Tag Archives: Just War Theory

Stubborn resistance

The latest edition of the journal Ethics and International Affairs contains a number of interesting articles on international law and the ethics of war. Several of them are worth commenting on, but I want to focus on a piece by Alex Bellamy, Director of the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at The University of Queensland, Australia. Bellamy is the author of quite a good introductory book on just war theory. As his job title would suggest, he’s something of an R2P advocate, and in his latest article he tackles the idea that during civil wars outside parties should support the state against insurgents. This idea rests on the principle that the state will probably win, and so it’s best to help it win as quickly as possible, so reducing overall bloodshed. The fact that Bellamy considers it necessary to address the idea is almost certainly a product of the situation in Syria, where government troops are the on verge on launching a final offensive to clear the country of rebel forces. The final triumph of the ‘Assad regime’ now seems so certain that even as hawkish a commentator as Max Boot has said that it would be best at this point if everybody helped Assad so as the get the war over and done with. Bellamy doesn’t like this. He calls it the ‘fatalist approach’ and in his article, entitled ‘Ending Atrocity Crimes: the False Promise of Fatalism’, he urges the likes of Boot to reconsider.

Now, I’m all for people taking on Max Boot, and would normally side with anybody who wants to do such a thing, but in this case, Boot is closer to the truth than Bellamy. For all his aggressiveness, Boot’s ultimately about the forceful pursuit of the national interest, not grandiose ideas of human rights or the international order. Liberal interventionists like Bellamy, by contrast, are all about the latter. And that’s where they go badly wrong.

In his article, Bellamy admits that the idea of helping states to defeat insurgents is not without merit, even in cases where the states in question are guilty of serious crimes. He points out that ‘when states prevail quickly over their domestic opponents, they tend to kill fewer civilians’. Wars in which the rebels prevail and which end in regime change tend, by contrast, to be very prolonged and involve much more death and destruction. Also, peace is normally more long lasting when one side or other wins decisively.

Despite this, Bellamy argues that helping states defeat their rebel enemies is a bad idea. He provides three reasons, which he calls ‘recurrence, precedence, and rights’. First (‘recurrence’), if states learn that they can employ atrocities against their citizens and get away with it, they will do so again and again. As he says, ‘Vladimir Putin came to power by employing indiscriminate violence against Chechnya to good effect in the Second Chechen War, and went on to support similar tactics in Syria.’ Second (‘precedence’), if states see that the international community turns a blind eye to criminal activity by other states, and even helps those states achieve victory, they will draw the conclusion that they can behave badly too. Again, he cites ‘the aforementioned adoption by Syrian government forces of tactics perfected by Russia during the Second Chechen War.’ And third (‘rights’), ‘Privileging order by standing aside as grave violations of rights are committed is patently inconsistent not only with the obligations of international human rights and  humanitarian law but also with the principles and purposes of the United Nations itself’. Ignoring such violations in order to bring wars to a quick end would do ‘great harm to the legitimacy of both the international legal order itself … and the compact between states and peoples.’

Bellamy remarks that his approach is a rule-consequentialist one, that is to say that he is arguing about what would be the best rule rather than what is best in any single instance. The fact that in some individual cases supporting a repressive government would bring a war to an end and so reduce suffering is not reason enough to create a rule that one should always do such a thing. If this was done all the time the negative consequences would outweigh the positive ones. One must, therefore, accept the additional suffering in this one case in order to support the rule which does the most good when applied repeatedly.

I have no problem with rule consequentialist arguments and have often used them myself. But they are very dependent upon judgements of future consequences which one cannot actually know. In this specific case, I think that Bellamy’s judgement is rather coloured by inaccurate assessments of how actions in one instance impact upon actions in another. His arguments concerning recurrence and precedence, for instance, draw on the Chechen example and claim that failure to confront Russia in Chechnya led to Russia, and Syria, committing atrocities during the Syrian civil war. But the link between Russian tactics in Chechnya and the methods used in Syria is decidedly tenuous. As I’ve said before, the tactics and level of force employed by the Russians and Syrians are not very obviously different from those employed by the United States and its various allies in places such as Fallujah, Mosul, and Raqqa. And that is for the very good reason that if you’re going to expel a heavily armed and determined enemy from a city, then you don’t have many options other than to act in that way. In short, it’s got nothing to do with recurrence or precedence.

