Off to war again. But a just one?

Everyone ready for another war? Ready or not, it appears that we are about to go to war with Syria. Or, as the Washington Post says:

An imminent U.S. strike on Syrian government targets in response to the alleged gassing of civilians last week has the potential to draw the United States into the country’s civil war, former U.S. officials said Tuesday, warning that history doesn’t bode well for such limited retaliatory interventions.

It’s all happening rather quickly and there are lots of angles to cover — the intelligence situation, the lack of Congressional approval, the political outcomes expected, etc. — but what about the religion angles? Of the many religion angles in this story, one deals with whether this war can be considered “just.” The Huffington Post hosted a piece by Maryann Cusimano Love, an associate professor of International Relations at Catholic University of America who serves on the Core Group for the Department of State’s working group on Religion and Foreign Policy, which notes:

St. Thomas Aquinas never imagined a world in which chemicals could kill thousands of people in a breath, but these old moral codes can still provide guidance in modern warfare. [Just War Theory] is a centuries-old guide to thinking about when and how it can ever by morally justifiable to violate the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” JWT holds that even during warfare we are still capable of moral behavior, and still obligated to protect human life and dignity. JWT stakes out the middle ground between realpolitik, which always allows war, and pacifism, which never allows war.

What are the arguments that bombing Syria is just? What are the debates surrounding whether this would be a just war? Well, I haven’t seen a particularly thorough treatment of the issue, but I did want to highlight a couple of pieces that did a great job introducing some discussions. The first comes from Religion News Service and begins:

WASHINGTON (RNS) As the Obama administration readies for a probable military strike against Syria, Religion News Service asked a panel of theologians and policy experts whether the U.S. should intervene in Syria in light of the regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. Would the “Just War” doctrine justify U.S. military action, and what is America’s moral responsibility? Here are their responses, which have been edited for clarity.

And we get a series of responses from folk such as Stanley Hauerwas, professor emeritus of theological ethics at Duke Divinity School, and Qamar-ul Huda, senior program officer in the Religion & Peacemaking Center of the U.S. Institute of Peace. Here’s one sample response:

The Rev. Drew Christiansen

Jesuit priest and visiting scholar at Boston College and longtime adviser to the U.S. Catholic Bishops on international affairs

My problem is that I don’t see why this kind of chemical attack matters so mightily when 100,000 civilians have been killed in Syria already. It seems to me that you’ve had massive attacks on civilians — with the world standing aside — that should have been the reason for intervention. But there’s also a question of proportionality and success, and I think that there are good reasons to think you might make things worse by a military attack.

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Ghosts crowding in on drone stories

If I weren’t so sick I would have already done this but in the days to come, I hope to mark our anniversary by reviewing some of my work over 2012. But if there’s one thing I already know, it’s that I wish we’d focus more on what news isn’t covered as opposed to critiquing what’s there. When you look at some of the reader reflections Bobby solicited in recent days, many are wondering how wise it is to focus on areas where the actual coverage has faltered the most (as opposed to spreading it around more). I think that’s always a difficult balance.

But under-coverage is a serious problem and one that is most difficult to critique. I’m reading Spin Masters: How The Media Ignored The Real News And Helped Re-Elect Barack Obama. That’s the kind of title that leads you to become, as author David Freddoso is, a New York Times bestselling author. But the book is actually quite balanced in laying out criticism against all people — and very detailed in its research. As he writes, “The problem isn’t that journalists are too hard on Republicans. The problem is that they often won’t do journalism at all unless they are covering a Republican.”

Anyway, the book jacket says the book explores “how possible serious abuses of presidential power — including the drone killing of a sixteen-year-old American boy — have been swept under the rug by a partisan press that believes Obama can do no wrong.” It’s certainly true that this received a shockingly low amount of coverage during 2012 and has only quite recently been getting slightly more attention.

Admittedly much of this is outside the bounds of GetReligion, simply dealing with foreign policy and the rights we afford our citizens. But there is a religion component. Or as commenter Herbert Ely put it yesterday in a comment on Bobby’s post:

There are a number of just war issues that should be raised by the press, particularly since the Catholic bishops seem reluctant. Consider this statement by Leon Panetta on drone strikes against US citizens:” The Pentagon chief says he realized when he became CIA director that he was “making life-and-death decisions.” As a Catholic, he says, he’s “got to really think about it.” (link) There are, it seems to me a few religious and constitutional ghosts here.

You’re darn right there are! And they are so very rarely raised. While this is mostly an Obama presidency issue, I made this complaint more than four years ago as well.  Is it sufficient to quote Panetta and move on? Shouldn’t there be analysis from people who study Just War theory or have something to say about how it relates to drone killing of Americans and others? What about other religious or philosophical approaches to this type of warfare? Are we really so unserious as to not want this discussion in the news pages?

 

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What has God got to do with drones?

