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Transcript: Jacki Lyden Talks with Rev. Bryan Hehir
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Rev. J. Bryan Hehir

NPR's Jacki Lyden talks with theologian J. Bryan Hehir about the concept of a "Just War."

JACKI LYDEN: Joining us now, Father J. Bryan Hehir, who is the president of Catholic Charity USA and former head of the Harvard Divinity School. He's written extensively on the issues of war and justice and international affairs, and he's spent a great deal of time discussing the issues of a just war. Thank you very much for joining us.

REV. J. BRYAN HEHIR: I'm glad to be here.

JACKI LYDEN: Tell us something about, what is a just war? I understand there's an actual document within the Christian tradition that sets out the precepts of a just war.

REV. J. BRYAN HEHIR: Well, there's actually a tradition within the Christian tradition, because it is evolved over centuries. Essentially what a just war position says is some uses of military force are morally acceptable but not all uses of military force.

So the position stands between a position which would say that all use of lethal force is morally wrong — a pacifist position. And then it also stands over against a position that says that when you go to war there is no time or space or possibility of imposing moral restraints, that you can use moral restraints in other dimensions of life but when you go to war there's no possibility.

That's sometimes called the realist position, if you will. So the just war position stands between those two. It is a position that has its origins in the fifth century with a Christian saint.

Saint Augustine was the bishop of Hippo in northern Africa, and he was writing the book called The City of God just as the Roman Empire was being threatened from the outside.

And people were saying the Roman Empire was going down the tube because the Christians had these virtues that didn't allow them to protect the empire. So Augustine set out to write on the morality of war.

And so his basic position was that war is the result of sin in the world, and war is the remedy for sin. What he meant by that was, war is the result of sin — meaning that people are not perfect and so they will do evil things to other people. And therefore in that kind of world you may need to use force to protect people from evil being done to them.

He entrusted the use of force to those who had responsibility for the common good, as he would call it. That is to say, the political authority of the community.

JACKI LYDEN: Or the sovereign.

HEHIR: The sovereign. That's the beginning of the tradition.

And essentially it stays with the proposition that some uses of force are morally acceptable but not all. So then the function of the moral doctrine is to determine which uses of force are morally acceptable and which aren't.

JACKI LYDEN: And how would you apply this doctrine, this tradition, to the war in Afghanistan, which has a tremendous amount of popular support but which nonetheless as we've seen has raised some serious questions about what is matter what the situation, this is a violent conflict.

HEHIR: Well, basically what the just war teaching says is that the only morally legitimate use of force is a limited use of force.

For example, is there, as they call it in the tradition, just cause, to use force? Does the United States have a morally justified reason to use force?

Now, people can disagree on that. My own judgment is that the kind of attack that occurred in New York and Washington was an attack on the homeland of a sovereign state with civilians in New York being the primary target, and in addition to that, we were promised that there would be other attacks.

So in the face of that, the argument is that you have a moral right to respond to that kind of threat and that kind of fact in order to prevent it from happening again. So the just cause reason in my mind is satisfied.

JACKI LYDEN: Father, we've just seen Amber Amundsen looking at this war through a different kind of prism. She is thinking about not wanting any more conflict, not wanting her husband's name to be used in Afghanistan in what she would look at, I think, as vengeance. What would you say to her if she were able to ask your counsel on this?

HEHIR: Well, first of all, it was a very impressive interview on all sides.

And I understand and respect the fact that there always have been a group of people in a society who want to see justice done, who want to protect others from harm, but do not think you can take human life in order to do that. That is the sort of strict non-violent position. And I think that is a position that deserves respect.

It is not a position I think that can be the doctrine of a political community, because again, to go back to Augustine, when you have responsibility for the lives of others, it may be that if you are not prepared to use any force at all you cannot fulfill that responsibility. But individuals certainly can hold that position and I think she does.

