On September 11, 2001, four hijacked airliners were flown into the World Trade Center buildings, the Pentagon, and a field in western Pennsylvania, resulting in the deaths of approximately 3,000 people. As we united in shock and grief, the American people also began to debate what was an appropriate response to these attacks.

On October 7, the debate was silenced when the United States began an intensive bombing campaign against Afghanistan. Those calling for a solution other than war were marginalized in the media as a patriotic fervor swept the country. In the months since the war began, leading voices within the religious and academic communities have defended the attacks as warranted under the traditional "just war" doctrine. (1)

I personally believe that as a follower of Jesus Christ, I am called to a life of non-violent discipleship. I also believe that the Church collectively is called to that same life. And that in our individual and collective lives, we can neither participate in or support the state's resort to war. Yet, we are often challenged that to be taken seriously, we must engage the just war doctrine. While I believe that non-violence should be taken seriously on its own merits, the challenge is one worth answering.

We who oppose all war can at the same time question and critique particular wars. The 1961 Mennonite Church statement, "The Christian Witness to the State," concluded that, as part of the prophetic vocation of the church, government "must be challenged to seek the highest meanings of such values and concepts as justice, equality, freedom, and peace. And that even though they may reject the highest good in favor of relative and lesser values, statesmen must nevertheless be challenged to find the highest possible values within their own relative frames of reference. In so doing, the Christian may and can rightfully speak to decisions which the Christian ethic will not permit him to assist in carrying out." (2)

As John Howard Yoder further explained in The Christian Witness to the State:

"We do not ask of the government that it be nonresistant; we do, however, ask that it take the most just and the least violent action possible." (3)

"Certain concepts, such as that of the lesser evil, while illegitimate for guiding Christian discipleship, are still relevant in the elaboration of an ethic for the state. The same can be said for the traditional Catholic doctrine of the just war.... All such criteria are useful attempts to delimit, in terms of the function of the state, the cases in which the use of violence is the least illegitimate.... When the conditions traditionally posed for a just war are not fulfilled, then a war is unjust to the point that even a state, resolved to use violence, is out of order in its prosecution." (4)

This essay will discuss the traditional criteria of the just war doctrine as it applies to the U.S. war against Afghanistan. I will not argue the case for nonviolence, but simply engage that doctrine on its own terms. As I do so, I realize that the situation continues to unfold and all relevant facts are not yet known. The definitions of the criteria that follow are drawn from three statements by the U.S. Catholic Bishops. (5)

The first, and most important point, is that the doctrine begins with the presumption that war is not justifiable. The Bishops' 1983 Pastoral noted: "The moral theory of the 'just war' or 'limited war' doctrine begins with the presumption which binds all Christians: we should do no harm to our neighbors; how we treat our enemy is the key test of whether we love our neighbor...." (6) It then establishes "a set of rigorous conditions which must be met if the decision to go to war is to be morally permissible. Such a decision, especially today, requires extraordinarily strong reasons for overriding the presumption in favor of peace and against war." (7) It is worth noting that the development of the tradition, from Augustine on, was an attempt to limit war, not to justify it.

"Jus ad Bellum"

The first set of criteria are the jus ad bellum - why and when war is permissible.

  1. Just Causeforce may be used only to correct a grave, public evil, i.e. aggression or massive violation of the basic rights of whole populations … to protect innocent life, to preserve conditions necessary for decent human existence, and to secure basic human rights.

    Since September 11, I have had to realize that in the thinking and organizing work I've done for 30 years, I've never had to confront what I believed a "just cause." In working for peace in relation to Vietnam, Central America, South Africa, Panama, even Serbia, I never believed the U.S. cause met that threshold — the fundamental cause was not just. Opposing those U.S. military interventions was easy.

    This was far more difficult — the U.S. was attacked and thousands of people killed. What was the appropriate response? I do believe that finding and apprehending those who committed those crimes and preventing further attacks is a just cause. The questions then become how, not whether; a question of means rather than ends. So, I along with many others have had to think through the hard questions of when the use of force by the government is appropriate. Is an intensive bombing campaign against another country the appropriate response to an act of terror?

