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Jewish World Review May 30, 2001 / 8 Sivan, 5761

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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When are wars worth dying in? -- AS we have spent some of our Memorial Day weekend giving thanks for men and women in uniform who died serving our country, let's also think about the circumstances under which it's possible to justify the wars that result in such painful deaths.

Someone who has thought a lot about that question is 1996 Nobel peace prize laureate Jose Ramos-Horta of embattled East Timor, the province Indonesia invaded and took over in 1975 after Portugal withdrew.

His prize is an indication that he has dedicated his life to peace. But Ramos-Horta is no pacifist, and neither am I _ if, by pacifist, you mean someone who thinks taking up arms is wrong in every circumstance.

Ramos-Horta, who spoke earlier this year in Berlin when the World Council of Churches launched the ``Decade to Overcome Violence,'' confronts the question of war head-on: ``If you are faced again with a situation such as Kosovo or the Jewish holocaust in World War II, what would you do? In the name of non-violence would you sit back and watch Jews being slaughtered, would you sit back and watch Palestinians being slaughtered, would you sit back and watch Rwandans killing each other, Hutus and Tutsis? Of course you have to intervene.''

If this sounds (despite modern examples) like an ancient argument, it is. No doubt warring tribes in the mists of history lost sleep over this matter, but what we now call ``just war theory'' had its roots in the 13th century with St. Thomas Aquinas. Others later expanded on his thoughts.

And in the last 60 years there's been a renewal of discussion about just war theory in light of the nuclear weapons that have shadowed us and especially in response to the Vietnam War and the intense popular opposition it eventually engendered.

When is taking up arms a morally right action? Were our citizens who died in armed conflict always fighting in just wars? Or were they simply patriotic pawns in a geopolitical game of power and control that was beyond their ability to control, resist or even understand?

Some wars seem easier to explain and justify than others. Even nearly 60 years after the conclusion of World War II, for instance, it is easy to make the case that America entered the war for good and justifiable reasons. The evil of Hitler's Nazi regime and his Axis friends -- as well as the run-amok Japanese aggression -- had so destabilized the world that there was no moral alternative to trying to stop the malignancy.

``What brought World War II to an end,'' says Ramos-Horta, ``was essentially the American and British courageous stand against Nazi Germany.''

But even when we can find good reasons for fighting wars, we must remember what war almost inevitably does to us. It causes us to do things for which we later feel (and should feel) shame. (Just ask former Sen. Bob Kerrey.)

For instance, it caused the United States to throw patriotic citizens of Japanese origin into prison camps in World War II. One of my brothers-in-law was born in one of those camps, and the stain of that time on our national history is simply indelible.

None of this is to say that just because humanity is capable of evil and has a history of committing evil we should rush off to war to stop it. And it doesn't mean that we should expect our military to be able to create peace.

Another of the speakers at the World Council of Churches' event launching the Decade to Overcome Violence was Rita Sussmuth, former president of the German parliament. She made this good point: ``You can end wars or continue wars with weapons but not create peace. Peace can only be created through other means. . .''

History bears stark evidence that humanity's commitment to peace is, at best, half-hearted. As toddlers we fight over toys. As teen-agers we fight over alleged verbal slights. As adults we fight over everything. We sing ``Let there be peace on Earth and let it begin with me,'' but we cut off relationships with children or parents who displease us, we sue neighbors who distress us, we explode with road rage against drivers who annoy us. War -- whether waged individually in an angry culture or corporately in our name against some nation that has offended us -- is too often our first resort. Until we make it our last, we will continue to fail this important moral test and our cemeteries will fill up with the results.

Comment on JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' column by clicking here.

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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2001. All rights reserved