A reader writes:
The problem with the doctrine of Just War, I would submit, is that it can only be applied in retrospect. In prospect, it is at once too restrictive and overly permissive. It requires an unachievable degree of certainty. But when leaders or their population nevertheless convince themselves that a conflict meets its standards, even though it cannot, it tends to grant them a sense of moral absolution that leads to callous indifference to the loss of human life.
No, the Israeli assault on Gaza cannot be said to be Just. Declaring it to be so is a manifestation of moral cowardice, of an unwillingness to face up to its awful price. It is merely a war: a messy, dirty conflict that injures all who are involved. It will exact a terrible toll on soldiers, militants and civilians, and there is no possible set of justifications which should blind us to that fact.
But that does not necessarily mean it merits moral condemnation. It does not mean that Israel was necessarily wrong to launch it, nor wrong to finish it. Those judgments tend to become clear only with the virtue of hindsight.
Take Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon. In its first week, many saw that invasion as justified. By the time it ended, it was widely viewed as a catastrophic, destructive, and unnecessary fight. Now, after two years utterly devoid of violence along the northern border, some are more ambivalent. If the conflict resumes where it left off, it will reconfirm its futility. But if Hezbollah and Israel arrive at a modus vivendi, it will be seen as having been the necessary precursor to peace. How are you supposed to know such a thing before you commit to fight, when years after the last shot, the consequences of the conflict remain unclear? Think of it, if you will, as a morality of doubt.
I am equally suspicious of the rectitude of those who unequivocally support this conflict as I am of those who sweepingly condemn it. The future is uncertain. The four conditions of the Catechism each point us in the right direction, and correctly suggest that the burden of proof must always rest with those who would resort to force. But three of the four demand absolute certitude: that the damage be "certain"; that "all means" be shown to be ineffective; and that it "must not" produce greater evils. Anyone who pretends to be able to answer these questions in the affirmative in advance of conflict is either a liar or a fool. No damage is ever certain, all means are never exhausted, and we never know in advance what toll a conflict will exact.
You have eloquently expressed your skepticism that the Israeli assault on Hamas will be seen, in retrospect, to have crossed these thresholds. I continue to believe that, if it meets its objective of clearing the way for a renewed ceasefire that is viable over the long term, it may well prove to have been justified. But I would be the first to admit that I am uncertain. I simply do not know what will happen.
The rhetoric that you and I find most abhorrent is spouted by those who experience no doubt, who see no uncertainty. It is dangerous. It lowers the threshold to initiate conflict, and leads to brutality after its onset. But the answer is not to identify a standard that would endow us with certainty; it is to recognize that certainty is always elusive, and to humble ourselves before that conclusion.