    The attacks on the U.S. were criminal acts by multinational members of the Al Qaeda network, which required a policing response; they were not acts of war by the country of Afghanistan which required a military response. Terrorism, which is non-governmental, carried out by networks of people operating from various countries, is criminal, not military. They could and should have been dealt with in that manner. (8)

    Supporters of the war have easily slid from "crime" to "war" without much apparent thought. The "What We're Fighting For" statement signed by 60 American academics claims: "Those who died on the morning of September 11 were killed unlawfully, wantonly, and with premeditated malice — a kind of killing that, in the name of precision, can only be described as murder.... The individuals who committed these acts of war did not act alone, or without support, or for unknown reasons. They were members of an international Islamicist network...." (9) That move from "murder" to "acts of war" is too easy a move to justify retaliatory war.

    Catholic ethicist Fr. Bryan Hehir, shortly after the attacks and before the bombing began, wrote: "Containing and capturing terrorists is by definition a function of police and legal networks. War is an indiscriminate tool for this highly discriminating task. Beyond the legal lie the economic and the political: drying up sources of funding and civil space where transnational networks live." (10)

With that in mind, the remaining criteria:

  1. Legitimate (competent) authoritywar must be declared by those with responsibility for public order, not by private groups or individuals and in a democratic society ... involves ... the question of whether or not a president of the United States has acted constitutionally and legally in involving our country in a de facto war, even if — indeed — especially if — war was never formally declared.

    The U.S. government, while certainly a "legitimate authority" with "responsibility for public order" was not the "competent authority" to wage war on another country (Afghanistan) in response to a terrorist crime (by Al Qaeda). The United Nations is the "competent authority" in that case.

    On September 28, the U.N. Security Council unanimously passed a resolution calling for extraordinary measure by all member states against terrorism. The Council noted "… its unequivocal condemnation of the terrorist acts that took place in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania on 11 September 2001 and expressing its determination to prevent all such acts," then called on "States to work together urgently to prevent and suppress terrorist acts...." (11) The resolution included requiring governments to "freeze the funds, assets and economic resources of those who commit or attempt to commit terrorist acts or facilitate the commission of terrorist acts along with demanding states prevent the use of their territory by those who finance, plan, support, commit terrorist acts."

    These ongoing alternatives to war around the world have produced significant results. A recent story reported that more than 1,500 arrests have been made in more than 50 countries of persons suspected of terrorist ties; 140 countries have frozen funds in 270 accounts with assets of $65 million. The same story quoted "a senior Bush administration official" as saying that the growing number of arrests and frozen assets are "beginning to impair Al Qaeda operations and their ability to launch terrorist actions. … There are clearly instances where the lack of funding is delaying or setting back operations." (12)

    Even if one accepts the U.S. government as the "competent authority," the U.S. Congress did not declare war on Afghanistan as required by the Constitution. On September 14-15, the House and Senate passed an "Authorization for Use of Military Force," giving the President the authority "to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons...." (13) The resolution passed the Senate 98-0 and the House 420-1, with only Rep. Barbara Lee of California opposing it. Rep. Lee told the press "she voted against the authorization to use force because she opposes giving the president the sole decision on when and where to make war. 'I believe we must make sure that Congress upholds its responsibilities and upholds checks and balances. This is a representative democracy and it's our responsibility'." Her chief of staff added: "The principle on which she based her decision was that somebody should stand up and say that only Congress has the power to declare war." (14)

  2. Comparative justicewhich side is sufficiently 'right' in a dispute, and are the values at stake critical enough to override the presumption against war? ... No state should act on the basis that it has "absolute justice" on its side. Every party to a conflict should acknowledge the limits of its "just cause" … designed to relativize absolute claims....