“It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,”a United States major said today. He was talking about the decision by allied commanders to bomb and shell the town regardless of civilian casualties, to rout the Vietcong. 

So began Peter Arnett’s 8 Feb 1968 report from the town of Ban Tre. Published in the New York Times under the headline “Major Describes Move“, time has improved the quotation to various forms of “we had to destroy the village to save it”. Questions of the proportionality of  response to a threat have been present in war reporting from the start of the craft in the Nineteenth century to the present conflict in Afghanistan. However the questions raised by Peter Arnett have been debated for more than a millennium in the theological and philosophical speculations of “just war” theory.

The moral issues surrounding the use of unmanned drones has been been raised from time to time in the U.S. press and addressed by my colleague Mollie Hemingway on the pages of GetReligion. However, the European press has been particularly exercised over their use in the battle with the Taliban. Tuesday’s Guardian in London gave the issue the front page treatment in its story on the activation of an RAF squadron operating from Britain that will control drones flying over Afghanistan. However the Guardian approaches the issue of ethics without reference to religion.

The article entitled “UK to double number of drones in Afghanistan” begins:

The UK is to double the number of armed RAF “drones” flying combat and surveillance operations in Afghanistan and, for the first time, the aircraft will be controlled from terminals and screens in Britain.

In the new squadron of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), five Reaper drones will be sent to Afghanistan, the Guardian can reveal. It is expected they will begin operations within six weeks. Pilots based at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire will fly the recently bought American-made UAVs at a hi-tech hub built on the site in the past 18 months.

Details of the new squadron’s operations are discussed and then the story moves to the moral issues involved in the use of unmanned drone attacks.

The use of drones has become one of the most controversial features of military strategy in Afghanistan. The UK has been flying them almost non-stop since 2008.

The CIA’s programme of “targeted” drone killings in Pakistan’s tribal area was last month condemned in a report by US academics. The attacks are politically counterproductive, kill large numbers of civilians and undermine respect for international law, according to the study by Stanford and New York universities’ law schools.

After raising the moral issues, the Guardian steps back somewhat and dives into eight paragraphs of operational details before resurfacing with this statement.

The MoD insists only four Afghan civilians have been killed in its strikes since 2008 and says it does everything it can to minimise civilian casualties, including aborting missions at the last moment. However, it also says it has no idea how many insurgents have died because of the “immense difficulty and risks” of verifying who has been hit. …In December 2010, David Cameron claimed that 124 insurgents had been killed in UK drone strikes. But defence officials said they had no idea where the prime minister got the figure and denied it was from the MoD.

Let me start off by commending the Guardian‘s reporter for raising the moral issues surrounding the targeted killing of America and Britain’s enemies. A story published the same day in the Washington Post on the administration’s plans to create kill lists of enemies was silent on the moral issues — though it did mention that there had been legal challenges to the government’s use of drones to kill American citizens in enemy ranks. As an aside, I am surprised by the lack of outrage over the targeted killing program from the press. America has been down this road before. The Phoenix program in Vietnam sparked congressional hearings and a steady flow of moral outrage up through the Carter Administration.

Was it sufficient for the Guardian to put forward the objections of some American law school professors when raising the moral issues of drone warfare? There are any number of philosophers and theologians who could have offered cogent critiques of the morality of drone warfare — Britain’s smartest man, the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams has been outspoken in his opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and has lectured on the issue of “just war” to military audiences. The choice of whom to quote, of course, lies with the author — but my sense of this story is that the religious element is outside the reporter’s knowledge. Ethics for the Guardian is not tied to religion.

This is, for me, is the journalism question in this story. There is an ethical ghost here — but what sort of ethical ghost, secular or religious?

The Christian tradition holds that morality without religion is impossible. There can be ethics without religion, but these ethics are necessarily incomplete or flawed. In his book Morality after Auschwitz, Peter Haas asked how Germany could have willingly participated in a state-sponsored program of genocide. His answer was that:

far from being contemptuous of ethics, the perpetrators acted in strict conformity with an ethic which held that, however difficult and unpleasant the task might have been, mass extermination of the Jews and Gypsies was entirely justified. . . . the Holocaust as a sustained effort was possible only because a new ethic was in place that did not define the arrest and deportation of Jews as wrong and in fact defined it as ethically tolerable and ever good.

If there is no God, there is no good and evil, no right and wrong, or as Fyodor Dostoyevsky said in the Brothers Karamazov, “If there is no immortality, then all things are permitted.”

Against this view we have philosophers and ethicists such as Prof. Peter Singer of Princeton University who have argued  “that an intellectually coherent ethic has to be independent of religion and that’s an argument that goes right back to Socrates and Plato.”

Whether unconsciously or by choice, the Guardian has come down on one side of this argument. There is no God.

For those of us who are unpersuaded that there can be right or wrong without a God, should it have provided the arguments of religious ethics when addressing morality? Or should we take another newspaper?

What say you GetReligion readers? How should intelligent journalism address this question?


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