April 25, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Tuesday, April 25, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Siege warfare and the Syrian civil war: Why the Christian understanding of Just War Theory matters
One of the great moral issues that Christians have struggled with over the centuries is the question of warfare. This is been a central issue of Christian concern forced upon the Christian church by historical circumstances and by the enduring reality of armed conflict all around the world. Christians have struggled with this question going back to the earliest centuries of the church. The great military reality then was of course the Roman Empire, and the question came to the early church, can Christians, can a Christian man serve in Caesar’s army? Now remember that in the book of Acts we meet Cornelius who was a centurion in Caesar’s army, and he came to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. We also come to know that there were those early in terms of the Christian church who served in Caesar’s army. Thus, it came to be understood as an honorable profession for Christians, but one that had to be undertaken according to the very clear moral principles.
By the time you get to the end of the early church age, you have the development of what is known as Just War Theory. Principles were established on the front end of war and on the back end, that’s to say principles for when declaring war, initiating military action, would be just and questions about how once military action was undertaken it could be pursued in a just manner.Show Full Transcript
In terms of the declaration of war it was understood that all military action, if just and righteous, would be defensive, never offensive. It would be a matter of last resort after everything else has been tried and that war would have to be declared by a righteous authority—that is it’s not vigilantism; it would have to be authorized by what we would now understand to be a legitimate government. Once military action has been justly undertaken, it would have to be fought according again to certain moral principles. Civilians would have to be protected whenever possible and military action would have to be proportionate, and that’s again an established moral principle.
Going on from that, Christians have come to the understanding that warfare would have to be defensive, rightly authorized, it would have to be proportionate, and you can understand how as the out-workings of those principles came to be known, it was clearly understood that war sometimes was indeed inevitable, unavoidable, it was that last resort. But one of the vexing questions of the modern world is why throughout much of the world warfare continues to be an escalating reality and an ever present threat. But something else is now impressed upon us, and that is the fact that throughout much of the world there appears to be a moral retreat, a moral regress even, in terms of the morality of war.
For example, the New York Times ran an article in recent weeks. The headline was,
“Old Tactics and New Buck Norms of Warfare.”
This is of course a secular newspaper writing from a secular worldview. Russell Goldman pointed particularly to the Civil War in Syria. He said,
“In a campaign to crush rebels and jihadists, Mr. Assad and his allies have relied on tactics that go far beyond the norms of modern warfare to kill many thousands of Syrians. Here are the ways they have done it.”
Now what’s explicit in terms of this article is that in Syria you have a dictator who is not protecting civilians. He is rather at war with civilians, even the civilians in his own country. But there are some particular norms according to this article that have been violated, for example the use of chemical weapons. We saw that that became the precipitating factor for President Donald Trump to initiate military action against Syria, the first U.S. direct military action in the long and bloody history, a six year history, of the civil war. But it’s not just chemical weapons. As the New York Times makes clear, the Syrian government in attacking its own citizens has also used siege tactics and starvation. Now Goldman writes,
“In a war that has involved some of the modern world’s most dangerous weapons, Mr. Assad and his allies have also used an ancient tactic to devastating effect: siege warfare.”
Goldman went on to say,
“Last year, government troops brought the rebel-held districts of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city before the war, to its knees. Residents of those areas of the northern city were besieged for months. Hundreds of thousands of people there and in other besieged cities risked starving to death, and many hundreds succumbed to the stranglehold that forces loyal to Mr. Assad had on the city’s food supply.”
Now the article moves on to document other examples of siege warfare and starvation in terms of the Syrian civil war. This is where Christians need to have an immediate recognition that we have seen this before. Reading the Bible, we are reminded that enemies of Israel such as Assyria and Babylonia did the very same thing. Indeed, the New York Times notes this is an ancient form of warfare against civilians. When we read the Bible, we come to understand that siege warfare, setting a city to siege, is one of the most brutal forms of an attack upon civilians. And as this New York Times article makes clear, the effort is to starve the people into submission. We see this in the Old Testament. Again we see Babylonians, we see Assyrians laying siege to Israel, including to Jerusalem.