Moreover, as I’ve also said before, the elevation of ‘rights’ over peace is contradictory because by extending war and increasing the level of violence one inevitably undermines people’s rights, in particular the right to life. It’s also wrong to claim, as Bellamy does, that it’s a mistake to prioritize order over rights, for the simple reason that order is an essential precondition of rights. Bellamy ends his article by saying that we ‘need a politics of stubborn resistance.’ I find this phrase rather scary. In the case of Syria, what could this mean but war and yet more war? After all, if we aren’t going to let Assad win, there’s only two alternatives: war without end; or a war to overthrow the government (which only be achieved at a massive cost in human life). It’s hard to see how either option would enhance Syrians’ rights.

In any case, I think that Bellamy is tilting at windmills, in that I don’t think that there are many people who are saying that it should be a general rule that in civil wars one should always support the state. After all, if it’s a war which the state is losing, the logic of ending it quickly would dictate supporting the rebels. Perhaps a better rule might be to support whichever side is most likely to win in order to enable it do so as rapidly as possible. But that also wouldn’t be a very good rule, as it’s not that easy to predict who’s going to win and people are going to get it repeatedly wrong and end up supporting the weaker side, so making things worse. For instance, based on my memories on what was being said at the time along the lines of ‘Assad is doomed’, I’m reasonably confident that when the Americans decided to get involved in the Syrian civil war on the side of the rebels they were pretty confident that they were backing a winner. Instead, they backed a bunch of losers, and so prolonged the war and increased the suffering of the Syrian people.

Studies have shown very clearly that, absent foreign intervention, civil wars generally finish fairly rapidly. Foreign intervention is strongly correlated with longer wars and increased suffering. If I may turn Bellamy’s rule consequentialist logic against him, then it is clear that if one is looking for the rule which over time does the least harm, then it isn’t one which says intervene on behalf of the state in civil wars, nor is it one which says intervene on behalf of the rebels, nor is it one which says intervene on behalf the side most likely to win. Rather, it’s one which says ‘Don’t intervene at all!’ For sure, that would require us to refrain from intervening in the few instances when intervention might do some good, but it would also force us to refrain in the far more numerous instances when it would do harm. Overall, the world would be much better off as a result. The dogmatic pursuit of human rights may make people feel virtuous, but in the end morality has to rest on practical realities, and those dictate that the strategy of ‘stubborn resistance’ is deeply counterproductive.

Jus in bello in Ukraine

This semester I am teaching a class on military ethics, and for the past couple of weeks we have been discussing issues of jus in bello – that is to say, who may do what during a war. A couple of events in Ukraine this past week have directly touched upon the subjects of our classroom discussions.

The first is the assassination of Givi, a commander in the army of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), who was killed by a rocket fired into his office in Donetsk. We do not know who was responsible. But if it was the Ukrainian army, the question arises as to whether such killings are justifiable under the ethical and legal rules of war.

To answer that question, we have to pose two more; what is a legitimate target? And what are legitimate methods of killing? These are not quite as simple as they seem.

The concept of discrimination (sometimes known as ‘distinction’) is a crucial part of jus in bello. It is almost universally accepted that during war one may intentionally kill some people but not others. The problem is that attempts to find a philosophical principle which allows one to determine who falls into which group, haven’t been very successful.

On the assumption that people have a right to life, some writers maintain that to become targets in war people have to have done, or have the potential to do, something to have forfeited that right. Normally, this is seen in terms of them doing harm, or posing a threat, to others. The problem with this principle is that it doesn’t explain why one may shoot a sleeping soldier but not a worker in a weapons factory or somebody who writes computer code for military computers. The latter two may in fact be posing far more threat than the soldier; yet they are classified as a civilians, and may not be intentionally targeted.

Some philosophers therefore focus on the idea of proximity. It’s not enough to be engaged in doing harm, or in being part of an organization which does harm; one has to be fairly proximate to the act, or threat, of harm. This rules out killing the armaments worker in his home. But it still doesn’t explain why one may bomb a military cook while he sleeps in a base thirty kilometres behind the front line.

