More Than Just A Theory

by Most Rev. Edward M. Egan

The panel was uncommonly restrained and orderly. Its subject was the war in Kosovo, and it was clear that the participants were deeply concerned. Even the moderator, whose style is usually rather irascible, was exercising considerable self-control. This was television, but television at its most serious.

Twice in the half-hour program reference was made to the "just war theory," which no one seemed to be able to articulate in its classic terms. All, however, understood that the theory had to do with defensive, as opposed to offensive, war; and two of the older participants mentioned in passing that the theory required a certain "proportionality" between the rights and interests being defended in a conflict and the damage being done to persons and property.

Actually, the most detailed treatment of the question by Aquinas is quite brief. It appears in his Summa theologiae in the volume known as "Secunda Secundae," where it is discussed in response to the questions, "Whether it is always sinful to wage war?"

Aquinas' answer is in the negative, and he frequently appeals to the writings of Saint Augustine to sustain his position. There are, though, conditions that need to be fulfilled in order to justify a war, he insists, conditions which two of his most celebrated commentators, Francisco Súarez and Tomás Luis de Victoria, developed into what we commonly understand to be the "just war theory." The conditions are basically these:

First, the war must be declared by the supreme authority of the land;
Second, there must be a just and grave case for waging it, such as the repelling of an invader or the protecting of essential human rights;
Third, all other measures for dealing with the evil that is being threatened must have been exhausted;
Fourth, there is a well-founded hope for success; and
Finally, there is a proportion, that is to say, a reasonable balance, between the evil of the aggression and the evil that will attend resisting it.

Much more, of course, needs to be said in any thorough analysis of the legitimacy of a war, especially in an era in which nuclear or chemical weapons might be used. Still, for most students of ethics or morality, the "just war theory" does provide a valuable starting-point from which to consider the rightness or wrongness of a particular conflict; and for this reason the theory deserves to be understood at least in its basic outlines.

This said, however, I must confess that for me the war in Kosovo presents two very particular problems. One is historical; and the other, for lack of a better term, is "human."

We best start with the historical.

In the Balkans the history of who did what to whom at various times and in various circumstances is complicated beyond all imagining. This I learned from a good deal of traveling in that part of the world in the 1970's and early 1980's. No matter what one group (national, ethic, or religious) has to say about assaults on its rights and interests by another group, that other group is always able to bring forth a host of further considerations and events whereby to refute the first group's allegations.

Who was where first, who invaded whom, who was unfairly assisted by whom, who suffered the most, who most needs certain cities, fields, rivers and port - the discussions are endless; and they never seem to move toward resolution. Hundreds of years of confrontations and altercations are recalled in shattering detail. And as we listen, we become convinced that Solomon himself could not unravel the intricate narratives that make up the history of the Balkans in order to discover where justice and fairness might possibly reside.

Is one group unfairly expelling another? Perhaps. But did that other group seek unfairly to expel the first group? Perhaps again. Does one group have a stronger historical tie to a particular territory? Perhaps. But does the overwhelming presence of another group take precedence over an historical tie? Perhaps again. So it goes, and so it has gone for centuries.

All of which brings us to the matter of the "human."

While World War II, the War in Korea, and the War in Viet Nam were raging, I recall how closely my family and I followed developments. We had relatives in all three conflicts, and we were profoundly concerned. Still, none of us had ever been in Germany, Japan, Korea, or Viet Nam before the wars began; and accordingly, our nation's adversaries were for the most part both unfamiliar and remote. Not so in our current war, at least for me. I have been in Belgrade. I have walked its streets. I have met with its citizens. Consequently, those citizens are for me not just a collection of faceless individuals. They are real, live human beings, children of God, created lovingly in His image and likeness. Hence, they, their history, and their current plight haunt me in a very personal way as I watch their nation being bombarded night after night on the television screen.

Here on my desk as I compose this article are two tattered guidebooks that I brought with me during my various travels in what we used to call Yugoslavia. As I page through the sections on Serbia and especially Belgrade, memories flood in, memories of people who appeared to me to be among the most tried and tormented in the Western world.

The notes concerning Belgrade which I penciled in the pages of my guidebooks will perhaps serve to illustrate this impression.

About the Orthodox cathedral: "Attended a liturgy here on December 31st. An atmosphere of fatigue and sadness prevails. Even the icons appear unusually anguished."

About the Narodni Muzej, the principal museum of the city: "A fine collection of French impressionists, but everything is worn and dusty. Few visitors and many unhappy guards."

About the Kalemegdan Park, the largest in the city: "One of the most impressive statues in the green area is entitled `The Tired Soldier.' He sums up the capital of this weary land very well indeed."

It is this that is under siege night after night, a city which, according to the larger of my two guidebooks, has been "destroyed and rebuilt no less than forty times in its painful history!"

Is the "just war theory" relevant here? And if it is, are we being faithful to it? Have we exhausted all other measures to deal with the evil we are addressing? Is there truly a "proportion" between what we are doing and what our enemy was planning to do?

I am not clever or learned enough to sort out all the historic rights and wrongs of the Balkans, but I am human enough to feel in the depths of my soul that something is very much amiss.

Oh Prince of Peace, lead us out of this tragedy!

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