Moral Frameworks for Thinking About the Legacies of War

February 3, 2009

Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, Parker Gilbert Montgomery Professor of the Practice of Religion and Public Life at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and former Dean of the Harvard Divinity School, opened the series Moral Responsibilities for the Legacies of War with an overview of current ethics and policies related to post-war obligation.

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This talk placed our discussion about obligation in the aftermath of war in a larger context. Fr. Hehir noted three main traditions of thinking about ethical obligations in warfare:

• The "realist" tradition, that in warfare, "the strong do what they will; the weak do what they must." War is fundamentally about power, and talk about ethics only masks that reality
• The pacifist tradition, the choice of early Christianity;
• The just war tradition, which has especially focused on the appropriate conditions for going to war (jus in bello) and the limitations that must morally be observed during war (jus ad bellum).

Fr. Hehir focused on just war tradition, emphasizing that it has continued to evolve in recent decades. Nuclear warfare necessitated significant discussion about the validity of just war theory in an age of deterrence by annihilation; in the '90s the need for a number of humanitarian interventions led others to question the understanding of sovereignty that underlies just war theory.

Having recognized that "there is no such thing as a clean war," we must therefore think better about postwar responsibility. In the past, obligation afterward has insisted that those designated as unjust aggressors pay reparations, and it has included war crimes trials. Some differentiation should certainly be made between just and unjust aggressors, but reparations can do more harm than good.

Areas we need to think about for jus post bello include:

• Humanitarian relief
• Social and economic reconstruction
• War crimes
• Removal of unexploded ordinance - land mines and cluster bombs.

Many of these capacities move beyond the capabilities of the military. In an era of internationally agreed upon humanitarian interventions, we might also include that while some states might carry out the military interventions, others might be responsible for reconstruction.

Fr. Hehir expanded upon this with examples from both world wars, and conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.


WED FEB 04 14:00:11

What I found most shocking about Father Bryan Hehir's talk was his revelation that US war veterans are currently going back to Vietnam to de-mine fields that are still inspiring fear and destruction in certain parts of the country. I have the utmost respect for those that are returning to help out the Vietnamese people, but I am absolutely disgusted by the seeming lack of morality of the United States government - how could you possibly leave Vietnamese fields laced with mines that endanger the current and future citizens of Vietnam? Although Father Hehir provided very in-depth descriptions of pacifism, realism, and the just-war position, my personal sense of morality seems to override my acceptance of anything other than the pacifist stance. But, even if one were to subscribe to a realist or just-war position, I don't understand how a government could justify leaving something as destructive as landmines in a post-bellum state - to me, the concepts of realism and the just-war position apply before and (at most) during a war, but certainly not after. Shouldn't a government, especially one with as much influence as ours, claim some responsibility and assist in the cleaning up of a war-ridden country regardless of our initial moral justification of the war?

Owen Fenton, '10



WED FEB 04 15:55:30

I was left wondering after this presentation on the idea that the military is not suited to reconcile social and humanitarian consequences of war. If that is the case, then who is?

Conor Donoghue '11


WED FEB 04 17:04:17


I found Father Bryan Hehir's talk to be very interesting and thought provoking. When thinking about war one theory that tries to morally explain war is "just war". Even though in class we have not discussed the American Vietnam War yet I wonder how just that war was? From the perspective of an America in the 1960s, invading Vietnam was just because many Americans believed they were protecting democracy by eliminating communism. But in my opinion killing thousands of lives in the name of democracy does not sound just. Vietnamese during this time may not have even understood the negatives of communism but rather looking for a way to escape years of colonialism. Another question that I thought was interesting was, to what extend should America be obligated to rebuild Vietnam after the destruction they caused? To me America does not seem to engage in fair warfare. For example, when America was victorious in World War II they helped to rebuild Germany, which today is a modernized stable nation. On the other hand, when America lost to Vietnam they did not help rebuild the damages they caused. Rather America put trade sanctions on Vietnam. Maybe America did have just reasons to engage in both wars however, I do not think by any means America engaged in just war and post warfare in Vietnam.