Arguments based on forfeiture of rights, or on the idea of doing harm, do not, therefore, provide very good explanations of why we have the rules that we do. A better explanation is a practical, rule utilitarian one. We wish to minimize the damage caused by war. Therefore, we wish to place certain people and objects off limits. The latter need to be clearly distinguishable by means of a simple rule which everyone can understand. Thus, we develop a rule saying that you can intentionally target people in uniform, but not people who aren’t in uniform. The fact that you can therefore shoot the sleeping cook 30 kilometres behind the lines, but not the far more important computer programmer, may not make much sense from the point of view of military necessity, but at least it is a clear rule which can be easily enforced.

With this in mind, we can answer the question as to whether a soldier in the DPR army is a legitimate target. The answer, according to the logic above, is yes. S/he is a soldier, who wears a uniform. S/he is therefore a legitimate target wherever s/he might be. The fact that the killing is in an office, not at the front, is irrelevant.

As for whether the methods used are legitimate, that depends on what they are. Philosopher Michael Gross writes that one of the problems with targeted killings in war is that they constitute perfidy. There is something to what he says. Restraint in war depends on the warring parties abiding by the agreed rules. Based on the argument above, this means abiding by the rule that uniforms distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate targets. But that rule only works if both sides wear uniforms. If they take them off in order to gain some military advantage, they make it impossible to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate targets and so undermine the very fabric of the system.

With this in mind, the answer as to whether an assassination in downtown Donetsk is justifiable depends on how the assassins do their job. If they are members of the Ukrainian army, and they creep through rebel lines, wearing their uniforms and openly bearing arms, then they act in accordance with the rules. But if they take off their uniforms and hide their weapons until the moment of firing them (which seems more likely given the practicalities involved), then their action is perfidious.

The second case is somewhat simpler. The Ukrainian online newspaper Censor.net reports that a Ukrainian court has sentenced a 50-year-old Russian citizen, who goes by the pseudonym ‘Yakut’, to 8 years in prison for serving in the DPR army. He was captured in September 2015, apparently trying to sneak into Mariupol in an effort to desert. According to Censor.net, when captured, ‘he was dressed in camouflage’, in other words in uniform.

The newspaper describes Yakut as a ‘mercenary’.  If so, then he was not a legal combatant, since mercenaries are prohibited under international law. However, the term ‘mercenary’ is very narrowly defined as someone who fights for money. Soldiers who receive pay, but fight for other reasons, are not mercenaries. The label ‘mercenary’ in this case is, therefore, probably misleading. Moreover, being a mercenary was not the crime for which he was convicted. Instead it was being a member of a terrorist organization.

His conviction, I think, is a disturbing development. As noted, Yakut was wearing uniform, or something like it, when captured. His alleged crime was being part of what is clearly an army, which openly bears arms, and has a command structure. Anybody fighting for the armed forces of the DPR thus fits the criteria of a combatant under the Geneva Conventions, namely 1) wearing identifiable insignia (e.g. uniform), 2) being part of a command structure capable of enforcing the rules of war; and 3) carrying arms openly. If captured, any such people must be treated as prisoners of war, unless they have broken the laws of war, in which case they may lose their rights. But Yakut was not charged with any specific breaches of the laws of war. He should, therefore, have been designated a prisoner of war.

The only way I can see to justify these cases is by reference to certain theories which my students and I shall be discussing in this week’s class. Unsatisfied with existing explanations of how people become legitimate targets in war, a number of philosophers, most notably Jeff McMahan, have argued that in bello issues of discrimination have to be linked to ad bellum issues of just cause. What makes one a legitimate target is not that one threatens other people, but that one ‘unjustly’ threatens them. The ‘just’ side in any war may be compared to the police; the ‘unjust’ side to criminals. The latter forfeit their rights; and the former obtain additional rights. If Ukraine is the ‘just’ side, therefore, members of the DPR army have no rights, while the Ukrainian state has the right to kill or convict them.

The problem with this logic, however, is that both sides in every war think that their cause is just, and if they were to follow McMahan’s argument the rules of war would collapse, to the harm of everyone involved. Thus even McMahan admits that his ideas cannot be the basis of law.

Restraint in war depends upon reciprocal recognition as legal equals. I fear that these recent cases undermine this fundamental principle.

Trading insults

This week, American and Russian diplomats have been trading insults, accusing each other of barbaric behaviour. Referring to the fighting in Aleppo, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Powers, said that, ‘what Russia is sponsoring and doing is not counter-terrorism, it is barbarism.’ In reply, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mariia Zakharova stated that, ‘the world has seen nothing more barbaric in modern history than Iraq and Libya done the Washington way.’

