Thursday, December 10, 2009

On "Just War": Understanding Pres. Barack Obama and His Nobel Speech

Augustine of Hippo, by Botticelli

UPDATED (now with more paper): An edited version of this post has now appeared in The Roanoke Times.  


Today, Pres. Barack Obama formally received his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway.  The committee said:
The Committee knows that many will weigh his ideals against what he really does, and that should be welcomed. But if the demand is either to fulfil your ideals to the letter, and at once, or to stop having ideals, we are left with a most damaging division between the limits of today's realities and the vision for tomorrow. Then politics becomes pure cynicism. Political leaders must be able to think beyond the often narrow confines of realpolitik. Only in this way can we move the world in the right direction....
Today yet another American president is trying to renew internationalism. He reaffirms that the U.S.A. must lead together with others. Walls must be torn down. As he put it in his speech in Berlin in July 2008: "The walls between old allies on either side of the Atlantic cannot stand. The walls between the countries with the most and those with the least cannot stand. The walls between races and tribes; natives and immigrants; Christians and Muslims and Jews cannot stand. These now are the walls we must tear down".
Then, Pres. Obama gave his speech.  It's engendered quite a reaction already, mostly (in the US, at least) because he acknowledged that he has received this award even while the US is currently involved in 2 wars.  In doing so, Pres. Obama invoked the idea of a "just war", the idea that war and be wage morally, and ultimately for peace -- but a peace meaning "not merely the absence of visible conflict. Only a just peace based upon the inherent rights and dignity of every individual can truly be lasting".  Then later Pres. Obama said:
As the world grows smaller, you might think it would be easier for human beings to recognize how similar we are, to understand that we all basically want the same things, that we all hope for the chance to live out our lives with some measure of happiness and fulfillment for ourselves and our families.
And yet, given the dizzying pace of globalization, and the cultural leveling of modernity, it should come as no surprise that people fear the loss of what they cherish about their particular identities — their race, their tribe and, perhaps most powerfully, their religion. In some places, this fear has led to conflict. At times, it even feels like we are moving backwards....
Most dangerously, we see it in the way that religion is used to justify the murder of innocents by those who have distorted and defiled the great religion of Islam, and who attacked my country from Afghanistan. These extremists are not the first to kill in the name of God; the cruelties of the Crusades are amply recorded. But they remind us that no Holy War can ever be a just war. For if you truly believe that you are carrying out divine will, then there is no need for restraint — no need to spare the pregnant mother, or the medic, or even a person of one's own faith....
It's a fascinating speech in many ways.  Agree or disagree on its merits, it's a learned speech -- one that understands its subject and that subject's history.  All in all, it's a speech that some might say is positively medievalI don't throw that term around lightly.

The invocation of "just war", and how it's understood comes from Augustine of Hippo.  In his City of God, Augustine wrote that wars are miserable but sometimes necessary.  A war, however, is only "just" (or, better, "justified") if it's waged defensively and aiming for an end result of last peace.  Augustine was writing in the late 4th and early 5th centuries, at the height of the Germanic invasions of the Western Roman Empire.  For Augustine, these tribes were the aggressors and their actions necessitated a military response on the part of the Roman authorities.  He wanted Christians to support those Roman military activities against the Germanic tribes.

Then, later, this understanding of war reemerged during the late 10th and early 11th centuries.  The so-called "Peace of God" movement sought to restrain violence by waging war, sometimes preemptively.  At great councils, first centered in what's now SW France but later spreading elsewhere, local nobles, commoners, monks, priests, and bishops gathered and swore oaths to God and the saints that they would respect the peace and censure/ excommunicate those who violated the peace -- this movement ultimately attempting to mimic the peace of Heaven here on Earth.  It didn't really work.  For example, in 1038, a "peace league" gathered around the city of Bourges and waged war against the breakers of the peace.  The league was eventually annihilated. 

This, however, was NOT the Crusades.  And this is an important, though often overlooked point.  As Pres. Obama noted, "no Holy War can ever be a just war. For if you truly believe that you are carrying out divine will, then there is no need for restraint".  Absolutely.  When he called the First Crusade in 1095, Pope Urban II did his best to portray the expedition to Jerusalem as a "just war" in an Augustinian mold, while simultaneously marrying that idea to one of "holy war".  Urban invoked the Muslim attacks on Christians in Jerusalem and throughout the Byzantine East and the need for those of the West, his audience, to respond defensively to that threat.  Their conquest of Jerusalem and the restoration of Christianity there, Urban continued, would lead to a (perhaps apocalyptic) vision of peace.  The marriage worked, and more than 100,000 people from all over Europe went to the East, massacred Jews along the way, took Jerusalem, and massacred its inhabitants.  The crusaders reveled in that slaughter because they thought it just and righteous.  

But Urban's conception of the crusade was a willful fiction.  Not only did he not have a monopoly on the ideas flowing through crusaders' minds, he likely well knew (as Obama seems to, and now denounces) the consequences of marrying "just" and "holy" war.  Even as he assuredly thought that peace would come at the successful completion of the expedition, he likely well knew that slaughter would come.

Pres. Obama here wants to thread 2 needles.  First, he wants to separate out a thoroughly Christian (and that needs to be said, even though Obama didn't say it) idea of justified warfare from a more general understanding of holy warfare, one in which, because God is on your side, the ends always justifies the means.  Second, he wants to separate out the Christian bit of this Christian idea, essentially secularizing it, offering a more humane alternative to ideologically dogmatic realpolitik (which, really, it is -- even as oxymoronic as that sounds).  That's probably why Pres. Obama chose to close his speech with this: 
We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of deprivation, and still strive for dignity. We can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace.
This is something that Augustine seemed to understand, even if his later interpreters during the European Middle Ages fundamentally didn't.  For them, everything was ultimately zero-sum.  There was good and there was evil.  You were on one side or the other.  Obama, however, is saying that he believes that there are shades of gray here in this world that no place on this Earth can become a paradise.  For, to paraphrase Augustine, we are all pilgrims in this world; our constant wandering not necessarily dimming our hopes that we'll someday reach our destination.


london said...

Noble war prize..goes to President Obama...yes war prize....Congrats...

gesta said...

Thank you for a considered and thoughtful post on this topic after what has felt like a term of willful misunderstandings!

Anonymous said...

First off, it is (and was started as) a war against terrorism. The only ones who call it "a crusade" are the terrorists. Their term is JIHAD. They use the "holy war" title as an excuse to kill whomever they want.
Secondly, Obama really wants nothing to do with this war. I don't believe that he even voted (while still a senator) to give the military more fund for the war effort and the troops. He only uses the military for a back drop for his speeches and for photo ops.
Third and finally, Obama should never have used the those terms (crusades and holy war). It will only help solidify the ideas in the minds of the terrorists. Please don't forget that they have picked this fight with us. Our president is failing us. His actions will not keep us safer.

Matthew Gabriele said...

gesta, thanks!

anonymous, I think that if you look through the archives of this blog, you'll find some quite problematic similarities between the rhetoric employed (at times) by some in the US and those involved in the Crusades. You're right in part about "holy war" though; it's used by all religions to justify warfare. finally, you're right that "they" picked this fight but we chose to respond in a certain way, and I think what Obama's doing here is wondering aloud whether some of the choices we've made over the past 8 years were the best ones available.

Anonymous said...

Applause from me too, Matt. I think Mr Obama would be pleased to see that someone at least understands what he's getting at. Has he yet met Pope Benedict? I can't recall. That we should have two world-level appreciators of medieval thinking guiding public morals is slightly strange; their conversation would be fascinating if they could ever stray from their job's dictates.