Siege warfare in the Old Testament often took the form of an invading army encircling a city, such as an Israeli city, such as Jerusalem, and often at the form of that invading army cutting off all food supplies, water, and of course trying its very best to starve and thirst the population into surrender. But beyond that, sometimes the invading power also built walls outside the city’s defensive walls. That was an effort to try to create the opportunity for weapons to rain down—spears or other forms of weaponry—into the city, again to devastating effect.
Here’s where we’re looking at this kind of moral regress. This kind of siege warfare has been largely unknown in terms of modern centuries until now. And now we’re seeing it where we saw even in biblical times. We’re seeing it in Syria and we’re seeing it used against civilians in some of the most ancient cities in the world. It is almost as if some of the most horrible ghosts of world history are now coming back in the form of this kind of warfare against the civilians in Syria.
The New York Times article also goes on to indicate that Syria is using mass executions and torture and even the targeting of hospitals. This again, understood in terms of Just War Theory, is one of the most immoral acts imaginable. It is not just the deliberate targeting of civilians. It is the deliberate targeting of medical facilities such as hospitals. This is clearly an effort not only to bring about death and destruction, but also to break the will of a people. And that’s exactly the point in this kind of warfare against civilians.
Shouldn't we just ban the bomb? Nuclear weapons and the problem of sin and knowledge
Next, we shift to another issue of grave Christian concern related to the morality of warfare, in this case, the question of nuclear weapons. This has been headline news for good reason in many recent months, and particularly even in recent years related to the failure of Western governments to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons to so-called rogue regimes. Clearly this is mainly a concern about Iran and also North Korea.
Writing at The Prospect, a major British newsmagazine, Matthew Harries asked the question, would it be better simply to ban the bomb? The background of this is the fact that efforts to try to limit the access of rogue nations of the bombs have not worked. It is now believed that Iran either has nuclear weapons or is just on the threshold of developing the same, and we find a similar situation in North Korea. Already that nation has detonated at least some nuclear weapons, and it is believed that it is gaining not only more sophisticated nuclear weaponry but also the ability to deliver it anywhere on the globe by means of ballistic missile systems.
Harries, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, is not making a ludicrous argument—at least it’s clearly not intended to be understood as such. He is arguing that instead of trying to limit nuclear weapons, we should outlaw them and ban them out right. As he writes, and I quote,
“Advocates of the ban want to reframe the entire nuclear question. So instead of the pro-disarmament, having to make the case for giving up the bomb, nuclear states would have to make the case for keeping it.”
He then goes on to ask whether this might be pragmatically possible or not. He says only nine states are nuclear armed, four more than when the treaty was signed. Now that’s a nonproliferation treaty. The fact that the number has gone up from five to nine indicates the limited value of such a treaty. He says few technologies have ever spread so slowly. The achievement is not all the nonproliferation treaty is doing, coercion and bribery have played a part, as have America’s nuclear defense guarantees. Still he says on the test of stopping the spread of the bomb, the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty has been a qualified success, but when it comes to actual disarmament, things he says have gone a bit awry.
Now what makes this article particularly interesting from a Christian worldview is the moral lessons that are implicit within it. Because here you have someone making a straightforward argument that perhaps we need to give up on the efforts of nonproliferation when it comes to nuclear weapons and simply make them illegal, to ban them. But here of course is the problem: the nations that have them are not about to give them up. Nuclear weapons guarantee massive military authority and influence military power in a very dangerous world. Furthermore, even many of those who make the case that we would be better off without nuclear weapons actually want their allies to have them. This is a situation we often found during the 1980s and the 90s when there were many peace activists throughout Europe in particular who called for the elimination of nuclear weapons. But, at least candidly, many of them did not want to give up the protection that came from having the United States give a curtain of military protection over Europe in terms of nuclear weapons.
