The Ethics of Reluctance:

What We Can't Learn from the Kosovo Campaign


LT John D. Carlson, USNR


We find ourselves at a moral crossroads as we close out the bloodiest century of war-fighting in history and face the frontier of an uncertain new millennium.Two perennial questions have re-emerged since the end of the Cold War, and recently—particularly since the NATO air campaign in Kosovo—they have begun to receive the critical re-appraisal due to them: first, in what do national interests consist?And second, what considerations equip us to decide when use of force is appropriate to defend such interests?These are related though not identical questions.One design of this paper is to clarify the ethical sentiments embedded within our political interests; to argue, therefore, that politics is ineluctably a moral enterprise.Equally important as we scour the ill-defined vista of 21st century foreign policy, we need to ask what moral signposts are available to guide interventionist commitments that entail use of force.To this latter question I shall devote the bulk of this paper.


Throughout this inquiry, I shall lay out and sift through several notable “theories of reluctance” that emerged in the after-glow of the Kosovo bombing campaign.Oneversion that I shall term “moral resignation” eschews intervention in wars perceived to be driven primarily by “extraneous” moral sentiments.This posture represents a troubling and impoverished vision of politics that shuts out much of the available light that guides our moral and civic convictions, that illumes our political and human identities.I shall also consider briefly a kind of “strategic reluctance” evident in the dialogue surrounding Kosovo, that is, a perceived unwillingness to take certain risks or to make strong commitments whether from the political pulpit or on the battle grounds.This stance may betray tepid purposefulness; may announce the moral ambiguity of one's cause; may even undermine the chance of a successful outcome.All of these conditions may speak not to an awareness of the limits to force, but a corrupting indecisiveness that, in turn, could well augur a prolongation of the loss and suffering that war brings in her train.


Lastly, I will turn to the wellspring of just war thought, drawing liberally from Augustine and other seminal thinkers within the tradition.I wish to suggest how they serve as moral advisors, able to offer still solemn and pertinent counsel in guiding modern military decision-making.Specifically, I wish to consider how the morality of another form of reluctance, a kind of “principled restraint,” helps frame the discussion of when and how military commitments ought to be carried out.I will attempt to show how this more vital and noble form of reluctance distinguishes itself from moral resignation or mere fuzziness about one’s cause and the means necessary to achieve proclaimed ends.Using some lessons learned from the air war in Kosovo, I hope to show how “the ethics of reluctance” clarifies telling signs about our moral and political commitments while alerting us to the dilemmas and perils of intervention.I shall begin. 


I.An Uncertain Landscape:Re-conceiving Political Interests


The collective sigh of relief occasioned by the Cold War's end has been offset, in part, by recurring confusion over what constitutes our national interests.More than once, military leaders have waxed nostalgic—in jest of course—for the simpler days of bipolarity when we knew definitively who our enemy was:We did not then know what the outcome would be, but at least we knew how and against whom to wage war.A first order of business here is to sketch out the current political landscape, to give some contour to the issues facing 21st century policy makers, military commanders, and engaged citizens alike.This task requires, too, giving some attention to the moral fabric or elements of our democratic identity.

Since the collapse of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe, foreign policy initiatives have focused on how to shore up our interests, as a hegemonic actor, in a more globally complex and economically interdependent political order. Technological innovations and the information age of mass, real-time media communications have buttressed and accelerated our sense of mutual dependence, have re-ignited the possibilities ofinternational community while, at the same time, corroding some of the underpinnings of our isolationist sentiments.Indeed, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has formally issued a death warrant on isolationism: “We live in a world where isolationism has ceased to have a reason to exist….We are all internationalists now, whether we like it or not.” [1]Reaping the benefits of a global marketplace entails accepting reciprocal responsibilities, the argument goes.As the Gulf War bore out, those who profit most become obliged to preserve the political order that sustains them.Similarly, we who are threatened by a world in which, however far away, shameful acts and atrocities are wrought on innocent peoples feel obliged to label them “crimes against humanity,” to outlaw them (either through legal or economic means), and, when appropriate, to physically prevent or respond to them.Sovereignty remains important throughout such deliberations, but its semi-sacred status is now up for grabs.Bidding us towards an urgent reassessment of “first principles” that order international political theory, Jean Bethke Elshtain proposes, 

Maybe if some of the luster were taken off the surface sheen of sovereignty, and if one could begin to view sovereignty as a practical necessity, not a sacral principle, more experimentation with alternatives that preserve a commitment to political independence and the yearning of peoples for a security and stabilitybut avoid strong sovereignty might be possible.[2]

These notions of sacredness and necessity require some unpacking, a chore I shall postpone for the moment.Before decreeing that isolationism is (or ought to be) dead, at last, we might be right to call for previous autopsy reports.The United States has wrestled with problems of economic interdependence and pursuant political responses during and many times since the early days of the republic.The ideals exhorted by John Quincy Adams or in Washington’s Farewell address resound even in deliberations to enter into World Wars I and II.It seems isolationism represents a strand of political thought and sentiment that has long survived in tension with interventionist and internationalist stances.It might be wise not to shed entirely this political wariness despite our increasingly interdependent ties, institutions, and interests.I introduce, though will not defend here, the isolationist view in part to complexify the picture.That is, I want to accent within our outlook on foreign affairs the place of a tradition’s continuity and evolution (i.e., its response to change) instead ofsuggesting prima facie that foreign policy in the new millennium calls for a complete paradigm shift, one that must be crafted de novo.I shall say more about the importance of other traditions later, but let me attempt to illustrate my point another way.

