War and religion have always had an intricate and complicated relationship: war has historically been an instrument to progress ideology, acquire resources and exercise power, while religious ideologies have been used as a potent cause of war and as means of cohesion to both progress war and to justify war’s rules of conduct. These two entities, then, despite the moral dilemma they pose to each other, have complemented each other for as long as they have existed. War and Religion have always sought protection within and from each other. So it is no surprise that in a world full of conflict and the pronouncement of peace, war is viewed as a sophisticated political and philosophical phenomenon.
The latest hot-zone of hot mess is Syria, where a war that is brewing with the intent of igniting democracy, is also on the verge of becoming a chemical weapon induced stalemate. And that last proposition is what makes everyone within the international community twitch aggressively and wag their collective fingers at the injustice that is chemical warfare. But one must ask, why are we drawing this line? Why now? We do not blink when refugees pour out of Syria or Myanmar, we do not blink when the governments burnt villages after villages in the pursuit of parity, suppressed dissent for decades under the polished boots of military ‘justice’ and international apathy (you can use Syria and Myanmar interchangeably when it comes to suppressing dissent). So what is so obscene about an unjust war? More importantly, is there a ‘just’ way to conduct war?
To answer these questions we have to look at the two most prominent paradigms that are attempting to explain the idea of warfare and provide philosophical, practical and ethical directives: the Just War Theory and the Realist Paradigm.
War, as a social phenomenon, has been described by modern theorists like Kenneth Waltz, as a by-product of an anarchical system of governance within international politics with direct involvement of a government’s citizens. However, that concept of war is a modern one relating to war between nation-states, and focuses entirely on the realist paradigms of calculations and utility maximization. In simpler terms war is a rational progression of politics when conditions are right.
Returning to antiquity, we can see that this definition cannot possibly apply to pre-Christian city-state civilizations. Additionally, owing to documents produced by such scholars as Thucydides analyzing the Peloponnesian war, we can acknowledge that war and conduct within it were very much on the minds of those existing in these civilizations. Contemporaneous to Thucydides writing, was a general adherence to polytheism, and warfare was often seen as an instrument of one or two particular gods, with the conduct within it depending upon one’s interpretation of the gods’ directives. Ethical constraints, so prominent within contemporary Just War Theory, then, existed and were already part of war long before Christianity became the world’s dominant religion. So the two most prominent paradigms were in cahoots long before we could spell ‘chemical warfare’ or ‘secular world order’.
To understand the rules of engagement in today’s world, where some weapons are ‘state approved’ machines of destruction and some are just ‘evil’, we have to understand the core constructs of just war theory. And that is where Thomas Aquinas comes quite handy. If we dissect Thomas Aquinas’s Just War Doctrine, we will see it as a reflection and necessity of his time. The Roman Catholic Church was worried that the pacifist tendencies within Christianity might deter Christian converts from fighting for Church and empire; they needed someone to incorporate theology and reality into one unifying directive. Aquinas, then, gave the Church with the ability to wage war without being cast into doubt by her followers. Furthermore, to monopolize war ethics and to eradicate any impact of realism (or other non-Christian ethos) on the conduct of warfare, the Catholic Church added more convention to Just War Theory by stating that all war must be fought in proportion and it must be a last resort. This was an attempt to keep the smaller Christian nations happy, and while trying to restrain bigger Christian nations that might start a war and/or use disproportionate force. Quite interestingly the history of the Caliphate and its expansion after the death of the Prophet follows a similar rationalization of expansion and resource gathering to fund more expansion with the same ethos.
So it is quite easy to assess from our brief conversation why Just war theorists would view chemical weapons as a form of disproportionate force and thus frown at the usage of such force. But how about the realists, who look at rational calculations as the only way to understand war?
This is where the water gets a little murky. Because while we have been thinking about a ‘just’ way to fight war, war has been in peace with its unjustness. And as states become more and more sophisticated in their expression of fighting the ‘good’ fight, fighting for ‘democracy’, shedding blood to preserve ‘freedom’, states incorporate the just war paradigm to progress their rationalist agendas. So for a realist the usage of chemical weapons is abhorrent because it vitiates the notion of moral war and suggests a war without any scruples. And that creates a practical problem.
A ‘moral’ war is as easy to sell to a citizenry as a new Iphone. But a war that does away with the pretense of civility and proper conduct should not be touched with a 10-foot pole. So in all practicality the measures we have in place is not to protect civilian populations from the ravages of war but to sell the idea of war as a glorious and just cause. And for that reason it is safe to say that the realist paradigm has slowly but surely engulfed the just war paradigm. So the constraints and conducts within war are bore out of necessity to manage war more efficiently, not to sustain some grand idea of conducting war more humanely.
Jyoti Omi Chowdhury is a War Theorist and a Visiting Researcher at Center for Sustainable Development.