It is good that tensions with Iran have cooled for the moment. But the heated rhetoric of the past week shows a moral deficit in our thinking about war.
The president threatened to destroy cultural targets in Iran if it retaliated for the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. President Trump threatened, in his words, “disproportionate” violence in response to Iranian retaliation. He explained, “They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn’t work that way.”
But morality does indeed work that way. The enemy is not “allowed” to do these things. We should rightly condemn them for it. And we must understand that it is immoral to return evil for evil.
Proportionality is key. The law of retaliation says you may demand eye for eye, and life for life. But justice says you can cannot demand more. To threaten disproportionate violence and escalation is immoral.
A higher, more humane morality goes beyond retaliation. Humanitarian morality calls upon us to give mercy to our enemies with the goal of restoring peace.
So-called “realists” reject this. They say anything goes in war, so long as it is effective and you can get away with it. But the “just war theory” developed over the past millennia, which calls for moral restraint in war.
The just war theory has roots in ancient Greek, Roman, and Christian sources. These ideas are woven into contemporary international treaties and conventions governing the laws of war. These ideas were used by Americans to prosecute war crimes after the Second World War. Until recently, the United States was a leading proponent of these ideas.
The just war theory prohibits disproportionate violence. It seeks to avoid the escalation of tit-for-tat reprisals. It prohibits torture and abuse of prisoners. It rejects deliberate attacks on innocent civilians and on cultural heritage sites.
Realists reject all of this. They see war as a matter of power. If you win, you do what you want. And if you lose, well, judgment does not matter to the dead.
The realist view of war is immoral and too narrow. All wars end. Soldiers return to civilian life. Communities are rebuilt. And history will render judgment after war.
Thousands of years ago, the Greek historian Polybius condemned the wanton destruction of temples and statues in a war led by Philip V. The historian said this was how frenzied tyrants fight. Good men do not make war with the goal of destruction and annihilation, he said. Rather, good men wage war in order to reform evil and create justice. Tyrants are ruthless and cruel. Good rulers earn people’s love with humanity and beneficence.
Future historians will judge our country’s actions as either tyrannical or benevolent. But judgment also occurs in the short-term among soldiers and those who love them. When soldiers are asked to behave immorally, they suffer from moral injury.
The soldiers who would be asked to carry out immoral orders are our students, friends, and loved ones. These are human beings with consciences. It would be wrong to ask them to violate morality by delivering disproportional harm or by destroying cultural heritage sites. Soldiers come home from war. We should want them to come home whole and morally intact.
It would, of course, be better if there were no wars at all. But an important step in the direction of peace is to understand the need for moral restraint in war. As Augustine said in a passage quoted with approval by Thomas Aquinas, “we go to war that we may have peace. Be peaceful, therefore, in warring, so that you may vanquish those whom you war against, and bring them to the prosperity of peace.”
Moral restraint in war helps to create a just and lasting peace. Cruelty creates hatred, enmity, and escalating violence. Tyrants ignore this to their peril. So let’s encourage our leaders to learn the lessons of the just war theory. And let’s hope they cherish the moral integrity of the soldiers they command and that they consider the judgment that history will render.