Bob Woodward, the President, and Just War

There was considerable just war argument before, during, and after the Iraq War.  Some of it was not terribly insightful, but, in the main, the debate demonstrated that the principles of the classic just war tradition, if not the tradition’s intellectual architecture, were still in place in American public life. The post-major-combat just war debate over Iraq was particularly important, as it surfaced an idea that I had been promoting, without much success, since 1987: that, in addition to the classic theory’s ius ad bellum (war-decision law) and ius in bello (war-conduct law), there was a ius ad pacem, or what others called a ius post bellum, implicit in the just war tradition—that is, a morally justified use of force had to be aimed at creating the conditions for the possibility of a peace composed of security, order, justice, and freedom, the classic ends of politics.

There has been relatively little just war debate about the war underway in Afghanistan, but there ought to be in light of Bob Woodward’s new book, “Obama’s Wars” (Simon and Schuster).

In his 2009 Nobel Prize address, the President spoke about the just war tradition as the moral framework in which statesmen had to ponder their responsibilities in the face of either conventional armed threat or terrorism. But Woodward’s description of an administration that treats treat the life-and-death decisions of war-and-peace as an annoying distraction from its domestic agenda, that bases decisions on troop deployments on domestic political calculation rather than military necessity, and that seems to have lost sight of the moral imperative to use armed force in such a way that victory and peace—not withdrawal according to a domestic political time-table—become possible suggests that neither the President nor his advisors are very well versed in the tradition the President lifted up in Oslo last December.

It’s not as if political calculation never played a part in any previous administration’s thinking about war and peace: political calculation is what politicians do, and a healthy sense of what the public will support is essential to democratic leadership, especially in a long-haul war like Afghanistan. But what is so disheartening about the account of administration deliberations in Woodward’s book is that it’s all politics, all the time. Moreover, on Woodward’s account, the President and his team, from the moment they took office, were thinking about an exit strategy rather than about victory: and this, despite the fact that, during the 2008 campaign, the President, long critical of the Iraq War, had seemed to juxtapose it to Afghanistan, the good war.

No war is good, in an important sense. But some wars are necessary, and if the war is necessary, then a leader should tell his people that, explain that it might take a long time to resolve, think about military strategy in terms of the morally-acceptable means necessary to achieve victory—and then perhaps stay and enforce the peace. Significant American forces remained in Europe for almost a half-century after World War II, and in Korea for decades after the Korean War armistice was signed in 1953. It’s simply not true that the American people have no staying-power. But they are unlikely to support an extended effort in Afghanistan, or anywhere else, if the first question being posed by their political leadership is, How do we get this over with and get out in the least politically damaging way?

That the President and his team seem not to be thinking in just war terms—that their intention, which is one of the core principles of classic just war analysis—seems flawed does not mean that American and allied troops in Afghanistan are participating in an unjust war. A very powerful just war case can be made for bringing a measure of order to Afghanistan, draining the terrorist swamps along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and trying to build a new Afghanistan whose people can benefit from its ample mineral resources can be made. The President and his people aren’t making it. In one of the administration’s favorite images, a re-boot is morally imperative.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.