Not So Novel Ethics?

The hard-knocks school of realism has endeavored since its earliest days in ancient Greece[3] to fence out the barbaroi who speak the strange tongue of political ethics—or worse—those who conjure up the emotions when styling their political appeals.This resistance to the ethical remains sturdy today.Former President Bush’s acknowledgment that it was pity that prompted US intervention in Somalia may be perceived as a kind of confession—for allowing empathy to guide policy and for failing to deploy the sobering reasoning that a robust raison d’etat enjoins.[4]Other voices are more forthright in contending that there is no role in the arena of international affairs for “disinterested and indeed frivolous motives, such as television audiences’ revulsion at harrowing scenes of war.”[5]This view of moral resignation I am describing refuses to admit that ethical claims—which might include but would not be limited to affective reactions to otherwise descriptive events—should enter into political affairs and military decision-making.In refusing to play the ethical card, moral resignation affirms that all hands must be won with the strong suits of power, national security, or strategic interest or perhaps with the trump card of national sovereignty.

But is this to play with a full deck?Haven’t firmly seated moral arguments been part and parcel of our political vocabulary throughout this country’s history?Can one think adequately about the Revolutionary and Civil Wars or either of the 20th century world wars without taking stock of the perhaps blurred ethical-political ideals at work therein.Isn’t it also the case that in some measure what sustained the West’s cause during the Cold War was not simply that the US and NATO were countering an expansionist empire with a vast military arsenal, but that communist totalitarianism and authoritarianism took its roots in ideals and values that the West—or at least its dominant traditions—found morally abhorrent?  Communism was—and still is—wrong by virtue of the values it espouses, the anthropology it presumes about its citizens, and the human ends and possibilities it ordains. 

Emotions, furthermore, factor integrally into the political equation, and they need not fall prey to the typecast ofirrational pleas or hysterical fits. To weigh in on this matter, we might summons up Augustine—bishop, church father, saint, late antique forbear of realism, and inaugural orator of just war thinking—who lays siege to the Stoic demeanor that calls for emotional detachment in all matters.Rather, Augustine insists, emotions are motive; trained by the mind, formed by reason “so that they may be turned into the instruments of justice,” they impel us to action.[6]The question is not whether we are angry or outraged or saddened, he muses, but why and how passions may reasonably be brought to bear on this situation at hand.Hesitant over the conventional definitions of a commonwealth prevalent in his day, Augustine proposes that a commonwealth is judged by the loves and values its people hold dear.[7]In our own day, we would hope that these include conceptions about the dignity of human life, the values of freedom of worship and expression, as well as the political and economic conditions that are necessary to sustain these and other basic human ends and pursuits.These are no doubt American political values, but they are moral values as well to which we are deeply indebted and emotionally committed.

Furthermore, ethical dimensions inescapably pervade classical political themes of justice, human rights, order and the common good, and the kinds of government that conduce to the ends and means of good human living.Passionate moral views have always been crucial to how we understand human interests, hence, how we collectively assay them through the prism of our national and political identity.The point I am trying to make is that moral criteria have not emerged de novo in the post-Cold War world nor in the wake of wars invoking humanitarian causes.The end of a forbidding, omnipresent Soviet adversary—what Joseph Nye has poetically dubbed the “loss of the North Star that guides American foreign policy”[8]—has again re-cast our eyes inwards towards the morally suffused constellation of our own political convictions. It has, moreover, opened doors of possibility, closed for five decades, to act less reservedly upon such convictions.What the “new” era announces is the potential to incorporate explicitly ethical concerns without threat of nuclear war or a major confrontation with the Soviet Union; of course, the unintended effects ofsuch overtures would have, in earlier days, dangerously disrupted a tenuous balance of powers and far outweighed any intended benefits to be derived from intervention.There is still a place for proportional reasoning today, for example, in the more cautious approach the West takes in its relations with China.But, it is the case for intervention under an “ethics of reluctance” that I want to make.

So, in what, then, do American interests consist?Perhaps, it has been alleged, there really is “no single national interest.”[9]America's interests are those interests Americans deem worthy of defending:economic resources, security requirements, liberal and democratic values and, yes, ideals native to our Judeo-Christian foundations that affirm human dignity and sturdily undergird the case for certain fundamental human rights.The so-called humanitarian causes often vitalized by mass media or what has come to be called “the CNN effect” arouse our sensibilities on numerous and not incommensurate levels—as sentient beings, as democratic citizens, as believers and people of faith, and as Americans who prize at least basic human and civil rights for all persons.That our moral revulsion ought to be bracketed in the political sphere, as moral resignation espouses, is to suggest that politics does not—that is, it cannot and ought not—acknowledge or serve this very essential part of our humanity.It suggests that politics exists to serve some end in itself severed from concrete human concerns including the ethical.

