1999 Commencement Address - Just War

178th Commencement
May 23, 1999
Tom Gerety

Congratulations to one and all.

No celebration can take place unless we are willing to put aside, for a while, matters that we cannot celebrate. This is a harsh rule but, as I see it, a binding one. A birthday, a birth, a marriage, a graduation: we find a place in our lives to celebrate these moments knowing they will soon rush on into the great current of the rest of our lives. So we put out of mind for a few hours, what makes us sad or angry or just perplexed. Among the many difficult matters that we put aside today, surely the most public one is the war in Kosovo—or more exactly the two wars, NATO's air war on all of Yugoslavia and the all-but-completed Yugoslav war on theAlbanian Kosovars. It still seems odd to me to say that our country is at war. Daily life in America bears few signs of wartime austerity or anxiety. On campuses there are neither protests nor rallies and we go on with our lives taking notice of the war in an occasional conversation or, as here at Amherst, a serious teach-in on the issues that have brought us to this awful impasse. The calm seems preternatural when I reflect that we have been at war with another nation, with Yugoslavia, for the better part of this semester.

So I'm going to intrude on our celebration with just a few sentences about this war and its meaning in our lives—particularly in your lives as young citizens of this and many other countries.

It is just, and even urgent, as I see it, to resort to reasonable and proportionate means to save the Albanian or Muslim population of Kosovo from the violence of the Yugoslav military and paramilitary forces. That violence, with its reminder of what happened in Bosnia, has given us a new name in the long human catalogue of horror: we call it "ethnic cleansing." It happened in Rwanda not very many years ago and we did, effectively, nothing to stop it. It is an age-old practice of our species on every continent, including our own. Many of us see in it a near relation to genocide. Kosovo is only the most recent and visible exercise of this age-old practice.

I am struck, here at Amherst, by how readily we can imagine the violence in a valley like this one, with farms and small towns and high hills. The army, from positions on nearby hillsides, first shells the farms and villages with artillery. They then enter the villages to tell the residents to leave their homes more or less immediately, taking next to nothing, sometimes leaving the sick or handicapped behind. The army often separates out the men of fighting age--from 15 or so to 50. These men, as far as we can learn, are soon killed or taken as hostages. Murders of all sorts take place with a randomness that terrorizes the new refugees: a baby here, an old person there, someone who moves too slowly or who is resented by a neighbor. Young women, as in Bosnia, are often taken away to be raped. Bribes are extracted at every turn for small mercies in the midst of this terror.

How much of it is going on? Skeptics and journalists can and should ask this question. We may never know the answer. We know enough to say that it is the systematic policy of the Yugoslav military and police in Kosovo Province under the direction of leaders in Belgrade. It is calculated to drive the Kosovars away forever. In that calculation, as we all know, success is near at hand for Milosevic and his supporters. Against all of this—whether in Kosovo, in Tibet, or in Rwanda--we can, I believe, find a just cause. Against it, we can, that is, fight a just war. But with equal seriousness and passion I will say to you here that I do not believe that we are now engaged in a just war.

I offer this view as my own in a spirit of openness and not of dogmatism or coercion. I offer it to you as if to say: you, too, should have--must have--views on this. War is capital punishment on a great international scale. We cannot, as citizens, say we are indifferent to it because it does not affect our daily lives.

As understood over centuries by philosophers, notably Thomas Aquinas, a just war is just only if it meets three important conditions. It requires, first, a just motive or principle. We have such a principle in Kosovo. But philosophers like Aquinas say that a just principle is never sufficient to warant the moral judgment that particular actions are just. We must impose at least two other conditions: first, and most bluntly, a war to be just must also be winnable. No one should wage war, even for a just end, if the end cannot be realized because the war itself has little or no chance of success. In the case of Kosovo, our estimation of the probability of success in war depends to a large extent on our willingness to risk our own resources and the lives of our own soldiers--mostly young men and women of precisely your age.

But this brings us to the third and most telling of these three principles: a war to be just must be fought by means both effective and proportionate--effective in bringing about the just end of the war, a just principle of the one hand, and proportionate in cost or degree of violence to the evil we seek to end. Simply put, this third test comes to this question: is the inevitable evil of war for a just cause—the evil of death and destruction visited on the other side--is that inevitable evil clearly less than the evil for which we go to war in the first place? Wars, all wars, do harms we never imagined when begun. They kill civilians. They kill soldiers. They kill those we hoped to protect.