The two diplomats were speaking past each other. Powers was commenting on alleged breaches of the laws dictating what people can do during a war – jus in bello. Zakharova was complaining about alleged breaches of the laws dictating when people can wage war – jus ad bellum.

The moral posturing concerning the war in Syria is entirely unwarranted. Neither side is in the clear, although for different reasons.

When it comes to jus in bello, the Americans on the whole behave fairly well. They make mistakes – intelligence is wrong and they strike the wrong target, or missiles go astray and kill civilians. But a lot of effort is put into avoiding civilian casualties, and military lawyers are normally consulted before any major targeting decision is made.  By contrast, judging by its behaviour during the battle for Grozny in the second Chechen war and during the current fighting in Aleppo, the Russian military seems somewhat less restrained in the use of force in bello. This may be a matter of culture and ethics, or it may simply be a question of potential (Russian military technology and the particular nature of the battles Russia fights may not allow for as much restraint). Nevertheless, from an American perspective, the Russian way of war seems relatively indiscriminate.

On the other hand, there can be little doubt that the Americans have consistently broken the rules of jus ad bellum. The bombings of Yugoslavia and Libya, the invasion of Iraq, and the support given to Syrian rebels, as well as other examples, indicate an unhealthy willingness to start wars. And in recent years, the Americans have definitely started far more wars than have the Russians. Regardless of how well its troops have obeyed the rules of jus in bello, the United States has thus ended up causing far more destruction than Russia.

The words of Justice Robert Jackson at the Nuremburg Tribunal come to mind:To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.’

Peace or justice?

Which is more important – peace or justice? According to the standard interpretation of Just War Theory, there is a ‘presumption against war’; the harm war does is so great that anybody wishing to wage it has to prove their case beyond all reasonable doubt, and peace – defined as ‘an absence of war’ – is a supreme value. Some philosophers, however, claim that there is no presumption against war. Rather there is a ‘presumption against injustice’. In this view, an absence of war (‘negative peace’) is not true peace at all. In order to produce a ‘positive peace’, in which justice flourishes, it is permissible to fight.

An interesting new survey reveals that the inhabitants of different countries have very different attitudes towards this issue. According to the Halifax/IPSOS Global Snapshot, produced for the 2015 Halifax International Security Forum, ‘over 70% of Americans and Chinese – more than any other country – believe that under certain conditions, war is necessary to achieve justice … [but] only 38% of Russians agree with that statement.’ I have been unable to copy the chart used in the Global Snapshot Report, but have entered the data into an Excel spreadsheet to produce a version which shows the main results, as follows:

Percentage saying that war is sometimes necessary to achieve justice (Halifax-IPSOS)
Percentage saying that war is sometimes necessary to achieve justice (Halifax-IPSOS)

A number of things come out of this. First, the Anglosphere (the USA, UK, Australia, Canada, and to some extent India) is remarkably belligerent. Second, Hispanic countries (Mexico, Spain, Brazil, and Argentina) seem remarkably peace-loving. Third, Russia is a lot less inclined to wage war for some interpretation of ‘justice’ than most Western states. How do we explain these differences?

Power may have something to do with it. The United States, China, and Saudi Arabia are, probably not coincidentally, the first, second, and third largest spenders on defence in the world, while the UK is fifth. It would appear that having a lot of weapons may create, or spring from, an inclination to use them. But that wouldn’t explain why Russia and Japan (4th largest and 7th largest spenders respectively) are so much less inclined to use force than the USA and China. There appear to be some missing variables.

Culture and history are obvious candidates to fill the gap. As I have mentioned in previous posts, ‘just war’ isn’t part of the Russian philosophical tradition. War is seen as a tragic necessity, fought for reasons of security and not as a means of pursuing ‘justice’. By contrast, the modern Western philosophy of universal human rights means that it is relatively easy for Western Europeans and North Americans to regard war as something which can bring justice to the world. The religious zeal of the Saudis may perhaps give them a somewhat similar attitude. Overall, I speculate that countries which prefer peace to justice either haven’t had much experience with war (Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico), and so haven’t got into the bad habit of thinking that it might be a good idea, or have had really bad experiences with war (Japan, Spain, Germany, and Russia), and so have learnt the hard way that war doesn’t bring justice and is best avoided.

