War in the Balkans


In the February 1999 Coloured Supplement I wrote this:

On January 10 Tony Blair told BBC One's Breakfast with Frost that he gave his full backing to Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, whose ex-wife had made allegations about his sexual [mis-]behaviour from her personal experience. He described Robin Cook as "the most respected foreign minister in the rest of Europe that we've had for years and years and years". The Prime Minister also said that "if you go through any big corporation employees had problems in their private lives that did not affect the way they carried out their jobs." He asked to be judged not on "scandal, gossip and trivia" but "judge us on the things that really matter."

Along with President Clinton, who I wrote about in the October 1998 Coloured Supplement in the context of "lying", these men have a responsibility for the safety not only of the West but of the entire world, such is the seriousness of the conflict in the Balkans. How have they done and how are they doing in "the things that [they think] really matter" as distinct from the "trivia" of personal morality?


Tragically there appears to have been a massive mishandling of events. Undoubtedly the Serbian dictator, Slobodan Milosevic, is pursing evil policies. Undoubtedly the general intention of the West is right.

But the strategy of bombing that was intended to stop Milosevic from causing further harm on the Kosovars, has had the opposite effect. The bombing has given Milosevic a pretext for accelerating his "ethnic cleansing". And now the conflict is being escalated as someone has said, "to maintain the credibility of those who have blundered." There have been huge miscalculations. But, as we shall see, Jesus taught that "calculation" is fundamental in deciding the rightness or wrongness of going to war.

On 3 March, well before the airstrikes on Serbia began, and before the Rambouillet talks finally failed, an editorial in The Guardian Weekly was as follows:

The issue which can no longer be postponed is the need to consider using ground troops even if a deal is not struck. The West must draw up a sensible "entry strategy" to impose peace. Air strikes on Serbia without an early follow-up with an intervention force on the ground make little sense. Bombing is an option which seems easy because it will cost few, if any, Western lives. But bombing is a gamble. Rather than making Milosevic accept a deal, it may lead to massive reprisals against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. The only way to prevent that is to show that other governments are willing to risk lives. Painful though it will be, that means sending professional troops into the "hostile environment" which no commander willingly undertakes but which the gravity of the crisis demands. If Kosovo is not to be another Bosnia, there is no other choice.

President Clinton and Tony Blair (and Robin Cook) had this warning - namely that bombing, far from making Milosevic accept a deal, "may lead to massive reprisals against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo."

It has. The humanitarian crisis is dire. In that connection, Chris Richards, a member of our congregation, a consultant paediatrician at the Newcastle Royal Victoria Infirmary is setting up in Elbasan in Albania medical provision in a refugee camp for 5000 with CORD (Christian Out-Reach and Development) at the request of the British Government. He would value our prayers.

But we also need to pray for our leaders, whatever mistakes have been made. How we need to pray that right judgments are made at this point. And above all there needs to be a clear hold on "just war" principals.

A complicated situation

It is, of course, a complicated situation. But it now appears that President Clinton was not present at key discussions on strategic planning meetings. Such was his distraction because of the Monica Lewinsky saga and the impeachment process. This cannot have helped the US leadership in making careful and prudent judgments in such a complicated situation.

The evil perpetrated by Slobodan Milosevic is shocking. It is regularly on our TV screens. But according to the Humanitarian Law Violations in Kosovo, Human Rights Watch, 1998, the KLA has also a past record of atrocities.

There is now talk of invading Serbia to capture Belgrade and depose Milosevic. That would mean a major war in Europe. What would happen with the Russians? Already the Russian Foreign minister has described Bill Clinton and Tony Blair as playing Russian Roulette. And as he put it, "the gun is still smoking with nuclear weapons."

There are now few alternatives. A failure of what has been begun, is unthinkable. It would have a destabilising effect on other situations where leaders and groups are restrained through fear of NATO. But there is a dangerous "gung-ho" attitude evolving. The horrors of war are fearful. A new phenomenon on both sides of the Atlantic seems to play down these horrors.

In the US there are successors to what have been described as the "chicken hawks",

"politicians (usually Republicans) who avoided military service themselves but nonetheless were hot to sacrifice other people's sons in conflicts far from home like Grenada or Iraq."

According to Mona Charen, this new group were once "vitriolic haters of the war in Vietnam who cut their teeth chanting, 'Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?'" They have now been "transformed into hard-liners on Kosovo." And it is similar in the UK. Tony Blair himself opposed Mrs Thatcher over the Falklands. He first stood for Parliament as a Labour CND candidate for Beaconsfield. This does not prove these converts are necessarily now wrong. But some converts have a temptation to go to extremes.

And why the Balkans? Doug Bandow reminds us that "as many people died in January alone in Sierra Leone than in all of Kosovo last year." As an African member of our congregation has asked me, "why has not the West bombed the Sudan like it is bombing Serbia?" Far worse atrocities have been going on there since I was a missionary in that country with the CMS in the 1960's.

The Christian view of War

But is war ever right? What does the bible teach us about some of these things?

Is there a "Christian view of War"? Is there a "Just War?"

Article XXXVII of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England says that

it is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in wars.

There is a clear New Testament duty to be non-resisting (Mat 5.39). But at the same time there is a duty laid on the State to be (Rom 13.4) "an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer."

In the first few centuries of the Church's life the early Christians saw the importance of both duties. They believed that as individuals they must never harm or inflict suffering on others. But at the same time they believed the [pagan] State was divinely ordained to repress crime and violence with force.

