use the word "just" to designation a particular theory of warfare does not, of itself, render any deviation from that model morally unjust.
Perhaps, though, Yoder would say that a war cannot be just unless it can draw some distinction between the innocent and the guilty, and that once we make allowance for guerrilla warfare or Orwellian efficiency, that distinction is obliterated.
But this does not necessarily follow. To begin with, what about the distinction between the subject and the object of guerilla warfare? The subject (a guerilla warrior) is capable of distinguishing between strategic and nonstrategic targets. That is both a principled and practical distinction.
As to the object, this does indeed make it more difficult to draw such a distinction, but whose responsibility is that? If the enemy makes it practically impossible to distinguish between strategic and nonstrategic targets, then how is he entitled to benefit from that distinction? He has only himself to blame.
As to Orwell's point, this draws a distinction between indiscriminate killing to save more lives in the long run. That is both a principled and practical distinction. And it can still be limited to strategic objectives.
To absolutize the immunity of noncombatants and then hold that against the principle of national self-defense misses a much deeper point. It is in the very nature of evil that evil entails a certain amount of innocent suffering. We call this gratuitous evil. And evil imposes tragic choices on good men.
The pacifist tradition is naturally aghast at the atrocities of war, and at the rather ruthless expedients that both sides resort to in order to win. If the compelling argument against pacifism is its lack of realism, the compelling argument for pacifism is the slaughter of the innocents.
But this argument, while having great emotional power, really misses the point. For pacifism offers no practical alternative.
The whole world is not going to lay down its arms. If one side surrenders, that does not prevent the invading army from committing rape, murder, and torture. Indeed, without fear of retaliation, that may embolden the conquerors to commit atrocities with impunity, for no one is prepared to fight back, either now or in the future.
Yoder's objection is that this criterion can be lowered from any means necessary to any means useful, "giving oneself carte blanche for any destruction that is not purely wanton or wasteful" (59).
Again, this may or may not be a step back from classic just-war criteria, but how is that an argument for pacifism?
The problem here is that the criterion of proportionality fails to distinguish between retribution and deterrence. As a principle of justice, retribution should be roughly proportionate to the provocation. But a commander may employ disproportionate force, not as a punitive measure, but as a way of disarming and disabling the enemy from future aggression. Retribution limits retaliation, but it is not a tactical or strategic principle.
Again, if the question at issue is whether it is ever moral to wage war, then distinctions that deviate from the traditional paradigm do not necessarily invalidate the possibility of a just war. They must be judged on their own merits.
3. Provoked/unprovoked warfare.
Here, Yoder addresses the view that if one side breaks the rules of warfare, then that releases the other side from abiding by the rules. This, he says, reflects social-contract theory. As he goes on to summarize the position,
"What those conventions forbid is not wrong morally and intrinsically, it is wrong conventionally between two parties who, in the interest of both, have agreed to fight by those rules. If, however, the other side breaks the rules, the deal is off and we are no longer bound to them either…While we still claim to be more moral than they, we descend to fight by their rules" (59--60).
But it is hard to see how the way he ends his analysis is justified by the way he begins it. The point is not that we are free to do to them whatever they do to us, as long as they did it first.
The point, rather, as he himself states it, is that certain agreements are entered into for the benefit of both parties, and if one party is in breech, then that voids the original rationale. There is nothing inherently wrong with changing your policy in light of changing circumstances, especially if the other side has violated the letter and spirit of the original understanding.
In addition, it is hard to see how the Geneva conventions and other modern treaties have any bearing on classic just-war theory, which is an artifact of medieval moral theology.
But there's a deeper issue as well. The party to make the first move has the most options, for by making the first move, it is free to choose from all of the available options. And by exercising its option, it takes that option out of play for the second party.
When one nation wages an unprovoked war against another, it may leave the innocent party with few, if any, good options. The innocent party no longer has the luxury of either doing nothing or doing good. Rather, it must now play the hand it's been dealt. If it's been dealt a bad hand, it must make the best of a bad situation. The damage has already been done, and now it's a question of damage-control.
Unprovoked aggression, or the credible threat thereof, makes good men to do things in self-defense that they would not normally do, things that the abhor having to do. This was forced upon them by the impending threat or actual aggression. They were painted into a corner not of their own choosing. Hence, their preemptive or counter-offensive measures are forced rather than free options.
4. Demonizing the enemy.
As Yoder summarizes this position,
"Michael Walzer was ready to admit a 'supreme' emergency argument in favor of the massive bombing of German cities, because a Nazi victory—more than most losses in war—would have meant the end of certain basic values of Western civilization…for it to be convincing one must have made some previous global judgments about Nazism and civilization.
