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1916 Commemoration: Frustrated with Just War Theory

March 28, 2016


This is well worth reading – “Irish Philosophy” on Just War theory and rebellion.

A Right to Rebel?

Just War Theory is evoked, it seems to me, in the hope that one day a computer might be able to do the moral maths for us.  What we want, perhaps, is not so much a Theory as an Algorithm – a piece of software or even a hand held device – the Aquinus 3000 or the Hutcheson 4000 – that will multiply by altruism, divide by risk etc. etc. and give a confident, unambiguous, and above all guilt-free green light to military engagement. Or, contrariwise, imagine a bunch of bellicose politicians about to announce the mother of all scraps – only to be told “Computer says no”.

The fact is, of course, that no mathematics is going to do this sort of work for us.   There are instead only two perspectives on military morality that can secure complete freedom from guilt and confusion.

There is absolute pacifism – although this can be inconvenient – and requires a willingness to sacrifice your own life and your loved ones.  Absolute pacifism is generally honourable – and although I’m not an absolute pacifist, I want there to be some – I want their example nearby.  I want them as a point of reference.

And there is absolute passive obedience to government.  If our rulers say we should fight – that’s good enough for me.  They do our thinking for us, and such is my loyalty to my superiors that any war they say is just, is just as far as I’m concerned.

This would be a strangely relaxing attitude.  I don’t know anyone who has this attitude – but it belongs at one end of a graph I suppose.  The rest of us are stuck somewhere between these two positions, rapidly trying to look up Thomas Aquinus in a crisis.

Ever since the Gulf War, though, we all know that we don’t have the data to input.  If a war is sometimes just and sometimes not just, and if we can’t “just” rely on our political masters to tell us which is which, then we need accurate information about the nature and extent of the threat that’s being offered or the wickedness of the tyranny being resisted or viability of any alternative regime that’s being changed, or the chances of success that are being offered or the lives that will be lost through action versus the lives lost through inaction.

We now know that we won’t get this data.  We will be lied to.  Or the lies will be loud and the truth will be quiet.  We no longer believe in disinterested or disinvested news sources – and nor should we.  Perhaps if you are comprehensive and complete conspiracy theorist, then things get easier at this point.  For the conspiracy theorist – all you need to do is listen to what the Powers that Be are saying – and then do precisely the opposite.

Unfortunately, I can’t swallow this kind of totalitarian conspiracy.  Governments of “the west” so called – seem very shabby and discreditable to me – but also quite clueless.   I don’t believe they’re well enough organised to maintain consistent international scheme of mendacity.  On some of the occasions when military intervention is suggested, therefore, it might actually be justified.  Figuring out the criteria is a devil of a job.

Classical just war theory, therefore, depends on the notion that you know the terms you’re going to apply before you start working the equations.  And we don’t.  We know we won’t.

When thinking about the Irish Rising and its justifications, Just War theory does and does not come into play.  Now of course, there’s a big difference between judging a war declared by one’s own government, and waging war against a government.  Ever since 1688, the British state has been forced, meanwhile, to accept that there are occasions when rebellion has been justified.  If rebellion is not justified then Jacobites are in the right.

But Irish insurgents  in 1916 did not see themselves as “rebels” in the same sense.  Very few of them had ever thought of Britain as anything other than an occupying power.  They did not see themselves as “rebelling” against the government, but rather asserting a lawful allegiance to their own country.  Their own decision to take up arms is complicated by the fact that Ireland was currently embroiled in the deadliest war in humanity’s memory.

This brings us to another kind of moral position regarding warfare – perhaps (hopefully) the rarest of all – the belief that warfare is inherently delicious.  Nietzsche had proclaimed that “you’ve heard that a good cause justifies any war – I say a good war justifies any cause.”   The Italian futurist painters agreed with him.  A great many people were in love with an idea of war.  As was Padraig Pearse.   Pearse and Connolly held opposite views of World War One, opposite views which oddly converged on the need for an armed demonstration.

