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Going to War: The Citizen, the State, and Ambiguity

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles ) | Jun 26, 2006

Fox News reported last week that over 500 weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq since the US went to war there in 2003. This information has just become available through the declassification of a portion of a report by the State Department’s National Ground Intelligence Center. The disclosure strengthens the Bush Administration’s case, but my purpose here is not partisan. Rather, I wish to make a point about the relationship between the citizen and the state in going to war and, by extension, about civil discourse concerning war in general.

Not a Personal Decision

One of the more interesting features of Catholic social theory is that while a citizen has a serious obligation to inform himself and make personal moral decisions when it comes to casting votes in elections, he does not have that same responsibility when deciding whether or not to fight in a war. This is because the decision to go to war does not properly belong to the individual citizen but to the government. In relationship to acts of government, the citizen has a moral obligation to obey unless there is a significant impediment to his doing so. Where doubt exists, the presumption in favor of the citizen's obedience to civil authority eliminates his culpability for participating in an unjust war.

Criticism of war and state military action is, of course, well within the framework of responsible citizenship The immediate question here is simply whether the citizen who disagrees with his country’s policies has a moral obligation to refuse service. To this question, the Catholic answer is generally negative. Because it is the province of the state to decide whether to go to war, and because the citizen has a presumptive obligation to obey the laws of the state, the citizen who fights in his country’s wars can rarely be faulted for doing so just because a war is judged by others or by history to be unjust.

The Knowledge of Citizens

The only exception is when the citizen knows (or should know) beyond doubt that the war in question is unjust. This judgment cannot be made by assuming that all wars are unjust, since that proposition contradicts Catholic teaching. So the question arises as to whether a citizen can ever know for certain that a particular war is in fact unjust. If a government clearly announces an immoral purpose or states its intention to engage in the mass destruction of civilian populations, of course, the citizen would be morally obliged to refuse to serve. Typically, however, governments explain war in highly moral ways, and equally typically it is not possible for a private citizen to have sufficient access to everything the government knows in order to make a determination on his own.

A very highly placed official might have access to all the data and reasoning on which a decision to go to war is based, and such a person might legitimately conclude that he has no recourse but to refuse to participate. For the rest of us, though we often profess ourselves certain—even indignantly certain—we cannot really lay claim to any such certainty, and so the presumption in favor of the government remains. Once in combat, the citizen may not be able morally to comply with every order; that is a separate question. It is sufficient here to establish, again, that a citizen cannot ordinarily be morally faulted for agreeing to go to war at the command of his legitimate government.

Right to Refuse

Nonetheless, the moral presumption in favor of obeying one’s government means only that in the midst of uncertainty one is under no moral obligation to disobey. But does one have a moral right to disobey? Or will such disobedience be morally wrong? Here the answer is equally clear. When a citizen finds himself asked to participate in a war which he generally believes to be evil, he may choose to refuse even though he has no moral obligation to do so. He may, of course, have to suffer the penal consequences of his decision, but the refusal will be morally valid (if properly motivated) even when it is not morally required.

Note, however, that the same caution is required as before. Just as it may be true in some rare cases that the evil of the government is so obvious that one would have a moral obligation to refuse to participate, so also the rightness of the cause and the need of one’s fellow citizens might be so obvious that one would have a moral obligation to participate. Apart from extreme situations on either side, however, the same uncertainty which enables a citizen to participate in war morally also enables him to refuse to participate morally.

In the latter case, we need to add the uncertainty concerning not only the ends and means of a particular war but the need to kill a fellow human person. One may under certain specific circumstances be morally obliged to kill, such as when there is no other means to stop an attacker from murdering one’s wife or child, but this sort of direct, obvious, one-on-one justification is rarely present in the larger context of war. The soldier may not know why he is fighting, why the enemy is fighting, or what the objectives on either side may be. For this reason, a citizen may morally refuse to kill on behalf of the state under all reasonably conceivable circumstances.

In general, then, given his limited responsibilities and the confusion of available information, the ordinary citizen has neither the responsibility to decide whether his country will go to war nor the ability to arrive at the kind of moral certitude which would render either his participation or his refusal sinful. Therefore, if on due reflection and with an honest understanding of his own limited role, he becomes convinced that it would be immoral for him to participate, refusal to do so becomes a perfectly legitimate moral option. Once again, the very uncertainties which ordinarily free him from guilt in obeying the command of the state also free him from guilt if he refuses to fight.

Hold the Outrage

Claims, arguments, and information concerning war are so various, contradictory and contested that it exceeds the ability of most of us to sort them out infallibly. Last week’s new disclosures concerning Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (which are apparently not mythical after all) simply underline the perils and the arrogance of those who think they have all the facts necessary to form certain moral judgments while condemning the judgments of others. The inevitable claims and counter-claims about these weapons on the part of those for and against the war in Iraq will further demonstrate a large degree of inescapable confusion. War, though a natural evil, is not always a moral evil. Therefore it is far harder to assess than absolute moral evils, such as abortion or rape.

Our political discourse on matters of war and peace ought to reflect this inescapable uncertainty about most wars. In our discussions of foreign policy, we ought to learn something from the moral dilemma of the would-be soldier that will enable us to temper our discourse with a refusal to confuse prudential judgments with moral absolutes. The citizen soldier may have to suffer no matter what he decides, but either decision can be morally justifiable given the right motives. Thinking and acting in the same cloud of doubt, we should be prepared to find that good people support both positions. We should choose both our arguments and our tone accordingly.

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