Once more we can discern here a shift from intrinsic morality to contractual thinking. We are not obligated to respect the humanity of the enemy population because they are human, but only because they have committed themselves to carry on the combat according to our rules. If their rulers deny our basic value system, then the enemies forfeit the privilege of our respect. It is a…conditional right which they earned by meeting us on our terrain…'Savages' and 'outlaws' have no rights" (61-62).
But this is a very tendentious and not especially coherent summary and judgment. It is true, of course, that Walzer's position is predicated upon a particular value-system, but, in the nature of the case, that is true of any value-judgment, including Yoder's.
And it is a little hard to see how Yoder can lodge this criticism and at the same time suppose that we should honor the value-system of the enemy, for this—of itself—presupposes a global standard of human rights, under which both the Axis and Allied powers are subsumed.
Beyond that, Yoder then indulges in caricature. Warfare does not assume that you must dehumanize the enemy. To the contrary, it may just as well assume that because the enemy is human, he is morally responsible for his own actions.
And surely, too, there is a valid distinction to be drawn between human rights and civil rights, between what is—on the one hand—universal and inalienable, and what is—on the other hand—contingent on being a responsible member of society.
Why, indeed, should outlaws be entitled to due process when they don't believe in the rule of law, and play the system to destroy the system, invoking their rights to deny the same rights to others?
5. Situational ethics.
Under this heading, Yoder discusses what he is pleased to brand an anti-intellectual appeal to common sense realism. As he puts it:
"'In a combat situation there is no time for complicated calculation of possibilities'; or, 'When the lives of my men are at stake, philosophy is not very convincing.'
The normal penchant of the human heart for such excuses is precisely why we need rules. Precisely because there is not much time, decision-makers need reminders of the fundamental rights of the other parties in the conflict, which remain even in the midst of unavoidable conflict. Precisely because abstract analysis is not appropriate or easy under fire, the limits of our entitlement to destroy our fellows' lives and property need to be formulated firmly ahead of time so as to be our (partially, but not infinitely) justified self-interest (62).
Although this is true in the abstract, it leaves the particulars dangling in thin air. Is it merely an "excuse" that a field commander feels responsible for the lives of the men under his charge? And in drawing the rules, where does the line fall in relation to his pressing concern?
Yoder doesn't answer his own question, although the answer is implicit in his Anabaptist theology. But for the average reader, who is not a doctrinaire pacifist, I suspect his sympathies will lie with the field commander rather than the enemy.
This also illustrates the selective compassion of the pacifist. The pacifist accuses the militarist of blurring the distinction between guilt and innocence. But the pacifist erases the distinction altogether by treating both sides as equally innocent or guilty, as the case may be. Yet the essence is justice is in the distinction between innocence and guilt, and if that cannot always be honored in practice.
Indeed, it is precisely this haughty disdain that justifies the impatience of the field commander. How is a commander supposed to do his job under Yoder's strictures. The answer is that he's not supposed to do his job at all.
But that does nothing to advance Yolder's own position. You cannot draw the rules of war so restrictively that it is impossible for a commander to win.
If you try to, the result will not be to limit the carnage, but to invite utter total war, for a commander will greet Yoder's strictures with well-earned contempt. It will, at most, convince a commander that since there is no common ground between realism and idealism, the only difference between right and wrong is winning and losing. The result is not greater restraint, but the lifting of all restraints whatsoever.
6. The double-effect.
Yoder's chief objection to this principle is that it can become very attenuated and subject to cynical abuse. This is no doubt true, but what of it?
It may well be better, instead of playing semantic games about never intending to target civilian populations, to instead explain the special circumstances under which the targeting of civilian populations is a necessary evil.
7. Nuclear pacifism.
Yoder introduces what was, during the Cold War, a popular argument for unilateral disarmament on the grounds that mutually assured destruction represents a limiting case and reductio ad absurdum of just-war doctrine.
There is, indeed, a certain hypothetical appeal to this objection, but—as always— pacifism can never prevent the circumstances which give rise to this conundrum, or offer a practical alternative. The perennial problem with pacifism is that it only works if you happen to be a pacifist. Pacifism has never pacified a militarist. So it's just a paper theory.
Yes, no one's interest is served if the entire world is blown up, if the only way to defend the human race is to destroy it. Although the logic is impeccable, it does nothing to either forestall or relieve the dilemma.
To begin with, once the technological know-how exists, there is no way of turning back the clock. Even unilateral disarmament would not prevent some madman from pushing the little red button.