JACKI LYDEN: Recently, I've just returned, as you know, from Afghanistan...just a few days ago. And people there are not, as you might think, of one mind about the American strikes, they're not of one mind opposing them or welcoming them, although I think that they do think that they had very little alternative. But this argument changes when you talk to someone who has lost someone in the air strikes. We don't know precisely what those numbers are.

There are people who say, I lost a daughter, and if I had to lose another one to get rid of the Taliban then I would lose one more family member. And there are other people who say, we are not the target and should not be the target. And I am collateral damage.

You know, we use rhetoric in pursuit of what we are thinking of as a just war, that that doesn't apply to the human being who's standing on the ground.

HEHIR: Well, one of the functions of moral argument in warfare is to make sure that we don't hide the reality of war, that we use concepts that in fact expose what happens in war and not shroud them.

When you make the argument that there is a, quote, just war, what you are saying again is that an aggression, a major offense is being committed, and you do not have any other way to protect people from that aggression except to use force.

But that translates into an argument that says that only those who carry out the aggression are to be subject to directly intended attack. Therefore the distinction arises between civilians and non-civilians. And that's where a central principle of the just war teaching comes.

Now, when you go into warfare, will civilians be killed? Almost inevitably they will be killed. The moral question is, what brought about their killing? And here you can have a spectrum of possibilities, and it's an interesting perspective historically.

In World War II, both sides in World War II, the Allies and the Germans, both attacked civilians directly...

JACKI LYDEN: Targeted cities...

HEHIR: ...purposely. Nobody said anything about it, virtually.

Jump 50 years. Jump up to the Gulf War and then on to this war and there's constant discussion about the targeting of civilians. So there's been a shift both within the professional military, in the political process and in the country.

That is to say, if you are directly and purposely intentionally targeting civilians, you are going to run into trouble.

JACKI LYDEN: The President has talked about a war on terrorism and taking this to any state that harbors terrorists.

Is it going to be just if we decide to attack Iraq? Is it going to be just if we get involved in the Philippines against Islamic guerrillas there?

HEHIR: Well, I think the description of transnational organizations with terrorist objectives is an accurate description. There are such things. So they exist. Secondly, the next question is, what's the relationship of those organizations to states where they live, if you will.

I think the Afghani state was hand in glove with the Taliban. You may have other states where that is not the case and where you may have a legitimate reason to try to suppress the terrorist organization but you don't necessarily have a legitimate reason to suppress the state. That's a question.

In the Philippines, it's complicated because there are constitutional issues, but presumably the United States will not be able to take action in the Philippines unless the government is in agreement with them presumably, at least... I would think we'd be buying trouble if the government is not in agreement with them.

And, therefore, you're not in the same situation as you were in Afghanistan where the state and the group are in a sense both targets. In the Philippines the presumption is the Philippine government wants to be able to end the insurgency in the south.

Iraq is a totally different question, really a totally different question, because...

JACKI LYDEN: Because I think what we're saying is that there are just doctrines under which we operate a war. And we talked about provocation and proportionality and defense.

And then there are causes that seem to me to be murkier, whether or not one should remove Saddam Hussein, how involved one should become in the Philippines. These things seem even less clear cut than Afghanistan.

HEHIR: Well, I think they are. I think that is the case. Basically the way morality works in discussions of war and peace is that you need to talk about politics, strategy and ethics at the same time.

The ethics don't exist outside the politics and the strategy. The ethics are as set of concepts, principles and rules that you enter the public debate with and engage the politics and the strategy.

I think in each instance there's going to have to be a debate about the use of force. In other words, I don't think you can simply say, because there's a transnational terrorist network and because it's legitimate to try and suppress that, that therefore the legitimation that went to the use of force in Afghanistan gives you free license everywhere else. I don't think that's the case at all. I think you have to debate every single question.

JACKI LYDEN: Well, thank you very much for joining us this evening Father J. Bryan Hehir. It was a very interesting conversation.

HEHIR: Thank you.

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