Politics is always a means—indispensable yet finite, limited; as such, it must engage human concerns and ultimately serve citizens as ends in themselves.While we strive to extend and enhance the moral horizon of the political order, limits must be discerned by what can be done without unbearable cost or irreparable harm to other realms that we also deem important.Not only must one consider the tangible presence of moral evil, but security interests, diplomatic relations, limited military resources, economic considerations must also factor into political deliberation—especially decisions involving force.As this survey continues, we must hold at bay the notion that either political interests or institutional arrangements (whether theories of sovereignty or rules of war) exist for some higher goal abstracted from the concrete preservation and flourishing of the human person.

Problematic Postures: The Vacuum ofMoral Resignation

Before shifting to the question of when, where, and how military interventions are justified, I want to say a bit more about the corrupt ethics of reluctance at work in moral resignation.One line of such thinking argues that the virtue of war and “its sole useful function” is that it brings peace.Outside parties should be reluctant to intervene (even on behalf of a beleaguered people), for that is to meddle artificially with war's “natural corrective” powers.From a purely consequentialist point of view, it’s best to just “let minor wars burn themselves out.”[10]Looming large in this venue is the providential specter of Kant’s “perpetual peace,” a scheme that, even while eschewing the scourge of war, appeals to nature’s use of it to reach some foreordained telos or endgame where war ceases to exist.[11](I don’t think this is the place where I need to challenge Kant’s prognostication that wars will someday cease exist.)

Moral resignation locates itself in a pseudo-Kantian or even Darwinian framework where, in effect, as Thucydides said, the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.[12]Peace incurs its moral status as the rightful outcome of the survival of the fittest; war’s virtue lies in its corrective powers as part ofnature’s chain of events.Augustine, too, argued that the value of war is to be the peace that attends, for he gleaned that peace is an aspiration that all humans, good and wicked alike, share in common.But Augustine was also concerned to assess the nature of the peace in question.For him, the Pax Romana (not unlike the peace that Slobodan Milosevic seeks in the Balkans) is peace through conquest, wherein the libido dominiandi or lust to dominate betrays no true peace at all.

Famous cities were up to auction as if they were country houses; one whole community was butchered by order…And all this took place in the peace which followed war…Peace and War had a competition in cruelty; and Peace won the prize.For the men whom War cut down were bearing arms; Peace slaughtered the defenceless.The law of War was that the smitten should have the chance of smiting in return; the aim of Peace was to make sure not that the survivor should live, but that he should be killed without the chance of offering resistance.[13]


A dominative peace becomes the unnatural ordering of parts to a whole, represented in the Balkans, most recently in Kosovo, by the raping and murdering of unarmed persons, the pillaging of homes and the destruction and intended eradication of a living culture.This kind of carnage was not unknown in Augustine's day, and he went to great pains to detail how it consumed Rome even before the Vandals attacked.Peace, for him, is not simply the absence of war, but an earthly state that makes possible the enjoyment of other goods:love, freedom, and truth.A “just war” may, then, perforce be the only avenue available to reorder an unjust “peace” of conquest.The imperfect justice available in this world consists in a rightful moral order held in common by citizens reasonably assured of the chance to pursue ordinary earthly loves: the freedom to worship God and to partake of the gifts of family and everyday life without threat to life and limb.Unlike the view moral resignation holds, justice abides as the chief concern for Augustine, not an unqualified peace per se.

Finally, the insistence that any intervention by an outside force would lead “to an unjust outcome from one perspective or another”[14] crystallizes the stance of moral resignation.The idea is that since no side (e.g., neither Serbians nor Albanian Kosovars) has a monopoly on justice—since fallacy, vileness, and brutality reign on both sides of the aisle—this relieves onlookers from any responsive commitment.I shall address this argument more pointedly when I take up the case for comparative justice below.Suffice it to say for now that a complex political order—one simultaneously fraught with the perils of nationalism and brutal dictatorships as well as democracy’s promise of basic freedoms and universal goods—obliges exemplars of such freedoms to weigh and warn against the relative evils committed by all parties (including one’s own).


II. Intervention Perplexed

Up to this point, I have tried to expand the possible venues for how politics is conceived, to broaden narrow construals of national interests by permitting ethical considerations to stand alongside or as part of security, economic, and strategic interests.Gleaning politics, in part, as a moral endeavor means understanding that decisions to war are overlaid onto a dense fabric of national concerns that are woven through and through with moral threads.This is also where the political patchwork gets tangled, where foreign policy thinking becomes jumbled and confused.Where do we intervene?If we cross the line in Kosovo, why not in Rwanda or Sierra Leone?Why not Chechnya or Tibet?I want at the outset to chase off the notion that expanding the moral-political horizon of foreign affairs entails responding anywhere and everywhere human rights violations exist.A political posture of “consistency for its own sake” is surely a hobgoblin that is unable to assume the appropriate guise for the complex, imperfect world in which we live; that does not have to weigh competing goods and conflicting values; that does not have to contend with scarce resources or to stare in the face the often hostile world that 21st century princes and civic bodies confront.Realpolitik earned its name by entertaining questions of feasibility and necessity, not by positing some hypothetical world in which ideal rules or maxims could be consistently universalized in the political arena.We stand, then, in need of a coherent brand of casuistry that reckons adequately with both moral ideals and political realities—as well as political ideals and moral realities—that inform the constitutive attachments and troubling entanglements comprised in the web of global politics.Having laid out some preliminary disclaimers, I return to the ethics of reluctance and a discussion of restraint that outfit us with some methodological tools for military decision-making in our day.

