The Changing Landscape of War & Conflict

1  a (1):  a state of usually open and declared armed hostile conflict between states or nations; (2):  a period of such armed conflict (3):state of war
    b:  the art or science of warfare
2  a:  a state of hostility, conflict, or antagonism
     b:  a struggle or competition between opposing forces or for a particular end <a class war> <a war against disease>

From Merriam-Webster, this definition of war makes one thing immediately stand out: that war is armed conflict between states or nations.  Since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, the State has had a monopoly on war (in the West, anyway).

On a parallel track to the idea of who can call for war, who can conduct war (and for what reasons), there has also been the moral and ethical dilemma for Christians of participating in such conflict as armed combatants.  For most, this idea has been settled since the idea of Just War was brought forth by St. Augustine of Hippo, and later codified by St. Thomas Aquinas some nine hundred years later.  Augustine, leaning heavily on the Romans 13:1-4, gave reprieve to the Christian conscience by indicating that the State was appointed by God and was His instrument to execute “wrath on him who practices evil”, and therefore not guilty of violating the commandment thou shall not kill.

Aquinas then offered criteria for establishing Just War, which has been supplemented in the years since:

  1. Just Cause – a nation must have a just cause to go to war, like defense of self, or innocents, against aggressive or oppressive nations
  2. Legitimate Authority – only political authorities, duly appointed, may have the right to wage war
  3. Right Intention – war can only be to right a wrong, not for material or economic gain
  4. Last Resort – all possible diplomatic options must have been exhausted
  5. Proportionality – weighing the harms of war, such harms must be outweighed by the harms and evils of not going to war

So, for hundreds of years, Christians in the West have taken up arms, joined state militaries, and killed and been killed in wars for just causes (arguments for the injustice of any war the US has conducted in its 249 year existence notwithstanding), confident that they were doing the right, and just thing.

But fast forward to today to see the evolution of the next generation of warfare and the strategic, tactical, and ethical problems it is causing militaries (and soon, civilian populations) of the West.  As described by military theorist and strategist, William S. Lind, the current form of warfare being waged by al-Qaeda and ISIS is the Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW).  Chief among the changes in 4GW vs. 1-3GW is that it is being waged by non-state actors.  As non-state actors, there is also no distinction between combatant and non-combatant, between soldier and civilian.  As Major Patrick J. Reimnitz, USAF writes: “[H]ow does one conduct a just war when the enemy is not a nation but a group of religious extremists who do not conform to the traditional definitions of combatants?”  How indeed, as we have seen the blurred line between combatant and non-combatant lead to many civilian casualties and other “collateral damage”.  And especially with the use of drone strikes, now more than ever the nature of 4GW is causing Western forces to violate the fifth pillar of Just War – Proportionality.

Looking ForwardCharlie Hebdo assasination

As we have seen in Australian cafes, French publishing houses, Nigerian schools, and Nairobi malls, it’s not hard to imagine ISIS (or similar groups) attempting such actions on soft targets in the US.  So far, all tactical and ethical implications of battling 4GW forces have been in the context of armed conflict in countries other than the US.

But what further complications arise if (and some say when) the conflict can be seen just as prevalent here in the US as we see it in the Middle East, North Africa, and now even Europe (of course, we’ve had these)? Do we violate Just War provisions (and moral convictions) when the collateral damage is the deaths of our own fellow citizens?

How do Americans respond when it’s their duly elected authority that is creating the environment that enables 4GW to be waged against its citizens.  And, should our duly elected government fail to sufficiently address the real threat of 4GW on our shores, is the Christian morally free to also engage in 4GW of his own, defending his land and fellow citizens, in the absence of authorization from a legitimate political authority? What, then, if “enemy combatants” are also US citizens? Will war be processed as “war” (as we think of it now) or as crime? As William Lind says, “…through the vast bulk of history there was no clear line between crime and war. That line is something we’re seeing blurred once again”.

Now, more than ever, the Church in the West needs Christians who understand the times and know what to do.  Stay tuned…


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