But we also have from the Christian worldview perspective something else that’s really interesting here. It comes down to the morality of knowledge. Let’s just say for a moment that it would be possible, politically speaking, to establish a ban on nuclear weapons. Let’s just make them illegal. Now how in the world would that solve the problem? Well let’s say—and this goes against all reason—that we could actually destroy all nuclear weapons, that somehow in a spirit of absolute nuclear disarmament all the nations of the earth that have the nuclear capability would forgo it, and they would actually bring all other nuclear weapons to be destroyed. Where would the problem remain? It would remain in the knowledge of how to create a nuclear weapon.
We saw this going back to the claims that were made by the Obama Administration and the assurances that came from Russia that the nation of Syria had actually destroyed all of its chemical weapons. When those chemical weapons were used just weeks ago on civilians inside of Syria, the question came: Had Bashar al-Assad, the dictator of Syria, actually held back some those chemical weapons, or—and this is perhaps the scarier question—did the regime simply continue to possess the knowledge so that years after all those chemicals stocks had been destroyed, they were simply able to assemble the chemicals once again into such a deadly form as chemical weapons? That just points to the reality. Once human beings have a knowledge, it’s a knowledge that doesn’t go away. And when it’s a knowledge as deadly as the knowledge of how to create nuclear weapons, the knowledge is itself the reality, and that’s one of most sobering lessons when it comes to humanity. We cannot give up a knowledge that we have received. Once our eyes are opened, it is virtually impossible to close them.
And here’s where Christians think we have indeed also read this before, and we go to the Old Testament to Genesis 3 where we recall that the one tree the fruit of which was forbidden to Adam and Eve was the three of the knowledge of good and evil, and in the book of Genesis the language is abundantly clear. Once human beings have the knowledge not only of good but of evil, there is no way to un-know what humanity will then know. That’s a story that thus goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden and explains why Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden. That is why Adam and Eve who had been unclothed without embarrassment or sin inside the garden, once sin came, fashioned for themselves aprons out of leaves. Why did they do so? Precisely because they then knew what they had not known before, the capacity for sin.
This also leads, as I’ve already indicated, to a form of institutionalized hypocrisy. Harries describes it this way. He says,
“The nonnuclear allies of the United States are in a tight spot. Their foreign ministries must sound positive about disarmament without endorsing a proposal that the U.S. will reject outright, and it’s furthermore clear they do not want the United States to accept the demand that they officially are making about disarmament. Why? Because they know in a dangerous world, if their enemies have even just the knowledge of how to create nuclear weapons, they themselves must be protected against that very use by the possession of those very weapons.”
Harries also understands that even as he has written a major essay in a very influential magazine about whether or not the right thing to do would be to make the bomb illegal and simply to ban it, he also writes, and I quote,
“The ban simply will not apply to any state that does not already reject nuclear weapons.”
In other words, he says, “States,” that is governments, “signing a ban treaty can say all they want about the illegality of the bomb, there will not be any binding effect.”
As he comes to the end of his essay—and once again The Prospect is a fairly liberal magazine in a very liberal society—he goes on and writes,
“In current gloomy global circumstances the whole debate feels somewhat disconnected from reality. Instead of stemming the nuclear tide, a ban could actually undermine the credibility of multilateral diplomacy.”
In other words, it could make a matter even worse. The most interesting part of this article, of course, is the theological dimension, at least to us. And the most important dimension theologically is that background issue of the morality of knowledge. But that is in this article a background issue. It’s not actually addressed. This is where Christians have to understand that really is the big first question. But there’s also in this article an acknowledgment of the tenacity of human sinfulness and the fact that it is human sinfulness that at the foundation is the real problem. Harries cites the late U.S. Senator William Fulbright who back in 1969, discussing efforts to try to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons, said,
“The trouble is not the treaty. It is the orneriness of human beings. Isn’t it?”
Well, Christians understand that orneriness there is something of an understatement. But nonetheless, he’s right. It’s not the treaty. It’s not really even the weapon. It’s the sinfulness of humanity. That’s the problem, in the Senator’s words, “Isn’t it?”
Canadian military tackles the soul-destroying question of when to shoot a child soldier
But next we turn to Great Britain, an article that appeared in The Economist, one of the world’s most influential periodicals, and this article is nothing less than heartbreaking and shocking. But at the same time, it’s an article that apparently hasn’t received much attention. The headline,
“When is it OK to shoot a child soldier?”