What obviously isn’t true is the much beloved neoconservative idea that democracies are peace-loving. Some are, but some aren’t. And Russians, it appears, value peace more highly than Americans.

Double Standards

In a previous post, I defended the practice of whataboutism. Its success, I think, owes a lot to a widespread belief that Western states are hypocritical and abide by double standards, condemning others for things that they do themselves.

This week the Turks shot down a Russian airplane over Syria. The facts are disputed. Turkey claims that the Russian plane violated Turkish airspace for 17 seconds, and that it was given multiple warnings before being shot down. The Russians deny entering Turkish airspace, and the rescued navigator of the plane says that no warnings were given.

I can’t say who is telling the truth, but if it is the Turks, then they, and their NATO allies, are guilty of double standards. After the Syrians shot down a Turkish plane which had violated Syrian airspace in 2012, Turkish president Abdullah Gul complained that, ‘it is routine for jet fighters to sometimes fly in and out over [national] borders’, and the then Turkish Prime Minister (now President), Recep Tayyip Erdogan, remarked that, ‘a short term border violation can never be a pretext for an attack.’ NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen agreed that, ‘It is another example of the Syrian authorities’ disregard for international norms.’ According to the BBC, ‘in a letter to the UN Security Council, Turkey described the shooting down of its reconnaissance plane as a “hostile act” and “a serious threat to peace and security in the region”.’ Yet, this week, Turkey and NATO took a very different line. It was the very short term violation of Turkish airspace by the Russians which was the ‘hostile act’, and the Turkish action which was entirely justified. ‘We stand in solidarity with Turkey and support the territorial integrity of our NATO Ally, Turkey,’ said Secretary General Rasmussen.

This double standard should not surprise us. Nowadays, it is quite routine. The question I want to pose is whether it can somehow be justified. Many Western human rights activists and philosophers think that the answer is yes. For the past 20 years, the intellectual movement in the West has been away from an international order based on equal, sovereign nations and towards one in which states which are deemed liberal democracies (by us in the West, of course), or are friendly to the West, enjoy greater rights than those who are deemed otherwise. Not all nations are equal.

Take the views of Canadian philosopher Brian Orend, a prominent just war theorist. In his book The Morality of War, Orend argues that states do not exist for themselves, but to safeguard and promote the rights of their citizens. ‘Minimally just states’, which manage to do so to at least some degree, merit full sovereign rights. But those which are not ‘minimally just’ have no rights at all. They forfeit the right not to be attacked. Apply this to the Syrian airplane cases, and you can see how the one shooting was seen as justified and the other was not. Syria, in the eyes of its critics, is not a ‘minimally just state’. As such, it has no sovereign rights, and so is not entitled to shoot down aircraft which violate its airspace. Turkey, by contrast, is at least ‘minimally just’, and so does have a right to self-defence. A double standard exists, because a double standard should exist.

This is, I believe, very dangerous logic. Orend, like most human rights thinkers, imagines that there is a universal moral law which defines what is ‘minimally just’. The problem is that not everybody agrees. The ideologues of the Islamic State, for instance, imagine that their system is more just than ours. If being ‘minimally just’ gives you latitude to do things which others cannot, then everybody gets that latitude, because everybody thinks that they are just. The only way that we can restrain action in war, and in international affairs more generally, is to treat all as equal.

Moreover, those who promote double standards seem to imagine that states and peoples who are deemed not to have full rights will simply accept their inferior status without protest. This is not the case. People notice hypocrisy. They resent double standards. They are likely not to submit, but to resist, just as Russia is currently refusing to accept the double standards of the West and is striking back in an effort to restore a system based on sovereign equality. Ultimately, an order based upon inequality cannot be a stable or peaceful order. Western states have ignored this fact for too long, and are now paying the price.

In short, if the Syrians were wrong to shoot down a Turkish plane which flew over Syria for several minutes, the Turks were wrong to shoot down a Russian plane which flew over Turkey for 17 seconds.