Vital Reluctance in the Just War Tradition: The Usual Tenets 

Despite casting scrutiny on the claims of moral resignation, there is a place for reluctance in our political ventures and foreign affairs.As I mentioned earlier, in the context of national interests, the importance of locating our moral and political views within a tradition is vital.I want to turn now to one of our traditions that helps fathom the depth of such interests and how they can be defended.The “just war” tradition, rich in its espousal of principled restraint, offers some tentative criteria for when intervention and force may be exercised.Just war thinking acknowledges, to trot out the trusty refrain, that “war is hell.”But, against those who decry the idea of limited war (or “kinder, gentler warfare” as it has been derided more recently), just war thinking resists appropriating the “war is hell” truism as strategic doctrine.Rather, it is a moral description that asserts the bald horror of war and makes urgent the establishment of a threshold of limits to prevent excessive destruction and gratuitous slaughter.Tenets like last resort—the notion that war is only justified after all non-violent political options are reasonably thought to have been exhausted—clarify the moral quality of reluctance incumbent to decisions to wage war.[15]This plea was voiced vociferously during the Kosovo campaign.Just war thinking also requires that force be undertaken only where reasonable possibility for success exists.Such a measure wards against undertaking a just cause where the outcome may be indecisive at best, suicidal at worst.Despite the ineradicable stain that Rwandan genocide has left on the twentieth century, some wonder what effect the much vaunted technological superiority of Western firepower might have had on the “low-tech” and widely dispersed decimation of eight-hundred thousand to a million people slaughtered by machetes.[16]

Proportionality, invoking a similar plug for moral restraint, requires that only the necessary force be used in bello.Moreover, as part of ad bellum considerations, proportionality requires that the anticipated good sought through use of force outweigh the damage to be inflicted in this effort.Finally, discrimination between combatant and non-combatant targets represents an ethical constraint that helps assure that just wars are always waged as limited wars and only for the avowed reasons.New technologies like precision-guided munitions and programmable flight profiles as well as intricate efforts to avoid civilian populated targets, cultural landmarks, religious edifices and other forms of sanctuary—all represent laudable and now commonplace efforts in US and allied tactical strategies to minimize collateral damage and apply classic principles of just war thinking.Mistakes are inevitable, their lethal outcomes tragic and destructive; such is the unavoidably flawed nature of all human designs.Yet, the relative paucity—some thirty incidents—of collateral damage in the Kosovo air campaign testify to the ongoing possibilities for the ethical deployment of new technologies.This trend, when force is brought to bear, must continue.

However, critics are also right to ponder how targeting “dual-use” facilities such as electrical grids, water treatment plants, and bridges squares with the discrimination criterion that affirms their “indispensable [status] to the survival of the civilian population” as defined by the 1977 Protocol to the Geneva Convention.[17]We might further wonder in the new era of information warfare whether radio transmission towers (presumably, as well, newspaper and other propaganda mediums)warrant expanding the list of legitimate targets.These methods would seem to betoken relaxing traditional forms of moral restraint.Moreover, if NATO stands in violation of the Geneva Convention, how can it also defend the justness of its cause which aimed, in part, to prevent the kind ofviolations of Albanian non-combatant’ rights that the Geneva Convention articulates?This seems fundamentally contradictory.(Serbian ethnic cleansing, of course, also violated systematically and to exponential degree basic dictums of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.)

In the cases mentioned above, the injunction of proportionality seemed to be applied such that the “good” of destroying infrastructure elements of the Serbian war machine (as it contributed to the overall drive to force Milosevic to the bargaining table) proportionally outweighed the harm inflicted on Serbian civilians.The reasoning seemed to be that the will of the Serbian population and war machine had to be broken; and this called for some demonstrations of indiscriminate power to show, as the saying is sometimes heard, “that we could reach out and touch them.”But this willingness to engage in a kind of “strategic monism”[18] of non-discrimination, deploying ethically passé tactics of attrition, is peculiarly reserved about considering that one can more legitimately test the will of a nation by targeting the combatants waging the crimes we purport to counter.Surely, the families of Serbian soldiers who feel the pain of loss may begin to question how vital Kosovo is with respect to the effort required to “secure” it.