In the Proclamation that Pearse read out outside the GPO, a generational aspect is stressed – the frequency with which the Irish people had risen up again British rule since the eighteenth-century.  For Pearse, it was very important that this generational chain be not broken.  Taking the Proclamation and the O’Rossa funeral oration together, it becomes clear that for Pearse, it was necessary that there should be no quiescent gap in a chain of insurrectionary endeavour.  Pearse was, in this respect, paradoxically Burkeian.  No matter how (initially) unpopular the Easter Rising might be among living Dubliners, an ancestral nation had claims that could not be outvoted.

Connolly, unlike Pearse, had a far more accessible (or sane) view of World War One as a grotesque killing field where Europe’s working classes were being slaughtered to serve the ambitions of Europe’s ruling class.  While Pearse was inspired by this sort of sacrifice, Connolly was repelled by it.  But Connolly was also calculating, that if an insurgent Ireland rendered the imposition of conscription impossible in Ireland – then “win or lose” – many lives would be saved.  Connolly turned out to be right.  The so-called “peaceful” constitutional nationalist Redmond was just as keen on blood sacrifice for Ireland as Pearse was.  But Redmond’s sacrifice demanded tens of thousands in Flanders rather than a few hundred in central Dublin.   Around 50,000 Irishmen died in World War One.  That turns out to be more than died in the Easter Rising, the War of Independence, the Civil War, and the Troubles – put together.  And the Sinn Féin landslide of 1918 that marked the beginning of the end of British rule in most of Ireland was inspired not just by the executions of May 1916, but by the successful campaign of resistance to conscription – 1916-1918.

The call to arms will, in any case, always have an emotional logic beyond any equations that a theory might throw up.   Rather belatedly, Arthur Griffiths, reported for duty as an Easter insurgent.  Though the newspapers had called it a Sinn Féin rising, it was, of course nothing of the kind.  But Griffiths’ view was (my paraphrase) “this wasn’t my idea, I don’t think it’s a good idea – but if it’s on – I know what side I’m on.”

The insurgents of April 1916, were an unrepresentative faction giving history a nudge.  Most of the rest of Ireland was Arthur Griffiths – prepared to be nudged.  The rising shed lives but saved more lives than it shed – discuss.   But more importantly than this crude mathematics, was the sense that life could be better, that people could walk taller and feel better about who and what they were.  To understand insurgent violence, it is necessary to entertain the notion that death is not the worst thing that can happen to you.  Pearse and Connolly expected to die, one way or another.  They were not, however, suicide bombers who gloried in taking out as many innocents with them as they could.  Their surrender was to prevent further casualties.  Even at his most sanguinary, Pearse confined the beauty of military sacrifice to volunteers, those who had actively decided to risk and if necessary lose their lives.  In his own way, he was as anti-conscription as Connolly.

Kevin Myers (and others) have pointed out the Just War clause which says that it’s immoral to fight a war with no expectation of military success.  If that rule were to be consistently applied then a completely subjugated nation would have no right of resistance whatsoever.  Assessing the moral mathematics of insurgency throws up some surprising results.  The American Revolution scores relatively poorly in terms of the scale of the “tyranny” being resisted but surprisingly well when it comes to chances of success.  The American Revolution was always a reasonable bet – given the right manipulation of geo-political alliances.  The insurgents of 1916 did not expect to “succeed” in 1916, but they felt that an exemplary action could succeed in a longer context.

The 1916 proclamation is a fine document.  Almost as good as the 1867 Fenian proclamation.  Has Ireland lived up to the promise of the 1916 proclamation?  Of course it has not.  But then, any nation that lives up to its foundational principles must have pretty unimpressive foundational principles.  Most people I know, this centenary, are trying to steer a middle path between complacency and cynicism.  There are no naval charts for this journey and you veer helplessly from one shore to the other.

What else can any of us do?



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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    Reblogging this on the secular anniversary of the “Easter” Rising.

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