Monday, November 30, 2015

Holy War, Just War and Merciful War

We may be at the early stages of the Third World War. This war, whether it deserves the description "world" or not, may last for Thirty Years or One Hundred Years - capitals remind us that some wars in history have lasted for a long time. The UK looks like it will vote this week to join Russia and France as European countries bombing Daesh. What is the right course of action in such an awful situation as Daesh's thuggery against local citizens of its 'caliphate' and against citizens of selected other countries?

I am also doing some thinking about war in relation to my study leave project. I am thinking about three forms of war: Holy War (with particular reference to YHWH commanding Israel to cleanse Canaan of opposing tribes), Just War (with particular reference to a theory or theories that in some limited circumstances war may be conducted justly, e.g. as a defensive, protective measure) and Merciful War (on which, to be honest, I am ignorant of what may have been previously written; but my idea is that in some (rare) circumstances, war might be conducted in order to save people from a terrible end, including saving people with whom one nation (or set of nations) has no predetermined obligation to help via treaty.

In my (limited) understanding of what is going on in the minds of national leaders either currently conducting or considering conducting war against Daesh, some elements of all three kinds of war may be involved (albeit no Western leader is going to own up to engaging in "Holy War")! That is, Holy War: there is an element of cleansing the world of terrible evil in the rationale behind going to war with Daesh; Just War: another motivation is a mixture of proportionate response to Daesh's terrorism as well as defensive and protective measures in which destruction of the Daesh command could severely inhibit its ability to organise terrorism in the West; Merciful War: unless Daesh is stopped now, even more people, particularly women, children and homosexuals, will be caught up in its evil use and abuse of people deemed to be either some kind of subservient creature or unfit for Daesh's vision of God's society on earth.

As a matter of fact, the Russian Orthodox Church has declared the Russian role in the war on Daesh a Holy War (against terrorism). [Though see comment by Andrei below re what exactly has been said].

But the last few days, as I read around the internet traps, the role of Turkey is complicating calculations of the kind that (say) theologians might be interested in making about war in these circumstances. Has it been buying oil from Daesh and thus funding it activities? Why did Turkey shoot down the Russian jet? I cannot now find the article I read recently, but one calculation is this: Turkey wants Assad ousted and wants to prevent the continuation of a fledgling Kurdish state but Russia's involvement is an attempt to save Assad and its fight against Daesh implicitly supports the fledgling Kurdish state so shooting down the jet was a signal of Turkey's displeasure with Russia's role. OK so there is speculative calculation here but it does seem worthwhile asking the question, before unleashing further bombs, what kind of damage would be done to Daesh if Turkey was brought onto the same side, without prevarication, as Russia, France and other Western allies.

So long as Turkey is an ambiguous role player - I dare not honour them with the word "ally" - is further participation in the war by Britain going to achieve much?

On paper I think I can line up arguments for war against Daesh being holy, just and merciful. In practice the politics of the Middle East is very complicated and war achieving the opposite of intended outcomes is a real possibility. What is a theologically-minded Christian to do?

POSTSCRIPT: It is a bit of a long read, but this 2009 article by Rene Girard is pertinent to the madness of the age in which we live.

POSTPOSTSCRIPT: The Economist sets out the case for and against here.


Father Ron Smith said...

re your last question, Peter; at the risk of sounding simplistic; I would suggest that Pope Francis' recent visit to the Central African Republic might be symptomatic of the Gospel answer. To speak of peace, in circumstances where one puts one's own life at risk, speaks louder than scholastic debate on the subject. Francis of Assisi did exactly the same when he visited the Caliph - at great danger to himself - in his own day and age. Instead of being killed - because of the nature of his message "speaking PEACE', the Caliph invited him to a meal, and was rectrptive to the message.

What is needed is a few more Religious Leaders to step up to the plate - with the backing of their majority followers' backing; putting themselves at risk of failure. At leaset they will have tried. There seems to be so much heat generated at this moment on the subject of climate change; surely the preservation of human life and dignity, in trying to settle ancient religious enmioties, deserves at least as much serious attention!

Andrei said...

As a matter of fact, the Russian Orthodox Church has declared the Russian role in the war on Daesh a Holy War (against terrorism).

Not quite true Peter - the statement was made by Fr Vsevolod Chaplin when the announcment of Russian in Syria was announced 30th September


“We have an inter-religious council in Russia and I can say with confidence – the coming statement from this body, which unites Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Jews and Buddhists, will support our state’s decision. The decision with which our state again assumes a special role in the Middle East and in particular in Syria,”

He also noted the decision not only fully complied with the norms of international law, but also mirrored the view of most Russian people.

“The active position of our country has always been connected with protection of the weak and oppressed, like the Middle Eastern Christians who are now experiencing a real genocide. Russia’s role has always been in protecting peace and justice for all Mideastern peoples.”

He stressed the main objective behind the operation in Syria was not in fulfilling some political or economic ambitions but in protecting the weak. “Terrorism is immoral and we need to protect those who are being driven from their lands by war,”

He also emphasized that terrorism was the most significant threat humanity is currently facing. “Whatever they are trying to justify terrorism with, it cannot be justified. Thus, any fight against terrorism is moral, we might even call it a sacred struggle

The exact words he used in Russian священная борьба (svyashchennaya bor'ba) = sacred (or holy) struggle

Holy War would be Священная война (Svyashchennaya voyna) which of course is a very famous Great Patriotic War ie WW2 patriotic song

Not that it matters but it does alter the complexion of the linked article I think

Peter Carrell said...