    Five days after the attacks, President Bush told reporters at the White House "This is a new kind of evil, and we understand, and the American people are beginning to understand, this crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take awhile, and the American people must be patient. We will rid the world of the evil-doers." (15) While the president has since, after much criticism, dropped the "crusade" language, it is clear that the belief remains. In the administration's mind, the U.S. is totally good and innocent waging a holy war against evil. Shortly before the bombing began, a New York Times report cited "Administration officials and others who have recently spoken with Mr. Bush" as saying that "he was interpreting this juncture in grand, emphatic and even Manichean terms, a perspective evident in his recent use of the word 'crusade' and in his speech to Congress, in which he said that 'this is civilization's fight,' that freedom and fear were at war and that 'God is not neutral between them'." (16)

    There has been no honest questioning of the reasons why an Al Qaeda exists, no questioning of U.S. foreign, military, and economic policies. And while not justifying terrorism, if we are ever to honestly combat it, the United States must seriously address the deep felt grievances of many, particularly in the Arab world. The ongoing violence in Israel/Palestine, the effects of sanctions against Iraq, the U.S.-backed repressive governments in the Gulf region, all contribute to an atmosphere that breeds terrorism.

  3. Right intentionforce may be used only in a truly just cause and solely for that purpose. … War can be legitimately intended only for the reasons set forth above as a just cause.

    In his initial speech to the nation on September 20, President Bush outlined his demands: "Tonight, the United States of America makes the following demands on the Taliban: Deliver to United States authorities all the leaders of al Qaeda who hide in your land. Release all foreign nationals, including American citizens, you have unjustly imprisoned. Protect foreign journalists, diplomats and aid workers in your country. Close immediately and permanently every terrorist training camp in Afghanistan, and hand over every terrorist, and every person in their support structure, to appropriate authorities. Give the United States full access to terrorist training camps, so we can make sure they are no longer operating." (17)

    Three weeks later, as the bombing began, the president broadened his objectives for going to war: "On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against al Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. These carefully targeted actions are designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations, and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime." (18)

    Several days later, news reports indicated that the objective had quickly shifted to overthrowing the Taliban: "The downfall of Afghanistan's ruling Taliban has shifted in the Bush administration's eyes from being a possible means of destroying Osama bin Laden's network to being a preeminent end in itself." (19)

    Each step of the way, the intention became farther and farther away from the "just cause" of apprehending those responsible for the September 11 attacks.

  4. Last resortfor resort to war to be justified, all peaceful alternatives must have been seriously tried and exhausted.

    As noted above, in his September 20 speech, President Bush demanded that the Taliban deliver to the United States all leaders of al Qaeda who were in Afghanistan, immediately close every training camp and hand over every terrorist and every person in their support structure and then said: "These demands are not open to negotiation or discussion." (20) An editorial in the Jesuit magazine America noted that: "Although the Taliban had refused to turn Osama bin Laden over to the United States, it had offered 1) to negotiate, 2) to put him on trial in an Islamic court and 3) to turn him over to a third country if the United States provided evidence of his guilt. These offers were rejected out of hand by the Bush administration as nothing more than delaying tactics." (21)

    News reports also indicated that, according to administration officials, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan's entreaties that any American military action be subject to Security Council approval had been rejected. (22)

    As the bombing campaign began, it was clear that it was the only response that had been considered. A Los Angeles Times story reported: "Bush advisors say the president decided from the start he wanted to launch a large-scale military response to the attacks, and at every step along the way refined - but did not change - that initial choice. Asked whether Bush ever considered an option that did not include military action, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice replied firmly: 'No'." (23) Military force was the first resort, not the last.

  5. Probability of successarms may not be used in a futile cause or in a case where disproportionate measures are required to achieve success … to prevent irrational resort to force or hopeless resistance when the outcome of either will clearly be disproportionate or futile.

    Judging this depends on how "success" is defined. The Catholic Bishops admitted that "probability of success is difficult to measure in dealing with an amorphous, global terrorist network." (24) As noted, the administration has named a number of constantly shifting objectives.

    If the purpose of war was to apprehend those who organized the Sept. 11 attacks — bin Laden, etc. — it clearly failed. If the purpose was to prevent future attacks, it's too soon to tell, but it seems clear that there are terrorist cells many places other than Afghanistan who have not been deterred by the war. We seem to be living under constant warnings of attacks yet to come. If the purpose was to overthrow the Taliban, it succeeded, but it's too soon to tell whether the result will be any better.

    One reporter recently noted: "Four months into the campaign in Afghanistan, US officials acknowledge that American forces have killed or captured only one senior Al Qaeda figure and seven less prominent leaders. The lack of success has kindled frustration within the military and second-guessing among congressional leaders and policy makers. The inability to capture Osama bin Laden or any members of his inner circle has led some officials and analysts to question a Pentagon strategy that was strikingly successful in removing the Taliban regime in just weeks, but that has found far less success in dismantling Al Qaeda." (25)

  6. Proportionalitythe damage to be inflicted and the costs incurred by war must be proportionate to the good expected by taking up arms.

