Review: Politics, Justice and War, Part II

Yesterday, I began my review of Joseph Capizzi’s important new book Politics, Justice, and War: Christian Governance and the Ethics of Warfare. I finished with Capizzi having responded to various critiques of classical just war theory and specifically the desire to separate that theory from politics. Today, I will pick up Capizzi’s treatment of the relationship of politics to war.

As Capizzi notes, the view that war is something that happens when politics has ceased leads to unhappy consequences. He notes that many commentators view terrorists as irrational “because they don’t act, according to this accusation, like normal political agents…A consequence of this separation, at least in the case of terrorism, results in positing the uses of force as the only way to deal with terrorists. Once we are outside the realm of politics, we are left only with force meeting force.” I would add the qualifying note that some terrorists, most obviously ISIS, do appear to have a nihilistic streak. But, Capizzi is undoubtedly right that we should not shrink our policy options to military ones if others might serve to ameliorate the threat terrorists pose.

Capizzi offers a lengthy quote from Theodore Weber to ram home the connection between politics and war. It is worth reprinting the quote in its entirety:

A second way is to recognize that war occurs always in a political context, not in a political vacuum where other states and their interests and populations can be ignored, where passion and might replace reason absolutely, and where armed force is the only form of power. War is an institution of an international system of political (and other) relationships always coming into being, passing away, and metamorphosing, but in one form or another always present as the context of violent conflict. In general terms, the aim and result of war are to change or preserve a political order. That being so, the relationship between war and politics is intimate, constant, relational, reflexive. The resultant shape of the system is of profound moral concern, and not only the justice of particular causes.

Capizzi goes on to add the cautionary note that the “momentum of war sweeps reflection away from political context and towards narrow, absolute, and strident claims….To politicize war is to reinsert war into the political horizon that produced it by forcing reflection on the widest feasible competitive interests of the different political actors. This has the effect, hopefully, of tethering the conflict to its original causes and thereby connecting the use of force to a measure of its proportionality, but also of widening the scope of reflection beyond one’s own read of the situation.” Those who seek to demonstrate that war is a break from politics, hope to make war less likely, but they may make it more ferocious and more susceptible to the kinds of unjust wars, for vengeance or glory, that the just war ethic forbids.

Capizzi argues that the just war ethic, and specifically the connection of war to politics, has the effect of “civilizing” war. This sounds preposterous, but it isn’t. There are no guarantees, he allows, but “understanding the connection of war and politics as the civilizing of power engages in the ongoing political task of building institutions and frameworks of greater communal inclusiveness than existed before. War cannot achieve this by itself, of course; war is an instrument of politics that seeks to break a clot in the international system. long as the intention of war is peace, and war is fought by means appropriate to peace, it will enable but not guarantee post bellum political reconciliation.” Certainly, when the Bush administration naively thought it could fly in Jeffersonian democracy with the 101st Airborne into Iraq, they miscalculated. But, war-making today necessarily entails looking ahead to what kind of peace can be achieved on the other side of the conflict. The excessive use of force in Iraq failed. The limited, narrow use of force in Kosovo succeeded.

So far, Capizzi’s analysis has been deeply influenced by Augustine. He now turns to address Augustine head-on and begins by recalling Augustine’s “lean doctrine” of the state. Augustine had a dim view of mankind’s capacity for goodness apart from the grace of God. And, he believed that the right ordering of society, what we know as justice, is limited by our inability to rightly order the desires of the human heart. Augustine does not look to the state for much, but he does look to it for the judgment required for right order. Capizzi writes, “Good men, those who reside in the City of God, are not punished by this lean conception of the state….they make use of the peace provided by governance; once can see, then why they do not find their happiness in the political order. They find, instead, an instrument by which they can pursue their happiness elsewhere.” I was surprised that Capizzi did not refer her to Jean Bethke Elshtain’s Augustine and the Limits of Politics which makes many of the same points and does so persuasively.

Capizzi is quick to note, and right to note, that Augustine’s “lean doctrine” of the state does not imply a lack of interest in human community. “Community (societas) is a powerful concept for Augustine; his conception of peace would be untenable without understanding better his commitment to community as a limited good.” Of course, in our day, drowning as it is in libertarian ideology and breast-beatings of self-assertion, the “limited good” of community has taken on greater significance than it could have for Augustine, and Capizzi should have noted that disconnect between his time and ours, not least because it tracks neatly with Augustine’s conception of the linkage between the ills of disordered human desiring and the disorders in our communal life. Then, as now, however, those who seek happiness solely in the mundane sphere are destined to be disappointed. “[A]ny earthly good is not ‘good enough’ to attract all to it. The love of God that forms the City of God is universal: God alone is sufficient to bear a love bound only by the capacities of men to love Him.” This is why wars of religion – even culture wars of religion – are so strikingly at odds with the Christian Gospel.

Those of us who love Augustine love him most for his insistence on God’s sovereignty and so it is not surprising that Capizzi, who clearly loves Augustine, soars when considering this important theme. He writes:

Believers often want their beliefs to bring immediate reward, so they are prone to interpreting fortune as blessing. Doesn’t the good fortune shown to cowering Roman citizens in Christian churches count as God’s blessing upon the faithful? Despite mercy shown to these Romans, Augustine maintains humans cannot control God’s actions by their own, nor do they often understand the plan beneath the acts they see. “The forbearance of God,” he writes, “invites the wicked to repentance, just as the chastisement of God teaches forbearance to the good.” There is no simple interpretation of God’s action.

The sovereignty of God tames human pride, surely the cause of the most disorder in the human soul, the deadliest of the seven deadly sins, and the cause of the greatest strife among peoples. Some may disdain the “lean doctrine” of the state offered by Augustine, but the greatest crimes in human history have always been perpetrated by those with a robust conception of the state, linked to this pernicious equation of fortune as blessing. (And, at the risk of inviting pride, let me point out that the above quote shows Capizzi’s deft touch as a writer.)

In Capizzi’s view, the just war ethic that Augustine articulates, based on these premises, results in very strictly limited notions of just war. “Augustine thereby rejects the notion of war as a glorious endeavor, to be sought for its own sake or for the sake of testing valor and stiffening the mettle of young men,” he writes. “Further, wars cannot be justified even in the name of justice in the abstract; war is simply too evil, trailing too much suffering and cruelty, to be justified as anything other than an act of love….Wars, therefore, cannot be waged in the name of ‘freedom’ or ‘democracy.’ Not living in a democracy is not an injury of the sort to which war is a permissible response. Wars are justifiable only in terms of real injuries to real people.” Capizzi’s view of Augustine is correct – and Augustine’s view of the limited circumstances in which war is permissible is also correct.

I shall conclude my review of this book tomorrow.   




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