Thanks for the clarification Andrei!

Anonymous said...


With respect to the Islamic State, the usual allies face several ethical duties, and the order in which one takes them up somewhat determines the way one frames options and choices. Hugo Grotius would probably point us to the most elemental casus belli-- neighbours are obliged to deliver citizens of a failed state from anarchy. That takes us directly to the question whether the Picot-Sykes line that divides the two countries of Syria and Iraq is a solution to the anarchy or a cause of it. I refer, of course, to the frontier that partitioned an oil-rich Ottoman province that was mostly Sunni into the French and British sectors that became parts of Syria and Iraq, respectively.

Today, neither Syria nor Iraq is a unified political community comprising all the citizens on its recognised territory. On the Syrian side, an inconclusive civil war has reduced much of the land to anarchy. On the Iraqi one, two political communities, Kurdish and Sunni, sit on territory now nominally claimed by a third that is Shia. Despite years of allied tutelage, Iraq’s ruling Shiites are unwilling or unable to live in a common political community with the Kurds and the Sunni. Of course they claim the oil revenue from the rest of Iraq, but they lack the will for collaborative governance with people unlike themselves. Meanwhile, the Kurds have sought a state of their own for more than a century, and built a de facto one under the Iraqi flag a quarter of a century ago. Likewise, the Sunni have withdrawn, annexed the territory of their Syrian kinsmen, and pointedly govern much of Iraq from the Syrian side of the long-hated frontier. No plausible scenario has been proposed for the reunification of either Syria or Iraq.

To be clear about that last point, the deposition of Assad would not unify Syria as a political community, nor would obliteration of the Islamic State reintegrate the Kurds and the Sunni into the Shiite state that Iraq has become. War fought for either or both of these objectives depends for its justification on some uncertain future beyond the war itself. Given the conflicting motivations of those in the proposed alliance, some of them must be quietly planning for incompatible post-war futures. This is just what happened after the First World War when the same powers had conflicting ambitions for that part of the Ottoman Empire, and Picot and Sykes met to negotiate the line that was later written into the Versailles Treaty. Countering this deal, Mustafa Kemal and Vladimir Lenin struck a secret bargain drawing lines of their own that sacrificed Kurdish aspirations to nationhood to the Turks’ desire for a mountain boundary with Iran. Thus the interests of outsiders in London and Paris, Moscow and Ankara overcame the presumption that states and their territories should reflect the will of their actual political communities.


Anonymous said...


After the long hemorrhage of Syria and three wars in Iraq, those lands invented in the division of the Ottoman Empire have been reduced to diplomatic hypotheses like the Holy Roman Empire. What keeps them diplomatically alive are the enduring interests of those who shook hands on their fates a century ago. Russia and France do not wish to lose even a hypothetical ally on the Mediterranean. Turkey does not wish to gain even a friendly neighbour, if that neighbour is Kurdish.
Meanwhile, like the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, the attacks on Paris have been enough to rouse publics normally resistant to war. Given the Qutbist wind that is sweeping Arab lands, it should have surprised no one (least of all an intelligence service) that the Sunni community takes the form of an Islamic State-- more orderly, more egalitarian, and less corrupt, but also more totalitarian, and a sponsor of terror in the allied countries. Just how many millihitlers of evil that state has done has not been calibrated to horrors elsewhere, but self-defense certainly makes some prudent use of deterrent force thinkable. However, this is much less than an ethical warrant for altogether destroying three nascent political communities in their centuries-old homes.

So the hard but simplifying ethical question is: when citizens of adjacent failed states have already formed organic political communities that transgress borders imposed on them from outside, is our obligation to the transcendent authority of the imperial borders themselves great enough to justify war to restore them? Barack Obama, at least, has seemed to doubt that he has the words to explain to the widow of an American soldier lost fighting the Islamic State that her husband died that the Picot-Sykes line might live. His likely successor is more hawkish, proposing to restore Syria by deposing Assad, so that indigenous forces now engaged in that fight can overrun the Islamic State. In contrast, the default option is simply to give up a century-old Great Powers experiment, confirm new boundaries on the ground that were drawn by the feet of those who live in them, and work in those places as we do elsewhere to tame cruelty and punish incivility. What exactly is wrong with it?

Bowman Walton

Anonymous said...

Yes, Peter, but I think that Grotius, the first modern theorist of international order, would have nevertheless put it as I put it because the priority of order to anarchy trumps everything else, both ethically and practically. Once there is an undisputed state on secure territory, others have a range of reasonable options for influencing it, and anyway with few exceptions responsibility for citizens has its own moderating effect over time. Sunni opinion elsewhere would probably be more persuasive in moderating the behaviour of the IS than allied sentiments. And yes, the perfect is the enemy of the good-- Turkey may find it harder to occupy Western Armenia, and some very mixed populations will have to acquire cosmopolitan virtues whether they like them or not. But at the root of it all-- whatever we dislike about the Islamic State, it does not become more tractable when we threaten its citizens with renewed subjection to the Shiite government that frankly hates them and would rather be an Iranian client state than an enforcer of Western imperial designs in the Middle East. Some allies will probably do something consequential, but it may be both more prudent and more ethical to do less rather than more.

Bowman Walton