    "Taking up arms" in the context of today's aerial warfare inevitably kills innocent civilians. While it may not be intended, the military simply accepts it as the "collateral damage" to be expected. So, while granting that the military does not deliberately try to kill civilians, they are killed. The response from Defense Department officials includes outright denial, occasionally admitting mistakes in targeting or malfunctioning weapons, or acknowledging that there are unintended civilian deaths.

    A good example is the following exchange from an October news conference with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld:

    "Q: Well, when you drop bombs at night in an area like Kabul, drop many bombs in an area like Kabul, how do you avoid hitting civilians by mistake?

    Rumsfeld: Well, there is no question but — first of all, that's a very different issue than the one you raised first. As I said yesterday or the day before, there's no question but that when one is engaged militarily, that there is going to be unintended loss of life. It has always been the case. It certainly will be the case in this instance. And there's no question but that I and anyone involved regrets the unintended loss of life." (26)

    In a November interview with the Pakistani magazine Dawn, Osama bin Laden made the same point: "The September 11 attacks were not targeted at women and children. The real targets were America's icons of military and economic power." (27)

    While this is certainly not to equate the two — the U.S. has been generally very careful to avoid civilian deaths — the symmetry noted suggests that when an absolute immunity of civilians is breached, the "slippery slope" begins. The "What We're Fighting For" statement claimed: "Although in some circumstances, and within strict limits, it can be morally justifiable to undertake military actions that may result in the unintended but foreseen death or injury of some noncombatants, it is not morally acceptable to make the killing of noncombatants the operational objective of a military action." (28)

    It is here that as people of non-violence, we must draw the line. Any claim that the "unintended but foreseen" deaths of innocents is morally justifiable must be morally unacceptable. If it is foreseen, expected, tolerated — then calling it unintended is semantic rather than substantive.

    As historian Howard Zinn wrote: "Is it really an accident when civilians die under our bombs? Even if you grant that the intention is not to kill civilians, if they nevertheless become victims, again and again and again, can that be called an accident? If the deaths of civilians are inevitable in bombing, it may not be deliberate, but it is not an accident...." (29)

    Bombing a country with today's weapons makes this criteria unlikely ever to be met. AC-130 gunships, "daisy-cutter" 15,000 pound bombs, anti-personnel cluster bombs, "thermobaric" bombs, massive B-52 "target boxes," etc. are not discriminate. The Defense Department admits that even their "precision-guided" munitions are not perfect — Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld has said that the weaponry is "probably 85-90 percent reliable." (30) Anti-personnel cluster bombs — small canisters that explode on contact — now cover the ground in Afghanistan and will continue to kill for years. Estimates of the number of unexploded canisters are as high as 36,000 bomblets. (31). All of this means that whatever "good to be expected" is far outweighed by the costs.

Applying these "rigorous criteria" in light of the post-September 11 facts, I can only conclude that the presumption against war was not overridden, and the war against Afghanistan was not "just." There were not "extraordinarily strong reasons for overriding the presumption in favor of peace and against war," and other alternatives were never tried.

"Jus in Bello"

The second set of criteria, jus in bello, apply "when the stringent conditions which justify resort to war are met" and have to do with the conduct of war. These criteria involve primarily an ongoing assessment of how a war is carried out, with particular attention being paid to a "discriminate" use of force and the occurrence of civilian casualties. The Catholic Bishops noted: "Even if the cause is just, the grave moral obligation to respect the principles of non-combatant immunity and proportionality remain in force and must govern our nation's political and military decisions." (32) As the intense phase of the air war is now over, it is beginning to be possible to analyze what happened in Afghanistan.

  1. ProportionalityIn the conduct of hostilities, efforts must be made to attain military objectives with no more force than is militarily necessary and to avoid disproportionate collateral damage to civilian life and property.
  2. Discrimination or Noncombatant ImmunityCivilians may not be the object of direct attack and military personnel must take due care to avoid and minimize indirect harm to civilians … prohibits directly intended attacks on noncombatants and nonmilitary targets.