Just war criteria call for all combatants, especially those fighting crimes like genocide, to exercise restraint and conceive war as a method where the means employed morally coincide with the ends that are sought.Such considerations, taken together, provide the framework for a version of moral casuistry—a language of deliberation and reasoning—available to guide political and military decision making.Worth noting at this juncture is Prime Minister Blair’s speech about the “new rules” for a “new world” in a “new millennium,” for three of his five points for intervention resemble just war tenets.[19]Just war thought, furthermore, is one articulation of a kind of moral realism that locates centrally the ethical claims embedded within the tough-minded realities of political calculation.Moral realism is complicatedly related to particular versions of political realism (i.e., Realpolitik); oversimply, it means one that does not rule out political expediency and hard-nosed reckoning even while articulating a robust moral vocabulary.[20]Moral realism, on the one hand, resists that talk of ethics is somehow “less real,” simply window dressing onto the world.Yet, on the other, such thinking takes serious stock of the strategic factors and security conditions that trouble moral-political reasoning.The moral prince may have to rely on craftiness and shrewdness, even a willingness to engage in noble lies.

Perhaps the single most regrettable mistake in the Kosovo campaign was the immediate announcement that no ground troops would be used.This kind of “strategic reluctance” would plague support for and jeopardize the success of the entire 78-day mission.Even if no plan to use ground troops ever existed, showing our cards as early as we did ensured that all bets were off before the ante was ever made.We announced at the outset our weak-kneed resolve—that we were not, in Blair’s language, so sure of our case.Moreover, did a preoccupation with “combatant immunity”[21] (i.e., a perceived concern that the allied nations would tolerate no losses) betray “tactics of reluctance” that engendered greater willingness to strike stationary infrastructure targets and put civilians at risk.Roving paramilitary troops were surely harder to hit and would have foretold far greater risks to NATO troops.Yet, the perception that support for the campaign would not withstand allied combat losses demonstrates that our political commitment had a definite ceiling, one approximately 15,000 feet high.Had the case for intervention been stated sooner in the US and more vociferously, we might have avoided the need for an overly taxing strategic reluctance.

Just War Thought (cont.):Comparative Justice

Just war theory is far-ranging:I have considered it as a moral tradition owing its first intimations to Augustine; as a type of moral reckoning or casuistry; and as one possible constituent of moral realism.Clearly, these dimensions all overlap.In this section, I want to tease out the intricacies of necessity that drive political and moral realism by surveying the oft neglected criterion of comparative justice.This foray will allow us to conceive of just war theory, finally, as a kind of moral outlook onto the world.My hope, then, is that by understanding the kind of moral backdrop that comparative justice assumes, we can ascertain an ethic of responsibility that proffers ways to act that are appropriate to the imperfect and complex arena of political relations.

Comparative justice is an understudied criterion that has been formalized in the just war tradition only more recently in the US Catholic Bishops' 1983 Pastoral Letter The Challenge of Peace (its insinuations, though, date back to St. Augustine).Simply put, comparative justice “stresses that no state should act on the basis that it has ‘absolute justice’ on its side.”[22]The principle is designed to temper the zeal for war, especially a just war, by resisting the invocation of moral crusade.Essentially a kind of proviso, comparative (or relative) justice aims to attenuate an overweening evocation of a just cause for fear it could lead to exceptionalism, that is, to one side exempting itself from certain rules of war by virtue of its superior moral claims (cf., the aforementioned discussion of non-combatant discrimination). 

While this idea resists claims to “absolute” or “perfect justice,” I suggest that it also counters the view of moral resignation that wagers since no side has a monopoly on justice, onlookers are, thereby, relieved from any responsibility at all.For example, moral resignation might argue that since injustices and abuses reigned on both Serbian and Albanian sides of the aisle in Kosovo, that any action would lead “to an unjust outcome from one perspective or another.”[23]Another view similarly hostile to just war thinking argues that “to maintain that a given war is ‘just’ is to say that one of the belligerents is exclusively right and the other is exclusively wrong, regardless of how the war is conducted.”[24]We might call this myopic outlook “immoral equivalence” for its refusal to see some wrongs and misdeeds as worse than others.Against both these views, comparative justice enjoins civic bodies and state actors to reason through the moral intricacies of political dilemmas and may ultimately call them to step off of the sidelines onto the side of greater justice or, at least, the side of lesser evil. Thus, in Kosovo, we were obliged to weigh the crimes committed by the KLA and random Albanians versus state-sponsored ethnic cleansing and wide-scale, systematic human rights violations carried out by the Serbian military upon ethnic Albanians.Even while not siding explicitly with the cause of Albanian independence, comparative justice hopes to provide enough sense of right to proceed on a path to correct greater moral wrongs being committed by the Milosevic regime.