Russia’s ‘holy war’ in Syria

Commenting on the Russian military campaign in Syria, Vsevolod Chaplin, the provocative head of the Russian Orthodox Church’s department for church-society relations, remarked this week that, ‘The struggle against terrorism … is a very moral, if you like holy, struggle’. But one of Chaplin’s former teachers, Andrei Zubov, has spoken very differently: ‘We have the social concept of the Russian church, which the synod approved 15 years ago, in 2000, and of which I was one of the authors, and it clearly says that war is a very great tragedy.’

Russian philosophers have generally not paid much attention to what in the West is called ‘just war theory’. The Soviet position was rather crude: in essence, any war fought by reactionary forces (i.e. capitalist states) was automatically unjust, while any war fought by progressive (i.e. communist) states was automatically just. For more sophisticated analysis, one has to go back in time to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Leo Tolstoy’s 1894 book The Kingdom of God is Within You laid out the pacifist position, and earned a riposte in the form of Vladimir Solovyov’s 1900 work Three Conversations. The latter is possibly the most entertaining book of just war theory anybody has ever written, but its format – essentially a play in three acts – means that it doesn’t provide a very complex examination of the subject, and in any case it goes seriously off the rails at the end with a bizarre story about the Anti-Christ. And that is pretty much it for pre-revolutionary literature.

The First World War prompted a few philosophers such as Nikolai Berdyaev, as well as Metropolitan Anthony of Kiev and Galicia, to pen short articles on the ethics of war, but as far as I am aware, the only book-length examination of the ethics of violence by a Russian philosopher prior to the collapse of communism is Ivan Ilyin’s 1925 work On Resistance to Evil by Force. Given the interest that my previous posts about Ilyin have generated, it is worth looking at this in some depth.

Ilyin’s basic argument is that the moral demands of war are contradictory. In some circumstances, one may be morally obliged to wage war, but doing so involves carrying out actions which are usually considered unjust (killing, deceiving, etc). Consequently, the necessary use of force is an ‘unsinful perpetration of injustice’, which requires ‘spiritual compromise’. This is a deliberately contradictory position: Ilyin’s argument is that it is only by recognizing the inherently contradictory moral demands of force that one can avoid the moral pitfalls associated with it.

Ilyin reached this conclusion by arguing that the imperfection of the world creates situations in which one has no choice but to use force in order to prevent the triumph of evil. In such situations, the use of force is a moral obligation. But while it is necessary, it isn’t ‘just’. ‘The way of the sword’, Ilyin wrote, ‘is an unjust path … what the swordbearer does in the fight with evildoers is not perfect, not holy, not just’. The actions of your enemy which justify your actions are always at least partly your fault, as there is always something you could have done to prevent them. Even a war of self-defence isn’t ‘just’ because everybody is in some way responsible for the external environment which has created the situation in which self-defence becomes necessary. Since everybody is thus at least partially responsible for any war they fight, ‘every war without exception is a morally guilty act.

Furthermore, the use of force only combats the external manifestations of evil. This is insufficient. One must also fight what nowadays we would call the ‘root causes’ of the evil. Otherwise, the evil will merely return once you defeat it.

Finally, Ilyin notes that force tends to excite the passions and undermine the moral senses of those who use it. To avoid this problem, people must, in line with the argument above, recognize that what they are doing, though necessary, is not just, and they must undergo continual ‘penitential self-purification’. In other words, the only way to avoid the worst consequences of war is to rid yourself of the idea that because your enemies are the ‘bad guys’ that means that you are the ‘good guy’ and thus free to do as you choose.

So, what would Ilyin’s logic tell us about Russia’s war in Syria? I think roughly the following:

  • The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is an evil which must be fought. Armed struggle against it is not only justifiable, but mandatory.
  • Nevertheless, ISIS is just a symptom of a deeper problem. That deeper problem is ultimately a spiritual one. Fighting ISIS without fighting the root causes which produced ISIS is pointless. One cannot simply defeat ISIS and return to the status quo ante.
  • Among the root causes of ISIS are the actions of those now fighting it – the repressive regimes in Iraq and Syria, and the failed interventions by Western states in the Middle East. Russia also has contributed to the situation by its previous support of those repressive regimes. It must acknowledge its share of responsibility for the problem and change its behaviour.
  • While necessary, attacking ISIS is not a morally good action. It is at best a lesser evil. It will involve injustices – for instance, when innocent civilians are killed as ‘collateral damage’ in Russian air strikes. Those fighting can’t just brush off the injustices as mistakes, unavoidable consequences of military action, and so on. They must acknowledge their guilt.