    While not "directly intended," the massive use of modern weaponry against an already devastated country, with the inevitable results of civilian death and destruction, made the bombing of Afghanistan neither proportionate or discriminate.

    Media access was tightly controlled during the intense bombing, although there were frequent reports in the foreign press and in U.N. and relief agency reports of civilian deaths. There are now an increasing number of reports in the U.S. press from Afghanistan of bombed-out civilian homes and villages. As the Boston Globe recently reported: "The issue of Afghan innocents dying from American bombing has taken on new resonance in recent weeks as evidence emerges of a larger death toll than previously reported. A Globe on-the-ground survey of 14 sites, and a review of scores of others, found the toll almost certainly surpassed 1,000 dead." (33) A New York Times reporter similarly noted that "[C]ertainly hundreds and perhaps thousands of innocent Afghans have lost their lives during American attacks, a scattering of bodies extraordinarily difficult to tabulate." (34) And a Washington Post reporter concluded: "The accounts indicate that while being very cautions about hunting Taliban or al Qaeda members on the ground, U.S. forces struck potential targets from the air with less discriminating firepower." (35)

    One report based on major U.S. and other newspapers and news agencies claims a total between 3,000 to 3,600 civilian deaths. University of New Hampshire professor Marc W. Herold has compiled accounts for each day of the bombing listing the number of casualties, the location and sources of information. (36) While his figure has been challenged, including by some human rights organizations, I suspect that as more reporters, U.N. and relief agencies, and others enter Afghanistan and begin investigations, the numbers will continue to rise.

    The deaths we may never know are the unknown thousands (or tens of thousands) of Taliban "soldiers" (many of whom were teenagers forcibly conscripted into the militia). Even this is now beginning to appear in the press. A story headlined: "Families Try to Trace Thousands of Missing Taliban, Many Forced to Fight," tells of families looking for their sons "forcibly conscripted by the Taliban" and "sent to the front line in northern Afghanistan. … Most of the people interviewed said their relatives had been forcibly conscripted just as the United States began its bombing campaign, on Oct. 7." (37)

    We must also include in the costs of the war the further devastation of the already-devastated infrastructure of one of the poorest countries on earth. For the U.S. the costs incurred include $1 billion per month in direct military costs so far and a proposed increase in military spending for the next year of $50 billion (the highest in two decades), while the administration's 2003 budget proposal cuts or eliminates funding for a variety of domestic programs.

  3. Right IntentionEven in the midst of conflict, the aim of political and military leaders must be peace with justice … including avoiding unnecessarily destructive acts or imposing unreasonable conditions (e.g. unconditional surrender).

    The intention of the administration since October 7 has been constantly shifting. The aim has seemed less that of peace than that of endless war. Commentator Michael Kinsley has pointed out that the administration has been "artfully inconsistent." "Starting with overwhelming approval for retribution against the perpetrators of 9-11, it has nudged us down the slippery slope from destroying al Qaeda headquarters to destroying the government that 'harbored' the headquarters, to invading or bombing other countries where al Qaeda may have operations or that sponsor al Qaeda operations elsewhere, to military action against countries that harbor or sponsor terrorists unconnected to 9-11, to action against countries that do other bad things, like developing nuclear weapons." (38)

Even some in Congress are now beginning to raise questions about an expanded war with no clear definition of success. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle recently said: "I think the time has come for us to be asking a lot more questions. That is the role of Congress. We're a co-equal branch of government, and I don't think we ought to rubber stamp any president as we get into these very difficult decisions." (39)

While we continue to oppose all war as non-violent followers of Jesus, we can also work to limit the violence by holding those who claim to apply just war principles accountable to their criteria. In this instance, I believe the war was "unjust to the point that even a state, resolved to use violence, is out of order in its prosecution." The evidence so far shows that the decision to go to war was not justified — the presumption against war was not overridden — and the ongoing conduct of the war is not within the just war principles.

We can challenge the government (and Christians who have supported the war) on their own terms. While those responsible for criminal attacks must be apprehended and terrorism must be prevented, the U.S. war against Afghanistan is accomplishing neither.