Is the War in Afghanistan a Just War?

Last week a friend phoned me to describe a bumper sticker she had noticed on a car in the parking lot of a local mall. Playing off a familiar query, it posed this question: “What would Jesus bomb?” It’s a disturbing question because few of us can imagine the Jesus who blessed little children, and chose for himself to absorb violence rather than dish it out, would ever give a thumbs-up to fully armed commandos in camouflage. But it’s also in some ways an irritating question, because it does not seem to acknowledge the complexities of living in a fallen world.


Christians have normally been deeply troubled by war. And war has always been recognized as more than a political or strategic concern. It is also a profoundly moral issue. As Christians we have a right, and an obligation, to consider whether a particular war is a morally defensible campaign. Presently we should be asking this about the war in Afghanistan.


Historically Christian attitudes toward war have fallen roughly into three camps. There are first of all the pacifists—those who believe that as followers of the Prince of Peace, of the one who calls his disciplines to love even their enemies, they must bravely abstain from war altogether. Ultimately, they reason, it is better to be killed than to kill.


At the other end of the spectrum are the Christian patriots or nationalists who believe that a Christian’s obligation is to be a faithful and dutiful citizen, to answer with loyalty and without hesitation any call to war that the nation’s commander-in-chief of may issue. It is the responsibility of the nation’s leadership to assess the morality of a war; it is the moral obligation of the citizens to respond as patriots.


The first option may be unrealistic; the second is certainly irresponsible (ask any German from the 1930s and 40s). And so a third option for Christians has been the “just war” position, and indeed it has been the majority view in America since the nation was founded. The key idea here is that there are times when war becomes a regrettable, but unavoidably necessary means of restraining evil aggression, and achieving justice and peace in the world. But not all wars qualify. And so Christians have a responsibility to evaluate the moral legitimacy of each war effort to determine whether it truly qualifies as a “just” war and can be supported with Christian integrity.


Through the centuries Christian ethicists (including the great Thomas Aquinas) have developed and refined the criteria by which conscientious Christian citizens should test and evaluate a war, or a proposed war effort. For example: Is the war effort a measured response to the prior aggression of an enemy, or an act of aggression itself? Are the means used restrained and proportional to the goals in view? Is the nation at war properly motivated, or driven mainly by greedy national self-interest? Is it respecting the dignity of combatants and the safety of non-combatants?  Traditionally these and many other hard questions must be answered satisfactorily before Christians should support, or continue to support, a war.


One of the traditional tests of a just war is particularly relevant to our current reflections on the war in Afghanistan. For a war to be considered just, and worthy of Christian involvement and support, it must have a reasonable prospect of success. Fighting a lost cause, however heroic it may be, can never be a just war. Now of course the phrase “reasonable prospect” is vague and imprecise, but the principle nevertheless stands. This is because wars are horrific enterprises in which blood flows, bodies are maimed, and lives are snuffed out. Atrocities and deadly blunders inevitably occur. So it is wrong—it is sinful—to initiate such scenarios, or allow them to go on, if the challenge has been underestimated, or the war has little likelihood of success. Under such circumstances war becomes a tragic exercise in futile destruction. The impoverishment of a nation, and the blood of its victims will cry for justice, and those in power will someday be held responsible. This is one reason why the current debate over the future of the war in Afghanistan is, among other things, an urgent moral issue.


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