I don’t accept all of Ilyin’s reasoning. I am far more pacifistic. But his logic is undoubtedly original and poses significant challenges to the way people normally think of the ethics of violence. On the one hand it requires the use of force in some situations. On the other hand, it is extremely demanding of those who do use force. In line with Zubov, I have previously written on this blog that ‘holy war’ is not part of Orthodox tradition. From what I have read, it is not part of the wider Russian philosophical tradition either.

Russia’s Holy War?

Is Russia waging an ‘Orthodox jihad’ against the West? John Schindler, a former National Security Agency official and professor at the U.S. Naval War College, thinks so. The war in Ukraine, says Schindler, ‘bears more than a little resemblance to Holy War in a Russian and Orthodox variant.’ He attributes to Moscow, ‘a virulent ideology, and explosive amalgam of xenophobia, Chekism, and militant Orthodoxy which justifies the Kremlin’s actions and explains why the West must be opposed at all costs.’ In a second essay Schindler similarly remarks that, ‘The Kremlin now believes that they [sic] are at war with the United States, an Orthodox Holy War’.

In his blog for The American Conservative, Rod Dreher writes that he finds parts of Schindler’s thesis ‘perceptive’. It isn’t. It reflects a deep misunderstanding of Orthodox theology on the subject of war. Moreover, Schindler cites Ivan Ilyin (whose work I have discussed on this blog here and here) in support of his thesis, calling this ‘holy war’ an example of ‘Ilyinism’. Ilyin’s writings on the subject of violence cannot support that conclusion either.

Holy war has never achieved the same recognition in Orthodox theology as in that of Catholicism. Orthodox theologians have overwhelmingly tended toward the idea that war is sometimes ‘necessary’ as a lesser evil but can never be considered ‘just’. Father Alexander Webster thus notes that, in contrast to Catholicism, which developed a ‘just war theory’, Orthodoxy developed a ‘justifiable war ethic.’ In a study of mediaeval Church documents and Byzantine military manuals, Father Stanley Harakas concluded that, ‘The Eastern Orthodox Patristic tradition rarely praised war and, to my knowledge, never called it “just” or a moral good.’ A meeting of senior Orthodox theologians in Minsk in 1989 issued a statement proclaiming that:

The Orthodox Church unreservedly condemns war as an evil. Yet it also recognizes that in the defence of the innocent and the protection of one’s people from unjust attack, criminal activity, and the overthrowing of oppression, it is sometimes necessary, with reluctance, to resort to arms. In every case, such a decision must be taken with full consciousness of its tragic dimensions. Consequently, the Greek fathers of the Church have never developed a ‘just war theory’, preferring rather to speak of the blessings of and the preference for peace.

Similarly, in 2000 the Jubilee Council of Russian bishops phrased its views on war in terms solely of occasional necessity, saying: ‘While recognizing war as an evil, the Church does not prohibit her children from participating if at stake is the security of their neighbours and the restoration of trampled justice.  Then war is to be considered a necessary though undesirable means.’

Whereas the Catholic Church invented the concept of crusades to spread the faith by means of the sword, the Orthodox Church never endorsed a similar idea. Nor did it endorse the belief, supported by Catholicism in the Middle Ages, that death in a holy war leads to the salvation of the soul. In a recent examination of Orthodox writings on the ethics of war, Yuri Stoyanov notes that Byzantine rulers pushed for the acceptance of a holy war doctrine but met resistance from the Church. ‘This sanctification of warfare’, he writes, ‘did not find widespread acceptance among ecclesiastical elites or more generally within the Byzantine ideology of warfare.’ Instead, the Church generally preferred the teachings of St Basil the Great, who refused to recognize killing in war as ‘praiseworthy’ and recommended that those who kill in battle be denied communion for three years. The Eastern Church also differed from the Western one in that it did not permit priests or monks to bear arms. There was no Orthodox equivalent to the ‘warrior monks’ of the Templars, Hospitallers, or Teutonic Knights. Priests who fought in battle were defrocked.

Schindler’s attempt to argue that modern Russia is waging an ‘Orthodox jihad’ thus reveals an unfortunate ignorance of Orthodoxy.

