The Idler: Just War

There is something to be said for the incuriosity of Horatio Nelson, who, before the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, received a signal from his admiral to disengage and withdraw. Nelson’s crew certainly noticed the flags and had, apparently, no trouble reading them. But Nelson had only one good eye. When alerted, he lifted his telescope to the blind one and said, “I really do not see the sig­nal.” A few hours later, the Battle of Copenhagen had been won. Nelson was not court-martialed, at least in part because the long-term orders he was following were those of the Ad­miralty back in London, which really did want to break a northern block­ade that made the professedly neutral Denmark—Norway, Sweden, and Rus­sia into effective allies of Napoleon. Had Nelson not “turned a blind eye,” it is likely the Napoleonic Wars would have ended differently.

Now consider if one’s admiral was the pope, and his orders were more generally to desist from fighting against the enemy on any front at all. This, anyway, is how liberal Catholics interpret various papal statements on Lebanon, Iraq, and other recent wars, in which the West, through one of its agents (invariably the United States or Israel), has tried to take the battle to a dangerous enemy of the West (Saddam, Hamas, Hezbollah, or whomever).

It is my own observation that Pope Benedict has had much less to say on worldly questions of war and peace than his predecessor. More gen­erally, I would guess that the Vatican trend is toward recovering the long just-war tradition, from Augustine through Thomas Aquinas, and away from what I would characterize as the unprincipled pacifism of the last two generations (itself perhaps one of the unfortunate artifacts of the squirrelly days post—Vatican II). But it is always possible that one’s hopes have out­paced the reality.

Should the principles of engage­ment be those of the just war, I am confident that both Americans and Israelis have consistently observed them. In Afghanistan, Iraq, and most recently Lebanon, the observation has been methodical. Each war has been waged as a last resort, after exhaust­ing the possibilities for diplomacy. Each has been commanded by legitimate authority, against an enemy whose authority was self-proclaimed. Each has been pursued to redress a tangible wrong, and with some real prospect of victory, and to the goal of restoring peace and order under better conditions than previously per­tained. The battlefield setbacks and criminal allegations against individual soldiers—upon which the media have persistently dwelled—do not change any of these moral calculations. More­over, both American and Israeli sol­diers, drilled in Geneva Conventions from boot camp, have been assiduous to fight righteously, going to great lengths through training and technol­ogy to limit “collateral damage” to non­combatants, accept prisoners, and so forth. Given the hostility of the media and public opinion from the Left, nei­ther could gain anyway by employing the indiscriminate methods that are second-nature to our enemies.


These wars—and the many oth­ers, large and small, that must follow from the continuing Islamist challenge to the civilization of the West—are not purely defensive. Against a terror­ist enemy, purely defensive measures are the guarantee of failure. Likewise, “proportional response” becomes moot when the enemy both strikes at, and hides behind, civilians. For the govern­ment that refuses to take the battle to such an enemy leaves its citizens to face that enemy undefended.

I should think the Vatican grasps all these points. Reason alone will se­cure them. But if, as Church liberals insist, the Vatican has disavowed its own just-war tradition, I really do not see the signal.

David Warren


David Warren is a Canadian journalist who writes mostly on international affairs. His Web site is

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