Principles collapse when victory is the goal

by Elizabeth McAlister

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By Stephen L. Carter
Published by Beast Books, $24.99

This was not an easy book for me to read; it is not an easy book for me to review. The author, Stephen L. Carter, is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University, where he has taught since 1982. Among his courses are law and religion and the ethics of war.

He is also a legal and social policy writer, columnist, and best-selling novelist. In The Violence of Peace he explores not only President Obama’s mindset with regard to our country’s wars, but the process by which a man who campaigned as a peace president came to view the world from the Oval Office roughly the same as George W. Bush viewed it.

One after another, Obama’s principles and promises collapsed, confronted by what he came to understand as the demands of office.

The book dives deeply into an analysis of just war principles because they became the foundation of Obama’s justification for his administration’s wars, wars he believed to be moral and just because they fulfilled these criteria:

  • They were the last resort, entered into when all other avenues of settling disputes proved impossible;

  • They were entered into only when there was a reasonable hope of success;

  • They are being waged using the minimum possible force.

I would, perhaps, read Carter more readily and easily were he a bit more steeped in Leo Tolstoy and Jacques Ellul than in Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. And I believe there is a radical difference between the conduct of a politician and that of a citizen seeking to live by the Gospels of Jesus and/or by the principles inherent in the practice of nonviolence. What makes that more complex in the United States is the veneer of Christianity assumed of and by our leaders -- the wars in which we are now embroiled were proclaimed by Bush from the pulpit of the National Cathedral. Obama presents himself to this nation (and perhaps the world) as a man of faith and prayer. Yet we who call ourselves Christians have a responsibility to be advocates and defenders of the poor and oppressed. When we fail in that duty, violence is the direct consequence.

Carter is realistic in his evaluations.

Realism leads him to conclude that violence is natural and normal for humanity and society, that it is a necessity imposed on rulers and ruled. But it is not always true that what is natural is good, and that what is necessary is legitimate.

To have true freedom is to struggle against necessity. So, I believe, the Christian must struggle against violence precisely because violence is the form that human relations normally and necessarily take. Violence is not just a matter of knives, guns and bombs, but it consists of all that violates the humanity of another before God.

People who are deprived of food, work, home, reputation, hopes or life are victims of violence. Violence is normal in a world where people reject God’s sovereignty over every area of life and set themselves up as arbiters of right and wrong. In that kind of world -- a description of our own -- the only basis left for authority is violence: Might becomes right.

Carter observes that since the goal of the state is to advance justice, the doctrine of just war calls the president to use force to prevent harm. He invites us to acknowledge that war forces the decisionmaker into intolerable choices: that one cannot fight a war against an enemy who disdains the rules of war, that things look different from inside the Oval Office and that presidents do what they think they must. I believe that as citizens in what we call a democracy, we need to do our homework, make judgments based on our best view of the situation and raise our voices against the intolerable choices that make up our wars, even when that is costly to us.

Carter’s book took on a personal edge as early as Page 21. There, I felt myself dismissed, along with my friend Cindy Sheehan, whom Carter identified as “one [who] truly believes that all wars of choice are organized mass murder.” Cindy became an antiwar activist after her son, Casey Sheehan, was killed in action in Iraq. Her memoir, Peace Mom: A Mother’s Journey Through Heartache to Activism, recounts her experience of losing her son and her transformation into an antiwar activist. Her resistance to war has been creative, courageous, costly and consistent.

So, yes, Cindy and I share the belief that, whatever the vision at its inception, no war can remain “just.” Carter wrote that Cindy labeled Obama a war criminal and went on to say: “Her opinion is simply wrong. ... Such an accusation is contemptible nonsense, just as it was when the president was George W. Bush.”

I suspect Carter would find the insights of Noam Chomsky contemptible nonsense, too. When an audience urged Chomsky to run for president (the year before George W. Bush was elected), Chomsky pointed out that it was impossible. The reason it was impossible, he went on to say, was that if he ever won election to that office, his first task would be to submit to indictment for war crimes, simply by virtue of the office.

Carter argues his points skillfully, but misses the point that war is the epitome of violence or, as Bertrand Russell put it, “War does not determine who is right, only who is left.”

I’m convinced that there has never been and never can be a just or an honorable war. All three of the principles outlined by Obama (last resort; reasonable hope of success; minimum possible force) have been totally abandoned in his pursuit of victory. When the aim is victory, victory becomes victory at any price, and the principles collapse. That is and has been the evidence of history.

[Elizabeth McAlister is a longtime peace activist, jailed and imprisoned numerous times for that resistance. She and her husband, the late Philip Berrigan, founded the Jonah House community in Baltimore.]

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