In the time of the Emperor Constantine, when the Roman Empire officially became "Christian", there was a dilemma. It was the dilemma of reconciling the love of Christ that leads to non-aggression with the need of the State to enforce justice. Suddenly some Christians found themselves in positions of political authority.

They then read Paul and found him saying in one and the same breath that individuals should not themselves "take revenge", while legitimate rulers who "bear the sword" should avenge others and enforce God's judgment on evil. And they concluded that when evil was being by perpetrated by a neighbouring state, "bearing the sword" meant war.

Of course this was a dilemma, a terrible dilemma. But many Christians, entrusted by God with political authority, felt that in good conscience they could not opt out.

And many still believe that. They realise that they have to exercise power or force in the interests of justice whether in peace time (through sentencing criminals for punishment), or in time of war.


"Just War Theory" was designed to help with this dilemma. It justified war not as self-defence, but as a means of ensuring justice. The personal "turning of the other cheek" is not denied. It is rather that the political power of those seeking public justice needs to be regulated. But in such matters the difficulty is that things are not black and white. "Calculation" is needed.

Jesus claimed that cool calculation in human existence is essential in a number of situations. Indeed he argues that cool calculation should lead to a willingness to sacrifice everything for the privilege of being a Christian disciple.

But right calculation is also needed in war, together with property development. This was the subject of one of Jesus' parables:

"Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? 29 For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, 30 saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.' 31 Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. 33 In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14.28-33).

The contrast in the parable shows different sorts of calculation - the one in tower-building, the other in planning a war.

In tower-building it is straightforward. There are simple costs. These can be added up mathematically. If the builder can find that precise sum of money, he will be successful.

But success in war is so different. There are no simple mathematics. The king does not just sit down and do his sums and "estimate the cost". Rather, we are told by Jesus, he has first to "sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand." Deciding about war is far less precise.

It is a matter of judgment and prudence. As many facts as can be known have to be assembled. Then a decision has to be taken in the light of these facts. But in the nature of things there will be far less certainty than in building a tower.

Just War Theory

This has been the difficulty for Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Robin Cook (and Madeleine Albright et al). Nothing has been certain. But because the issues are not certain or not black and white, from a Christian perspective, there must be the restraints of Just War Theory.

What is Just War Theory? It was a theory that evolved in the Church during the middle ages and the Renaissance. But it was Augustine who had provided the ground work. All else followed from his discussion on the subject. Professor Oliver O'Donovan describes the theory as

a systematic attempt to interpret acts of war by analogy with acts of civil government, not, be it noted, to afford some justification for warmaking, but to bring it under the restraint of those moral standards which apply to other acts of government.

The doctrine is limiting. It means that not all is fair in love and war. There have to be guidelines. If a war is to be fought, it has to be fought justly.

There were five basic principles in the theory. Three dealt with engaging in war and two dealt with the conduct of war. The three that deal with the right engagement in war are these. First, the responsibility for waging war is not just anybody's; rather it belongs to the legitimate authority. Secondly, the "cause" has to be just. And, thirdly, there has to be a right motive. But the two that deal with the right conduct of war are perhaps most easily forgotten. These relate first to the principle of "discrimination" and secondly to the principle of "proportion".

Discrimination and Proportion

"Discrimination" means that force must only be applied to combatants and with the intention of depriving them of their ability to wage war. There must be no intention to attack non-combatants. An enemy prisoner of war, unable to be violent, must therefore be treated as a non-combatant. "Total" (indiscriminate) war is obviously ruled out.

Of course, there must be a distinction drawn between the result of violent action and the intention behind it. If there is an intention to destroy a military command post or an armoured column, but the result is unforeseen civilian casualties (as happened in Kosovo with NATO accidentally bombing a refugee column), that is utterly tragic, but not wicked. However, to aim a missile indiscriminately at a centre of population with the intention of destroying civilian morale is wicked.

It is because of the principle of "discrimination" that questions were rightly raised about the attack on the Serbian TV station with the deaths of a number of innocent employees. But it would be wise for us to reserve judgment until all the facts are known. That, of course, relates to confidence in the truthfulness and honesty of leadership. And that is why private morals are so important for public life.

"Proportion" means that no more force or violence should be used than is necessary. But what is enough force is a matter for calculation and consultation. That is where Jesus' parable of "a king about to go to war" is so true to life. It is not a matter of mathematical certainty but of prudent judgment.

And the parable is a salutary reminder that some calculations mean there are occasions when you cannot conduct war, however, much you may want to. If the calculations show that you cannot win, you have to "ask for terms of peace".

But none of the calculating must ever be "cold". There is an instinct in Christian understanding that war may be right. Yet to execute someone in war (or peace) is not only horrific but defiling. It is worth remembering that just before he invaded Britain, William the Conqueror had a banner blessed by the Pope. After the battle of Hastings, however, he was required to do penance for the bloodshed. Whatever may be thought about "blessing banners" (or battleships or bombers) and "penance", something was properly understood all those years ago, back in the 11th century.


What is the way forward? For Christians, we must evangelise and pray. War and the establishing of justice is a holding measure. Forgiveness of sin and new birth are the only ultimate solutions. So in the light of this present dangerous situation Paul's words to Timothy are as important as ever (1 Tim 2.1-2):

I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone - for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.

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