To approach comparative justice from another angle, we might inquire what kind of view of the human person, of the self and other, is at work here?And how are we to adopt this conception in our political responses and civic responsibilities?The outlook of comparative justice I wish to lift up rests on a threefold design of moral anthropology and human relations, the awareness of which helps articulate moral rejoinders and political responses appropriate to the fraught state of global affairs.To the first dimension or layer, I assign a rather unwieldy term, our “ontological disposition.”By that I mean, morally and politically speaking, we are situated in the world both as interested parties and as judges of worldly affairs who are obliged to reflect, evaluate, and react to political dilemmas.As rational, discerning beings, we can assay moral norms of behavior that demand conformance to some degree, yet we always do so in concrete ways that admit to the importance of our sentient embodiment, the instructive power of human experience, as well the civic ties and cultural mores that constitute our identities.[25]

We are not impartial, morally resigned jurists, but rather citizens of a common world, members of one dispersed (though often cantankerous) human family.In some broadly religious sense, empathy, mutual concern, caritas, and comradeship bind us even when such latent forces are suppressed.I am reminded here, in considering various encounters between members of opposing armies, of Michael Walzer’s instructive account of naked soldiers.Soldiers who are bathing or pulling up their trousers place within the enemy’s gun site their undisguised humanity.Of course, it is not just the naked soldier who is exposed.The discovery of this shared humanity exposes the sniper to his own inner vulnerability which may, in turn, shield the bathing soldier from the sniper’s fire.There may be an unspoken soldiery code, if not human code, operative here but there is no legal code that protects the nude in times of war.[26]Or, the scene in the more recent Saving Private Ryan where the young GI translator connects with a German prisoner of war depicts the invisible bonds of comradeship capable of forging when a mutual language is discovered.Such languages need not be verbal; common visual and experiential languages can function equally powerfully.[27]

The second grounds comparative justice regards is the moral state of our humanity.“There are no just people-merely hearts more or less lacking in justice,” Albert Camus once penned. Arguments about sin and human fallibility enter here.Though an unbeliever himself, Camus contended that there is a “solidarity of all men in error and aberration,...a wretchedness of the common condition”[28]But, there is, likewise, he maintained a natural innocence that resides in life—all life—as it struggles to sustain itself against death that comes either from human perils or from natural forces.We are all simultaneously guilty and innocent, Camus suggests.What requires judgment, what comparative justice urges, are the relative degrees of culpability and guiltlessness.Alliances that sustain life must be defended; those that pursue death must be diminished as best they can.Comparative justice requires that some of the latter may be required to secure more of the former.

The wretchedness of the human condition is also the moral and political backdrop that animates Augustine’s realism and that accordingly grounds the unavoidable duty to respond to “the exigencies of human society.”For Augustine, “a man acknowledges this necessity as a mark of human wretchedness, when he hates the necessity in his own actions,…when he cries out to God ‘Deliver me from my necessities!”[29]Comparative justice can only roundly be conceived against this backdrop of sheer necessity, the kind of political necessity that warranted in a scheme of international arrangements, the kind of moral necessity expressed by President Bush when he viewed on television the pestilence of Somalian famine and chaos:“I—we—can’t watch this anymore.You’ve got to do something.”[30]Thesense ofnecessity stemming from the revulsion of images or terror-ridden narrative may compel one to act frequently and against one’s druthers as Augustine points out.[31]Other factors, including empathy overload, may mire and forestall the imperative to act—all of which must be taken seriously—but they do not relieve necessity’s wretched burden that something must be done.

The third anthropological dimension I wish to introduce is our “epistemological stance.”Tied centrally to our ontological disposition and to the moral state of human affairs, this notion examines the ways in which we think about and know our actions in the world.To exercise principled restraint is to avoid completely ensconcing ourselves in our own point of view.Despite the relative evil and injustice of the opposing side, we can maintain and affirm the value of human life qua life.For this reason, we embrace fundamental rights and certain duties that may not be forsworn because of the enemy’s race, religion, ideology, or even immoral outlook.However, we are not able to step into a sterile vacuum where complete impartiality may be afforded, where “pure” insight is assured.We are both informed and fettered by our cultural mores—religious, political, ideological.Human knowledge can never presume to elude fully these entrenched biases.

Nor is perfect moral foresight feasible. Irreducibly human, we cannot transcend into a realm in which “absolute justice” is accessible to us, where our moral judgments or providential understanding achieve an omniscience commensurate with God’s.“This means that the ignorance of the judge is often a calamity for the innocent.”[32]Thus, we cannot always anticipate the effects of our actions no matter how nobly conceived.Witness the mass exodus of Kosovar refugees following the commencement of the bombing campaign.Still, unavoidable ignorance remains the ill-suited partner of unavoidable duty.Biases and occlusions in our knowledge do not relieve us of the obligation to reflect, to discern, to judge and to act—for that is the imperative necessity renders.Rather, as we act upon and interact in the world, we must recall that there are limitations to human knowledge and, thus, form our moral judgments with such constraints in mind.