This in terms of Christian morality gets right to the heart of the horrors of warfare. The Economist writes this,
“One of the worst dilemmas soldiers face is what to do when they confront armed children. International law and most military codes treat underage combatants mainly as innocent victims. They offer guidance on their legal rights and on how to interrogate and demobilise them. They have little to say about a soul-destroying question, which must typically be answered in a split second: when a kid points a Kalashnikov at you, do you shoot him? Last month Canada became the first country to incorporate a detailed answer into its military doctrine. If you must, it says, shoot first.”
Now let’s just back up for a moment. One of the particular horrors of the last stage of the war against Nazi Germany was that the Nazi regime and its army, the Wehrmacht, having run through millions and millions of young German men, then turned to the elderly, but even more shockingly it turned to children. It put boys, even the youngest of adolescents, in the front lines of defending the Nazi regime, especially as the Allies closed in on the city of Berlin. The Allies found themselves facing not the trained soldiers of the Wehrmacht, but rather smooth-faced boys who were fighting at them with very real guns.
But even as that was a particularly excruciating problem for Allied soldiers during World War II, the reality is that children have been pressed into warfare since ancient times. This article in The Economist points to the excruciating morality of war and to a situation that, as The Economist says, is absolutely “soul-destroying.”
Now recognize even in a secular age, that’s the language used by The Economist for a soldier who finds himself facing an armed child. The Economist continues,
“Such encounters are not rare. Child soldiers fight in at least 17 conflicts, including in Mali, Iraq and the Philippines.”
This soul-destroying reality is amply documented in this article in The Economist. I quote,
“In 2000 a group of British peacekeepers in Sierra Leone who refused to fire on children armed with AK-47s were taken hostage by them. One paratrooper died and 11 others were injured in their rescue. Soldiers who have shot children sometimes suffer from crippling psychological wounds. A Canadian who protected convoys in Afghanistan from attack by young suicide-bombers has not been able to hug his own children since he came home four years ago. Some soldiers have committed suicide.”
Romeo Dallaire, a retired Canadian general, said,
“‘We always thought it was the ambush or the accident that was the hardest point.’ In fact, the ‘hardest one is the moral dilemma and the moral destruction of having to face children.’”
The Economist then summarizes,
“The Geneva Convention and other international accords prohibit attacking schools, abducting children and other practices that harm them. But they do not tell soldiers what to do when they confront children as combatants, making self-defence feel like a war crime.”
Now here again we go into the very heart of darkness, as Joseph Conrad put it. We are looking at the heart of the sinfulness and the horrible moral destruction of war. It is indeed soul-destroying just as The Economist notes. We’re looking at a situation, however, that’s not hypothetical. This is a situation that is found throughout many armed conflicts in the world—The Economist says at least 17 at present. The article in The Economist was brought about because in March the nation of Canada through its defense ministry actually offered what no other nation previously had done. It articulated a policy that it addressed to its own soldiers when confronting the reality of armed children. As the Canadian documents says,
“A child soldier with a rifle or grenade launcher can present as much of a threat as an adult soldier carrying the same armament.”
The Canadian policy offers Canadian soldiers advice about how to handle this situation short of having to use lethal force. But as The Economist says,
“It recommends shooting their adult commanders to shatter discipline and prompt the youngsters to flee or surrender.”
But as the article concludes, sometimes the Canadian policy acknowledges there can be no other choice when facing a child with a gun than to decide to shoot. And as the article concludes,
“By acknowledging their right to defend themselves, Canada’s government may lessen the trauma of those forced to fight the youngest warriors.”
Implicit in the entire moral argument in terms of this Canadian document is the understanding that the primary moral responsibility for this child being in the arm conflict is not borne by the one who might face that child in warfare, but rather the one who put that child into warfare.
The next time someone from a humanist worldview assures you that human beings are committed to continual moral progress, just remember this regress: the picture of a child suicide bomber or the reality of this policy handed down to its military by the Canadian government. We’re living in a savage age. Here is proof positive of that fact.