The Kosovo war, as we are now conducting it, poses few risks to allied soldiers. As an American I would like to cheer that fact. I have four sons from 24 to 14 and I would not want to risk any of them in war. I would want to be sure, very sure, that a war was truly just and urgent before I could vote to risk the lives of my own children and my own students, of you and your classmates and contemporaries across the land. But the three necessary conditions suggested by Aquinas would seem to suggest that if we are sure that we have a just cause for war, that we fight it, bravely, in the most effective and proportionate way: that we fight it, that is, so as to win by those means best calculated to spare lives on all sides and to minimize the inevitable evils of a just war. Many on and off this campus who know much more than I about the Balkans do not believe that a just and successful war to save the Kosovars can be fought, realistically, by the United States or by NATO. Democracies have many virtues, but they do not make such sacrifices lightly. Our democracy in particular, for all its power and wealth, confronts a world full of evils, even at home. We cannot do everything well; we cannot prevent every evil; we have neither the patience nor the willingness to outlaw ethnic terror on every continent. And we have some trouble facing up to our own hatreds and the violence within our own society.

The war in Vietnam, as you know, began without much fanfare in the United States: a few hundred and then a few thousand soldiers, called advisors to those we supported in the South. Several years later it had become a great and awful conflict, with many, many deaths among our soldiers, many more among theirs, and with awful, evil deaths inflicted, sometimes by accident, sometimes not, on the civilian population north and south. I won't go into the reasons for that war. Enough has been said about whether or not it was a just war.

What I will say about the war in Vietnam to you graduates in particular is this: because of the draft, because our soldiers might be drawn from all quarters, the Vietnam war "came home," above all on campuses like this one. The draft forced each of us to confront the war and to take a stand.

Now, thirty years later, we have taken the momentous step of giving up on what we used to call a civilian army. Our military is now professional, volunteer: no one joins unless he or she chooses to join. What this means to you is that you can, in fact, shrug off wars like Kosovo, leaving it to our leaders in Washington and to your contemporaries who have joined the military to sort out the great ambiguities and uncertainties of what we are doing.

But Kosovo is the future. History is not over, nor is hatred or nationalistic passion. There will be more Kosovos. There are more now than we acknowledge.

Partly because of the war in Vietnam I read, at your age, all that I could find on the morality of war. Among the philosophers who wrote most powerfully on this was a young Frenchwoman who died in exile during the Second World War. Her name was Simone Weil. She believed, to her peril, that she had to confront in person the great evils on which, as a citizen and philosopher, she would pass judgment. So she went to Spain during the civil war; she worked among the migrant agricultural workers in the south of France; with her doctorate from the Sorbonne in hand she took a job in the worst factory she could find. During the Nazi occupation she joined the free French forces in England and tried, quite ineffectively, to help the resistance in France. Perhaps Simone Weil's finest writing was about war.

In agonizing over the violence of war, she suggested a moral test for killing. A sometime pacifist, she nonetheless believed that violence was needed at times to stop evil. Anyone who kills in war, she said, must ask if justice so requires the death of this person, this enemy, that you would choose that death even if it were you yourself or someone you loved who would be the one to die by your actions.

What she suggests is a test of our courage in going to war. And I would add that test of courage to the three conditions for a just war. We should never kill unless we believe our cause justifies not only killing but dying.

None of us here has the power to resolve this crisis in Kosovo. And all of our bombs have not thus far saved the lives and homes of the Kosovars. But all of us bear some responsibility as citizens for what has happened, what is now happening, and what will go on happening.

If the cause is not just, or it is impossible, or unwinnable, then we should stop what we are doing. If it is just, then we must, as a nation, be much braver than we have been and risk our own lives along with those of the Serbs and the Kosovars.

During your four years here, many of you, more times than I can count, told me that you regretted the apathy of your generation, its lack of great public passions, of great causes. I didn't agree with you about all this when you argued it. I found in the charge a little too much nostalgia and romance for what was after all the youth of your parents and teachers and people like me. But today I take up your argument. All of us need to weigh the questions put by Kosovo and this war. They are simple and they are urgent. And they will be with us, with you, for years and years to come.

Who is our neighbor? When do we come forward to stop violence and persecution against her or him? What price are we willing to pay to help the refugees and the victims of hatred or of cataclysm? Finally, most solemnly, when does justice compel us to go to war and to risk our lives for others? If Amherst has prepared you for anything, it has prepared you to take on questions like these. As you go away today, as you go on in your lives, I celebrate in this very serious way your passion for learning and for wisdom. The world has need of you.

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