Comparative justice is the form of human justice appropriate given these limits of the human condition.It represents a political-moral scheme that eschews the irrational arbitrariness of supreme injustice where people are slaughtered for the contingencies of their race, religion, or ethnicity while shunning simultaneously access to “perfect justice.”Relative justice is a via mediathat recognizes human depravity, skewed and finite moral knowledge, and allegiances split between ourselves and norms and duties in the wider social order—yet acts in spite of these things, appropriate to them as well.So, if these three anthropological sub-tenets form the bulwark of comparative justice, as I want to suggest, then what concrete advice does comparative justice afford?The criterion itself has been criticized that it is, in fact, no criterion at all;[33] indeed, its own inventor, Fr. Bryan Hehir, worries that “the test of comparative justice may be extremely difficult to apply.”[34]I wish to revisit this dilemma and re-introduce comparative justice as a sturdy criterion of just war thinking; to aid me in this effort I call again on Camus, a man who was no just war thinker but whose reflections on this matter are lucid and apropos:

Human justice...knows it is frail.Must we therefore conclude that such frailty authorizes us to pronounce an absolute judgment and that, uncertain of ever achieving pure justice, society must rush headlong, through the greatest risks, toward supreme injustice?If justice admits that it is frail, would it not be better for justice to be modest and to allow its judgments sufficient latitude so that a mistake can be corrected? [ital. added][35]


Comparative justice, I would urge, forms not only a self-scrutinizing boundary that keeps in check other in bello and ad bellum considerations, but itself becomes a criterion that asks whether political actions involving force and coercion extend to all sides the possibility to make amends.The opposing side must always have at its disposal the chance for self-reform, for recompense, for contrition—all of which entail the chance for reconciliation and the welcoming back into the circle of moral and political life.The desire to extinguish the enemy requires curbing in favor of intense moral and political pressure (which may regrettably call for principled use of force) to move the enemy towards admission and correction of inexcusable wrongs.

Similarly, it would be short-sighted to assume that the actions of one’s own side are not susceptible to folly.Hence, they must not be ultimate or absolute, that is, of such a nature that one cannot later atone or make good for one’s own mistakes.The most obvious transgression that comes to mind is use of nuclear weapons.One might consider, too, the time or measures that will be required to thaw the will of the Serbian people, frozen and hardened after much of their infrastructure was destroyed.Another departure, though, might consider the bombing campaign which turned into homeless refugees nearly a million victims whom we aimed to assist; while the outcome is grievous, it may, with much diplomatic effort and considerable economic and military resources, be remediable.None of these options yielded enviable outcomes, but had NATO allies abstained from any involvement—donning the gloves of moral resignation that keep the hands clean—this stance could have taken several lifetimes to reconcile and atone for.[36]


III.The End(s) of Peace?

Critics look to the very imperfect peace in which Bosnia and now Kosovo repose, an armed peace in which the withdrawal of outside forces would likely lead to immediate resumption of hostilities.Sadly, looting and murder rains down on Kosovo as counter violence befalls the now Serbian victims of ethnic violence.However, even as we labor to improve upon the still troubled “peace” in this world, we should resist a creep towards a sort of perfectionism that may not be possible in our own day.Augustine’s pessimism for the kind of peace available in this world is instructive, for earthly peace is always perverted by a wretchedness inescapable in this life.Augustine reminds that, “ such is the instability of human affairs that no people has ever been allowed such degree of tranquillity as to remove all dread of hostile attacks on their life in this world.”[37]That kind of perpetual peace is reserved for a time yet to come, for a place not of this earth.The peace available to the political order is always a limited one that, even while informed by the transcendent horizon of perfect peace, pales in comparison.What is needed is a limited framework of peace that holds together the limbs of our political bodies, “a kind of peace [that] still connects the parts with one another and keeps the whole mass fixed in its earthly condition, an appropriate, and therefore, a peaceable state.”[38]I think we can say that about Bosnia and perhaps soon about Kosovo too.

Comparative justice, I have tried to argue, seeks to hold such a peace together by discriminating between levels of injustices, by responding to them in ways politically feasible and morally appropriate to the peace of this world.It would, in my formulation, seek to discriminate between the random violence that will plague Kosovo for some time to come with the systematic, state-sponsored ethnic cleansing that befell the province before NATO intervention.Both evils call for reform, but one clearly calls for more severe measures if an ethic of responsibility hopes to be maintained.Such an ethic makes appeals to moral and political necessity, not simply to expediency.The human justice of Augustine commends to us a measure of humility—not glory or pride—that is to accompany use of force.We are enjoined to grant pardons not in order to allow impunity to wrong-doing but out of necessity and for the amendment of the wrong-doer.Lastly, severe actions, “as must often happen,” are obliged to be taken with sufficient latitude to restore the rightful ends of peace that war aims to bring about.

Just what are the rightful ends of peace?They are little more than the basic goods held open for all persons to enjoy in this life: 

…peace that consists in bodily health and soundness, and in fellowship with one’s kind; and everything necessary to safeguard or recover this peace—those things for example, which are appropriate and accessible to our senses: light, speech, air to breathe, water to drink, and whatever is suitable for the feeding and clothing of the body, for the care of the body, and the adornment of the person.[39]


Politics, while always an imperfect venture with earthly limits, is necessary for the preservation of such minimal goods.These goods along with others—the freedom to worship, to enjoy the fruits of labor and the love of family and fellow being—are protected by the thin but inviolable patina of basic human rights.The best prevention of war—or the violence and genocide that precede it—consists in shoring up around the globe respect for the intrinsic sacredness of human life as “first principles” that undergird the very rights and duties that protect them.And when preventive measures collapse under the weighty exigencies of the human condition, force must be deployed with clarity, resolve, and principled restraint, yet in such a way so as to underwrite—not undermine—the rights war seeks to protect and reinstate.Such considerations must be tempered with the modesty and scrutiny needed to perceive one’s own flaws and with the test of comparative justice that makes allowances—by leaving room for reconciliation and amends—for the unintended effects of one’s limited insights.