Bethany Phillips '11


MON FEB 09 21:57:08


I did not attend the lecture/discussion, but I came across these comments on the HC website. The comments that follow are responses to statements made by others, hopefully they offer a perspective that a Crusader will not likely hear on campus. How would one propose that the United States, or any other state, de-mine and repair a state after a military withdrawal? The US helped rebuild Europe and Japan after WWII because we were victorious, and able to force our occupation. The US withdrew the majority of its forces from South Vietnam in 1973, and North Vietnam invaded and conquered South Vietnam in 1975. Should the US have tried to send Soldiers back in to de-mine the new Communist Vietnam it had just fought for a decade? Would they have been safe and welcomed? I have seen the effects of land mines and hostile explosives in Iraq, it is not as simple a process as just sending in a clean-up team. Instead of anger at the US for not de-mining Vietnam, where is the outrage at the North Vietnamese Communists for invading South Vietnam, massacring thousands, and forcing repression on its people? Despite a few regrettable and horrible public violations, the average American Soldier followed the Laws of War and demonstrated restraint when able. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army did not. Argue the politics as you may, but over 50,000 Americans died trying to defend the South Vietnamese. What constitutes "Fair Warfare"? Reconstruction after hostilities cease? The point of war is not to be fair, it is to impose will. When diplomacy fails, war forces a decision or policy. Armies do not form on the field of battle and charge with swords. It is an ugly business, and should only be a last resort, but it certainly can be legal without being "fair." In the end, "fair" fighting would leave more killed on both sides. Legal is more important than fair. Current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate that our government lacked a plan to "reconcile social and humanitarian consequences of war." The US military was forced to rebuild both countries with limited support from State Dept or other governmental agencies. Prior to the wars, US Soldiers trained primarily for combat operations, with stability ops as a secondary focus. The Army has since changed its doctrine, and now places stability operations after the fighting on even par with the fighting. Whether or not the military should rebuild another state's society is a decision left to Congress and DC who write laws and policy. The Government is proposing a deployable civilian corps to help in post-conflict ops. Is this a good or feasible idea?

Patrick McKinney, '04, Sierra Vista, AZ


TUE FEB 10 21:25:32


I found Brian Hehir's talk to be a solid discussion of the just war theory and its efforts to incorporate a jus post bellum ethics. I think the talk pointed to a larger, disturbing reality, however. The obvious need for a post bellum ethics points to a consistent failure of the jus in bello ethics. If devastating, long-term effects persist after wars have ended, the means being used to fight the war cannot be just. While the ethical precepts outlined by the just war theory may be sound, in practice, the theory is failing to limit war. As Father Hehir mentioned, nuclear weapons placed serious strain on the theory, leading many to doubt its relevance. I believe that even our modern conventional tactics have rendered the just war theory obsolete. For example, in the 20th century, more the half of all victims of direct and indirect causes relating to war have been civilians. While the theory does not define civilian and noncombatant immunity, I think it is clear that modern warfare has consistently and blatantly violated this precept of the just war theory. This is a clear sign that in reality, wars are not fought in a just and limited manner, and it is a call for us to develop nonviolent methods of resolving disputes and working for just causes.

Brendan Mackinson, '09


The first question that was brought up following the talk was very interesting in my mind, regarding the statement that the U.S. bombing tactics during World War II could have been considered war crimes had the U.S. lost. It does bring up the point that since there is no world court, as long as you win the fight, your tactics are fair, but use certain tactics and lose, there could be more trouble ahead. This double standard is unfair because it takes away from what little morality there is in war.


Student, ‘10


After the Feb. 3 talk on Moral Responsibilities for the Legacies of War, the points that interested me most were those regarding Just War Theory. When the professor asked the question about when the non-Western world would have a voice in determining Just War as defined by the Christian west, I became curious specifically about Vietnamese and other East Asian conceptions of Just War based on native religions such as Buddhism, Confucianism, etc. Do they have an idea of Just War? Do East Asian religions have specific criteria that must be met before a war is deemed just? Or is the act of war dominated completely by the political arena?


