In Defence of War
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THIS is an important book. It is also a brave one. Nigel Biggar
not only argues that the allies were morally justified in going to
war against Germany in 1914-18: he defends Earl Haig, and maintains
that even the horrific casualties of the Somme were not wasted.
Nearer our own time, in a long section on the overthrow of Saddam
Hussein, Biggar defends Tony Blair, and sets out the case that this
was a just war.
As Biggar makes clear, his book is not, however, a fully
comprehensive treatment of just-war theory. He does not deal with
nuclear weapons, for example, nor with revolutionary violence.
Nevertheless, on the key issues that he does discuss, it has all
his great intellectual virtues - in-depth, detailed analysis,
careful critiques, and a willingness to weigh up fairly the
arguments against his own. An interesting feature of this book is
that the author admits that he has always been interested in the
subject of war, and he uses a good range of quotations from
soldiers in the field to make his points.
He begins by pointing out the wishful thinking that besets so
much Christian thinking about these issues, and the failure to face
the world honestly as it is in all its brutality. Pacifists must
recognise that, if military action has a cost, so often has the
failure to take it when it might save many lives. He then goes on
to show that a pacifist reading of the New Testament as put forward
by Hauerwas, Yoder, and Hays does not do justice to the text as a
whole. I would have liked some more discussion here on the now
unfashionable subject how far the ethical teaching of Jesus was
shaped by eschatological considerations.
Biggar also shows that taking military action is entirely
compatible with the teaching of Jesus about love and forgiveness.
War, he argues, can be fought in a spirit of love, and he has some
telling quotations from the battlefield to show this.
There is a significant chapter on the just-war criteria, their
historical origin and meaning today, and then one distinguishing a
Christian just-war tradition, rooted in the moral law, from a more
secular one based on a legal positivism. Finally, there is the
substantial defence of the 2003 war in Iraq, which at the same time
acknowledges that the planning for what happened after the invasion
was very poor.
I am glad that Biggar has set out such a strong case for the
just-war tradition, because, far from being obsolete, as so many
suggest, it has never been more relevant. One example is the way in
which the criteria that were suggested by the United Nations High
Level Panel in relation to their responsibility to protect are
virtually those of the Christian tradition.
I am also glad that Biggar has made this defence of Mr Blair's
decision to go to war against Iraq; for there is a reasonable case
to be made out for it, and it is unfair for him to be traduced and
vilified in the way that he has. Nevertheless, I think the
judgement to go to war, though honourably taken, was a tragic
misjudgement. First, even if a case could be made out that the war
was legal, which many would dispute, it did not have the kind of
consensus among responsible nations that, in the modern world, must
be present as an indicator of the first criterion, namely,
legitimate authority. (Germany and France were opposed, for
Second, even if there are extreme situations where it is morally
right to go to war even without a UN mandate - and Kosovo is a
campaign that Biggar defends as an example of this, as I would -
there were four pertinent aspects in which Kosovo differed from
Iraq. As Michael Quinlan put it: it was directed to halting an
immediate and manifest humanitarian outrage in full swing: it was
not a regime changing invasion; it was supported by the great
majority of countries in the region, and a wide international
grouping of major countries and validated soon afterwards by the
United Nations itself; and the UN Secretary General, not long
before, had publicly recognised that the Kosovo situation was a
threat to international peace and security.
Similar questions can be raised about the other just-war
criteria in relation to the Iraq war, not least the question of
proportionality, the overall judgement about the balance of goods
and ills. It is important, however, that the case for the justice
of that war be fully and carefully set out, and Biggar has done
this in an exemplary manner.
Nevertheless, it remains a fact that the two most distinguished
just-war thinkers of our time, Michael Quinlan and Michael Howard,
both powerful defenders of the use or threat of force when
justified, did not think that the Iraq war fulfilled the criteria
for a just war.
The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is the author
of Christianity and War in a Nuclear Age (Mowbray,
1986). Lord Harries and Professor Biggar are appearing at
the Bloxham festival at the end of this month: www.bloxhamfaithandliterature.co.uk for