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Resorting to armed force

09 May 2014

Richard Harries looks at pro-war arguments

In Defence of War
Nigel Biggar
OUP £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50 (Use code CT654 )

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 example.)

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 tickets.

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