Christopher Masello, ‘09


Through his discussion of the "contemporary conversation" surrounding issues of warfare and morality, Fr. Hehir articulated the ethical questions that must be posed throughout different stages of war and the manner in which this debate has evolved over time, particularly with the advent of nuclear warfare. Within his explanation of "Jus Post Bellum," Fr. Hehir's statement, "War leaves moral traces," was particularly powerful in emphasizing the moral responsibilities that must be manifested through actions in post-war reconstruction and healing. Interestingly, he contended that following the Vietnam War, no real rehabilitation occurred, although he did cite later diplomatic and commercial relations with Vietnam. The question could, therefore, be posed whether an unfulfilled moral responsibility still exists toward Vietnam, particularly as a result of unjust means of warfare through the use of Agent Orange. Despite the stigma that continues to surround the Vietnam War, Fr. Hehir illustrated that rehabilitative steps have been initiated in the efforts of former American soldiers to remove mines planted during the War. Although indirectly related to this process of rehabilitation, increased commercial relations between the U.S. and Vietnam in recent years since Vietnam's adoption of a market economy can also be seen as a potential healing force in the future. It will be interesting to note whether any further measures will be undertaken in order to repair both the physical and psychological damages inflicted by the War.


Caitlin D'Amico, '09


It is interesting to think about war in terms of morality because most people tend to avoid the combination of the subjects so as not to feel overly responsible or guilty for their actions or the actions of their ancestors. When the speaker gave his examples however, it really brought to the forefront the title of this class: "Vietnam: More Than an American War," and I mean this in a couple of different ways. Firstly, it calls to light that the actions in Vietnam affected more than just the American people. Secondly, it calls immediate attention to the fact that most Americans don't even stop to consider Vietnam as a country with a thriving community; it's just a place where we fought a war that never really had an end. This is where the morality plays in: the damage done to the people of Vietnam is uncountable, and the American people take no responsibility for it, and ignore the country altogether. The most impactful part of the speaker's talk was when he said that there are necessary amounts of force, but there are measures that go above and beyond morality. Maybe if we stopped to consider the implications of our actions before rushing headfirst into it, there would be more resolution an less destruction of culture and life.


Student, ‘10


Though the entire talk on the morality of war was very thought provoking, one aspect sticks out in my mind. At one point in the talk that the speaker was discussing how it depends on who wins a war that is considered to be "in the right." It started me thinking about how the United States will be perceived after the war in Iraq and even Afghanistan. Will we be accused of war crimes because in so many instances civilians have been put in the midst of the conflict? This is such a unique situation because no one knows exactly who the enemy is. We aren't fighting a specific country or countries, we are fighting an abstract being and because of this no one truly knows who it is we are looking for. Because we don't know exactly who we are looking for does that make this war unjust and therefore immoral? Or would leaving the United States open to another terrorist attack because we weren't trying to fight terrorism more immoral? I think it depends on who you ask. If something depends on who you ask, who is to make the final decision?


Student, ‘09


An interesting question was raised by a student. He asked if the United States military has changed their motives for involving themselves in wars from personal interest to focusing on humanitarian aid? My question of debate would be is the mission in Iraq currently for personal interest or for moral justifications? I know in the lecture it was said that after war there is a moral responsibility to reconstruct and fix the problems created. Is the war over or are we currently at the point of reconstructing?


Student, ‘11


The idea of morality and war is a difficult concept to understand. After Fr. Hehir's lecture, I was left with a further understanding of the complexities and more importantly the responsibilities of those engaged in war. His three positions that can be taken when thinking about war morally are passivism, in which he made an important distinction between passivism and non-violence, realism, and the just war theory. I consider myself more of the pacifist sort, and think that the just war theory is exceedingly complex in and of itself.


