‘We can’t fight future wars without Aquinas’

US soldiers in Baghdad

Ten years ago I wrote a book with Sir Michael Quinlan, who was a noted scholar, a staunch Catholic who had been a colleague of mine in the Ministry of Defence. We didn’t write the book just because at the time the Iraq War was raging but because we felt the tradition needed revisiting. Had it stood the test of time? And was the world now so different that it was no longer relevant? Modern military leaders ignore the insights of Augustine and Aquinas at their peril, writes Charles Guthrie.


I want to talk about Just War, what the traditions of the Just War are and the ethics in modern warfare. With recent conflicts, some of which we, the British, have been involved in, and current fighting in Libya and Syria ongoing, it is certainly a topical and controversial subject.

What is the definition of a war? I think the meaning has in some ways changed over the years. Today, especially in America, there is a war against poverty, a war against drugs, against cancer, against Aids, against crime. None of these wars have been won so far. The term “war” is used fairly loosely but I don’t intend to be pedantic and refer to war as it used to be, when it meant wars between nation states. Wars which were declared, which had truces and peace treaties, when soldiers wore uniforms, nations surrendered and it was easier to detect who the victors and the vanquished were.

When the Cold War came to an end many people felt a new time had come: conflict would be rare and with the threat of World War III disappearing, the traditions should be questioned. Were they still relevant?

In armed conflict some of the normal ethical rules have to be over-ridden, rules such as not killing other people. War is a very bad way of resolving disagreement. War is ghastly and it is inevitable that in war terrible things happen, things which in any other context would be utterly intolerable.

But this cannot mean that anything goes. From the earliest time almost every society has had to face up to the reality of war and at the same time has had some accompanying notion, however incomplete or crude it may seem to modern eyes, of the moral limitations applying to war.

In the ancient world in Greece, for instance, there was a recognition that even in the fiercest struggles there were some things that absolutely ought not to be done, such as poisoning water supplies, cutting down the other side’s olive trees (because they would take so long to grow again), and executing those who had had nothing whatsoever to do with the fighting, such as women and children.

Photo: US Army soldiers mark a landing zone north of Baghdad with green smoke

‘We can’t fight future wars without Aquinas’

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