So the only deterrent is a very daring and dangerous game of chicken, the hoped-for assumption being that neither side is crazy enough to call the other side's bluff.
Taken to a logical extreme, we are often confronted with moral quandaries and conflicting intuitions. And, frankly, it is only divine providence that can save us from these dead-end scenarios.
8. Unconditional surrender.
Yoder asks the reader if there is "any point at which it would be morally obligatory to surrender rather than to wrongly prosecute a war"? (64). Put that way, the answer is obviously in the affirmative. Indeed, surrender is often a practical necessity, for in every war there are winners and losers, regardless of who was in the wrong.
And yet it turns out to be a trick question, for Yoder immediately talks about the "defense of one's valid interests" through nonviolent means (65). But if these are valid claims and grievances, then what defines the war as unjust?
Of course, it is possible to have valid claims and grievances that do not justify killing or wholesale war. But, being a pacifist, Yoder doesn't bother to sift through these distinctions. Yet since his book is designed to persuade the reader, it is unconvincing for him to leave the questions he raises unanswered, for the average reader—not being a doctrinaire pacifist—may well find answers within the just-war tradition, or some suitable modification thereof.
Yoder also says that "if the only way not to lose a war is to commit a war crime, it is morally right to lose that war" (67). But this is a deception stipulation, for, from the perspective of a pacifist, every act of war and counteroffensive is a war crime.
And there are other moral and practical ambiguities in his imperative. There is, for example, the question of the common good. In most every war you have some atrocities on both sides. Should an entire—otherwise innocent—populace, suffer surrender just because a few of its soldiers committed a war crime? And what if surrender would entail atrocities committed by the invading army and occupying force?
Again, who is surrendering? To whom is he surrendering? And for whom is he surrendering? Are we talking about a foot-soldier? A field commander? A head-of-state? Certain very specific conditions must be in place for a unilateral and unconditional surrender even to be a live option. What mechanism does pacifism propose to supply and satisfy those conditions?
Yoder also says that just-war doctrine can never justify genocide, since this would flagrantly violate the principle of proportionality (67). But even on its own terms, that is not obviously the case. In a war of national survival, where one side is threatening to ethnically cleanse another, a genocidal counteroffensive would be consistent with the principle of proportionality.
And let us note that this was a feature of OT holy war, when God commanded the judicial execution of the Canaanites. Many Christians don't like to talk about this, but the Bible does have a theology of war, and in weighing the strengths and weaknesses of just-war doctrine, as well as pacifism, this cannot be left out of account.
One popular move is to demote OT holy war to an aspect of the ceremonial law. Israel was a type of the holy.
And that is true as far as it goes. But the relation of OT holy war to the moral law cannot be so easily decoupled. Either it was just or unjust of God to command the execution of the Canaanites. Typology alone would not justify this injunction unless it were warranted in the moral law—unless, that is, the Canaanites were indeed guilty and deserving of all such punishment.
And there is more than typology in play. It was necessary for the survival of the remnant. Peaceful coexistence between the godly and ungodly, while tenable in the short-term, degenerates over the long haul—for the ungodly gain the upper hand and seek to extirpate the elect. That is why God brought the flood. That is why God rained down fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah.
My immediate point is not to make a case for the continuity of holy war. For now, it is sufficient to argue from the greater to the lesser. If the greater was justified in the eyes of God, then surely the lesser.
9. Obsolete criteria.
Yoder contends that certain modern-day developments, such as national sovereignty and theologies of revolution, have rendered some of the traditional just-war criteria obsolete. If tyrannicide is ever justified, then that moots the criterion of just authority. Again, the rise of nation-states assigns just cause to national self-interest, in competition with rival states.
Yoder may be right about this, but how is that relevant? On the one hand, any just-war theory has to adapt to the political configurations of the day, since that supplies the concrete context in which wars are fought. But that no more invalidates just-war theory than advances in medical science will invalidate bioethics.
On the other hand, one could also argue that the traditional criteria were right all along, and we should therefore employ these criteria to correct certain modern aberrations. Perhaps national sovereignty should give way to international law. Perhaps tyrannicide should give way to a transnational court.
It is not my aim to argue any of these points. I myself am not a globalist. Rather, the burden is on Yoder to show why such strategies are not available to the just-war theorist.
Yoder raises the question of whether, in a pluralistic society, it is possible to arrive at a democratic consensus regarding the application of just-war criteria.
This is a fair question, but one could pose the same question of pacifism. So the objection either proves too much or too little.