He extended his lecture to include his thoughts on WWII which I thought was very interesting, and important. WWII has been remembered especially those victorious as "the greatest war ever." I think when considering the moral responsibilities of war, especially in the United States we need to examine this statement. Destruction not only left Europe and Russia in shambles but destroyed two cities in Japan. Not only were millions of people killed due to fighting, many including U.S. soldiers had to live with the consequence of their actions, not allowing them to return to a normal life. This has been referred to as PTSD and was first heard of during Vietnam, but really has always been a devastating effect on those engaged in war. Therefore, no war should be considered great, Vietnam is not unique when it has been characterized as a deplorable mistake, in my view all war is. However, the world in which we live has decided that some war is necessary, and if that is true than I think people need to give more consideration to Fr. Hehir when he asks for all things to be considered before entering war, like who will be affected and what bombing does to people as a whole. He left us with an important thought, as the world seems to be getting smaller and smaller and the international community is growing and working as a collective for justice; what is the role of the international community in terms of a central authority?

Student, ‘09


As other people have already referenced, I too am interested in the condition that Vietnam was left in by the US. Vietnam was still engaged in war, so it would have no doubt been difficult to remove landmines (of course, the real question is whether they should have been used in the first place---or ever). But at some point, the US should have to be held accountable for its actions and tactics. We have not yet gotten to Agent Orange or napalm, but from the little I know about Agent Orange, I know that its impacts are still being felt today in the form of birth defects. I would have liked to hear Father Hehir focus more on the obligations of rebuilding. The moral obligations of removing weaponry after war seem to be rather clear; the aggressor should be made to remove anything potentially dangerous. But to what extent an aggressor should have to rebuild a country is less clear. He touched on the Marshall Plan and the rebuilding of Japan, but did not clearly state his view on exactly what we must do in Iraq. He did, however, say that he believes the US now has some sort of responsibility to help Iraq. Additionally, if we leave a war and don't win, what are the obligations? I think Father Hehir's talk provided a solid foundation to address some of these questions, many of which do not have obvious answers.


Eric Wester, ‘09


What I found most intriguing about Father Hehir's address was his discussion of post-war responsibilities. He said that as a war ends, the victorious and the international community are responsible for human relief, social and economic reconstruction, dealing with war crimes, and the removal of unexploded mines/bombs. Father Hehir also mentioned that after the destruction of the Vietnam War, rather than helping to rehabilitate the country, the United States assisted Vietnam with commercial renovation and fiscal aid. I wonder: because there was no clear-cut victory of the Vietnam War, did the USA feel no obligation to help rehabilitate Vietnam? How did pressures from the public play part in the decision to keep the relationship strictly economic?


Rosemarie Tibaldi, ‘09


In his talk, Father Hehir discussed how to think about war morally, and the implications of justifying war on moral grounds. He discussed three distinct positions on morality of war: passivism, realism, and just war. These three ideas demonstrate a spectrum of ideology, spanning from the complete immorality of war, to the idea that the strong do what they will, while the weak do what they must.


In today's society, Father Hehir argues, one must consider both the justifiability of the war as well as the means test. When speaking about Vietnam, he argues that there is a consensual agreement by the end of the war that Americans were not justified in entering Vietnam. I wonder whether the American opinion of the war changed dramatically between the beginning and end?

Student, ‘09


According to Fr. Hehir, there are three positions taken on the morality of war: passivism, realism, and the just war position. Passivism states any purposeful killing is wrong regardless of the given circumstances. Additionally, the realists view the world in its current state, and the strong must do what they must to remain strong. Thus, realists have no moral restraint in war morality. Lastly, the just war position states some uses of force are morally acceptable, pending the reasoning and actions themselves are deemed ok. After listening to this lecture, I will be interested to see if there is any Vietnamese cultural or religious authority that definitively guides post-war morality. Further, I would be interested in discussing Western religious doctrines compared to Vietnamese religious traditions regarding war morality.


Student, ‘09


The talk by Father Bryan Hehir questioned the position of accountability in war. I agree that it is an important discussion of responsibility. I would even go further in saying that without enforcing responsibility in times of war, it could soon spread to smaller decisions apart from war and cause many more problems. He believed that steps are being taken, but I question how big these steps are and do not see any international decisions being made in the near future. I think it is important to work quickly, especially today, with so much fighting occurring throughout the world. As an aside, one class I am taking has looked at the use of propaganda in war. I would be interested in seeing Father Hehir's view of propaganda and whether manipulations or propaganda fit the definition of a Just War.


Student, ‘09