As for Ivan Ilyin, I will examine his writings on the ethics of force in more detail in another post, but for now it is sufficient to point out that although Ilyin was very firm in arguing that it was necessary to wage war against evil, in line with Orthodox theology he made it very clear that it while ‘necessary’ it was not ‘just’. In his essay The Moral Contradiction of War, Ilyin argued that ‘every war without exception is a morally guilty act.’ He developed this theme further in his 1925 book On Resistance to Evil by Force, in which he stressed that the use of force cannot be considered ‘just’, merely ‘an unsinful (!) perpetration of injustice’. Writing to fellow émigré I. Demidov, he wrote, ‘All my research proves that the sword is not “holy” and not “just”.’

Schindler’s effort to enlist Ilyin as evidence of Russian holy war again displays a profound ignorance.

Nowadays, a blend of liberal democracy, free markets, and human rights has replaced Christianity as the ideology of choice in the West, but the belief that it is ‘just’ to wage war to spread this ideology remains strong. There is, however, no such thing as ‘Holy War in a Russian and Orthodox variant.’


The moral equality of combatants

We do not accord a policeman and a criminal equal status: the criminal is committing an injustice, and so forfeits his right not to be handled forcibly by the policeman; the policeman on the other hand has done nothing to forfeit his right not to be attacked. Their rights are not equal.

In contrast, one of the bedrocks of the laws of war is the principle of the moral equality of combatants. Assuming that one can objectively decide that a given war has a ‘just’ and an ‘unjust’ side, those fighting on the ‘just’ side are still bound by the same rules as those on the ‘unjust’ side. Unjust soldiers are entitled to shoot at the just ones, and they have the same protection under the laws of war. Just and unjust warriors are morally equal, and should treat each other as such.

Not everybody thinks that this is how things should be. The moral equality of combatants is one of the most hotly disputed issues in contemporary just war theory. Some philosophers, basing their arguments on individual human rights, now claim that a person waging an unjust war forfeits his right to life, while a person waging a just one does not. They are not morally equal.

Into this debate have stepped two officers in the war in Ukraine: a Captain Kupol of the Ukrainian Army, and Arseny Pavlov, aka ‘Motorola’, the commander of the Sparta battalion of the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic. For months Motorola’s unit has been attempting to drive the Ukrainians out of Donetsk airport. His men occupy the old terminal, while Kupol’s occupy the new one. In an unusual development, Motorola this week permitted the Ukrainians to rotate their troops in the new terminal – taking out 48 tired soldiers and bringing in 51 new ones – on condition that they did not bring any heavy weapons in. The rebels inspected the incoming Ukrainians before letting them pass. While the inspection was taking place, Motorola and Kupol met and shook hands.

The two thereby recognized each other as moral equals. This caused a fierce backlash. Nowadays, many people consider that war can only be justified if the enemy is evil, and one shouldn’t shake hands with evil. Sixty soldiers of the 63rd Brigade of the Ukrainian Army have signed a petition demanding that Kupol be punished. Meanwhile, rebel supporters have criticized Motorola. How could he shake the hands of a representative of the army which shelled the city of Donetsk and killed innocent civilians?

This criticism induced Motorola’s friend ‘Givi’ (Mikhail Tolstykh), who commands the rebel ‘Somali battalion’, to speak out in defence of his colleague. ‘Ukropy [Ukrainians] were the first to reach out for a handshake’, he told Life News, ‘and you know we all stick to the concept that we respect our enemy. Even if they’re shitty they are our enemy and they ought to be respected.’

Givi has a good point. The rights-based approach to ethics which underpins arguments against the moral equality of combatants is all well and good in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice. Everybody thinks that their cause is just, so if you say that the just side is morally superior to the unjust side and so is not subject to the same rules, you in effect release everybody from the rules.

It is probably better, therefore, not to approach the ethics of war from the foundation of human rights, and instead to think in terms of an ethic of honour. Being engaged in a violent profession, soldiers need to feel that what they do is honourable. As Shannon French has shown in her book The Code of the Warrior, this is necessary for their psychological health. But if soldiering is an honourable profession, then an opponent is honourable too and should be respected. Through this mutual recognition, some degree of restraint can operate on soldiers’ behaviour in war. In sum, the fact that you try to kill your enemy does not mean that you shouldn’t treat him with respect when the opportunity arises.