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Biting the bullet

War’s Ends, the latest book by Irish Jesuit James Murphy is, as the title suggests, a book with more than one purpose. Ultimately the author wants to carve out an answer to the vexed question – how do we get an end to all wars? The irony is that exploring this issue involves one in delineating the moral grounds for military action that is not only tolerable but ethically imperative.

Pat Coyle from Irish Jesuit Communications was in Chicago recently and interviewed James Murphy SJ. Listen here and read her synopsised account of the meeting below.

Finding a way to peace

Seamus and I met on an unseasonably cold day in May. I went to Loyola University, where he is associate professor of Philosophy, to discuss his recent book about how to create world peace, As I entered the building I was struck by the sticky label on the front door window. When one sees a  red circle with a red line running diagonally through it one expects a mobile phone or cigarette to be the banned object. In this instance it was a gun that was being forbidden entry in a city now forced by federal government to make legal the carrying of a concealed weapon. Young students were streaming into lectures, rucksacks on their backs. What do they think as they pack them in the morning, I mused: “Have I forgotten anything? Lunchbox, water bottle, laptop, and – oh yes – my gun”.

A timely book. The day we spoke, the misery of war in Syria and the ongoing destabilisation of Ukraine were making news headlines all over the world. “So quickly tell me – how do we get world peace?” Seamus did have a short answer. “Not by everybody minding their own business, though it’s true in one way. But in our increasingly interdependent and globalised world that’s not going to happen, so we have to work out other means.”

That answer really sums up what’s best about his book and our conversation. As a philosopher he thinks in abstract concepts, general principles and ultimate values. But he never looses sight of flawed humanity, realistic demands and practical questions. He’s not afraid to ask ‘what will this theory of mine sound like to those running from the whine of drone bombs in an Afghan village?’

So we spoke about the need to build up international solidarity and the vision of the UN after WW11, and the building of a community of nations. But Seamus quickly noted the UN claim of the right to take appropiate military action in order to preserve peace. Would there have been such a world war if countries had intervened militarily in Germany at a much earlier stage?

We accepted that the expansionist and colonialist wars of previous generations were morally unacceptable as judged by various versions of the ‘just war’ theory. But does that mean a sovereign state should never intervene in the affairs of another country? The voice of Bill Clinton was still ringing in our ears from the week earlier when countries were marking the anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. He said he regretted not intervening in Rwanda. Seamus concurred, noting that since the 1990s there’d been an tendency, at least in international legal circles, to accept that there was a duty on the part of the international community to intervene in cases of genocide. Sovereignty is not always sovereign, even if countries like Russia and China would demur and claim that it trumps international solidarity based on human rights.

Vladimir Putin, however, might be happy to hear such moral justifcations. Surely it was on such a basis that he was protecting his people in Ukraine and might do so even further afield, as he told the world. “All ethical principles can be misused,” Seamus observed.

That’s why we need a book like this and need it now. As former Taoiseach John Bruton says, it’s a book that ‘restores the moral compass for war that a century of technological advance has taken away”. He doesn’t shirk the tough questions. The metaphor ‘biting the bullet’ could have been made specially for him. Seamus Murphy has given us a valuable tool for venturing forward on the perilous journey toward lasting world peace.

War’s Ends by James G Murphy, SJ, is published by Georgetown University Press.