[1] Tony Blair, “Doctrine of International Community” reprinted in Chicago Tribune, 22 April 1999.
[2] Jean Bethke Elshtain, New Wine and Old Bottles:International Politics and Ethical Discourse (Notre Dame:University of Notre Dame Press, 1998), p. 75.
[3] I refer here to “The Melian Dialogue” and other similarly famous episodes in Thucydides’ Peloponnesian Wars, trans. Rex Warner (New York:Penguin, 1954).
[4] “…There are so many places... they all need help, but we cannot always use force,” Cragg Hines, “Pity, Not U.S. Security, Motivated Use of GIs In Somalia, Bush Says,” Houston Chronicle, Oct. 24, 1999, p. 11.
[5] This contention would seem to be inherently self-contradictory for, how can a “disinterested” motive arouse empathy, outrage, or revulsion? See Edward N. Luttwak, “Give War a Chance,” Foreign Affairs, July/August, 1999, p. 37.
[6] Augustine, City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson (New York:Penguin, 1984), Bk. IX, Ch. 5.Hereafter, all citations to Augustine are from this work.
[7] Augustine, Bk. XIX, Ch. 24.
[8] Joesph Nye, “Redefining the National Interest,” Foreign Affairs, July/August, 1999, p. 22.
[9] Ibid.,p. 23.
[10] Luttwak, loc. cit.
[11] Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace and Other Essays trans. Ted Humphrey (Indianapolis:Hackett, 1983), p. 139.
[12] Thucydides, op. cit., p. 402.
[13] Augustine, Bk. III, Ch. 28.
[14] Luttwak, loc. cit.
[15] See Blair, cited earlier (page no. unavailable) and William Jefferson Clinton, “A Just and Necessary War,” The New York Times, May 23, 1999.
[16] Philip Gourevitch notes that the Rwandan holocaust took only about one hundred days to carry out, a rate nearly three times the killing rate of the Shoah,We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families:Stories from Rwanda (New York: Picador USA, 1998), p. 4.
[17] Michael Mandelbaum, “A Perfect Failure:NATO’s War in Yugoslavia,” Foreign Affairs, Sep/Oct, 1999, p. 6.
[18] Mackubin Owens, “Kosovo and the Future of U.S. Air Power,” Washington Times, Jul 5, 1999, p. 17.
[19] Regarding decisions to use force, Blair asks, “First, are we sure of our case?” (just cause); “Second, have we exhausted all diplomatic options?” (last resort); “Third on the basis of a practical assessment of the situation, are there military operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake?” (reasonable chance of success) in Blair, op. cit.
[20] For a full exposition of the various stripes of realism and their relations, see Robin Lovin, Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism (New York:Cambridge University Press, 1995).
[21] A locution introduced by Jean Bethke Elshtain.
[22] US Catholic Conference, The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response in Jean Bethke Elshtain ed., Just War Theory (Washington Square, NY:New York University Press, 1992), p. 99.
[23] Luttwak, loc. cit.
[24] Cornelio Sommaruga, “For ALL Who Suffer,” Washington Post, August 12, 1999, p. 27.
[25] Moreover, moral norms, when unheeded, are not abrogated.My Lai did not ablate the standard of non-combatant immunity; rather, as an ethical aberration, the episode upheld the norm.
[26] Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars (New York:Basic Books, 1977), pp. 138-143.
[27] Ibid.Walzer’s account relates how “invisible links” form between soldiers of opposing sides by the imagined co-enjoyment of such simple pleasures as smoking a cigarette, drinking coffee, or watching the sunrise.
[28] Albert Camus, “Reflections on the Guillotine” in Rebellion, Resistance, Death (New York:Vintage, 1960),pp. 217.
[29] Augustine, Bk. 19, Ch. 6.
[30] Hines, op. cit., p. 11.
[31] For an engaging discussion of“the ethics of television” and how“the CNN effect” can induce a kind of empathic overload, see Michael Ignatieff, The Warrior’s Honor (New York:Metropolitan Books, 1997).
[32] Augustine, Bk. 19, Ch. 6.
[33] John Howard Yoder, When War is Unjust:Being Honest in Just-War Thinking(Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996), p. 154.
[34] Cited from Elshtain ed., Just War Theory, pp. 99-100.
[35] Camus, op. cit.,pp. 216-7.
[36] I leave open the inquiry whether intervention in Kosovo was not, itself, a kind of late modern “crusade” to redeem for past episodes of genocide and ethnic cleansing in this decade or even this century .
[37] Augustine, Bk. XVII, Ch. 13.
[38] Ibid., Bk. XVII, Ch. 12.
[39] Augustine, Bk. XIX, Ch. 13.