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We do our job, He does His.

[ by Charles Cameron — today’s NYT, just war, Brennan, Obama ]


Today’s New York Times piece by Jo Becker and Scott Shane, Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will, refers to just war theory while comparing John Brennan, counterterrorism advisor to the President, not once but twice to a priest:

Beside the president at every step is his counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, who is variously compared by colleagues to a dogged police detective, tracking terrorists from his cavelike office in the White House basement, or a priest whose blessing has become indispensable to Mr. Obama, echoing the president’s attempt to apply the “just war” theories of Christian philosophers to a brutal modern conflict.

As regular readers here know, I can’t resist a hint of theology…


The President does in fact speak of “just war” in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man. At the dawn of history, its morality was not questioned; it was simply a fact, like drought or disease — the manner in which tribes and then civilizations sought power and settled their differences.

And over time, as codes of law sought to control violence within groups, so did philosophers and clerics and statesmen seek to regulate the destructive power of war. The concept of a “just war” emerged, suggesting that war is justified only when certain conditions were met: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the force used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.

Of course, we know that for most of history, this concept of “just war” was rarely observed. The capacity of human beings to think up new ways to kill one another proved inexhaustible, as did our capacity to exempt from mercy those who look different or pray to a different God. Wars between armies gave way to wars between nations — total wars in which the distinction between combatant and civilian became blurred.

That quote about “our capacity to exempt from mercy those who look different or pray to a different God” seems particularly poignant.


But let’s return to the priestcraft of John Brennan, as Harold Koh offers it to the NYT:

“If John Brennan is the last guy in the room with the president, I’m comfortable, because Brennan is a person of genuine moral rectitude,” Mr. Koh said. “It’s as though you had a priest with extremely strong moral values who was suddenly charged with leading a war.”

That’s (arguably) good.


But then consider this observation from the same article:

… Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

On the face of it, John Brennan doesn’t seem to be guiding his pupil into the ways of “genuine moral rectitude” with great success, particularly regarding that bit about the just war requiring that “whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence”.


Perhaps, though, that’s okay. After all, Arnaud-Amaury, the Abbot of Cîteaux who led the siege of Béziers in which 20,000 heretics — heretics, mind you — were slaughtered, is reported to have said:

Caedite eos! Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius

In plain English, that’s “Kill them! The Lord knows his own”.


A similar sentiment may be found in other theologies:

According to an old, old, so old it’s Archived piece in the Wall Street Journal written by Amir Taheri — whose reputation for accuracy in quotation has been questioned — the late Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali wrote a fatwa in which he said:

Among those we seize hostage or kill, some may be innocent. In that case, Allah will take them to his paradise. We do our job, He does His.

Which in turn gives me the title for this post.


But this isn’t only a Shi’ite opinion: in the same article, Taheri quotes the distinctly Sunni Abu Anas al-Shami, “the self-styled ‘mufti’ of al Qaeda”:

“There are times when Mujahedeen cannot waste time finding out who is who in the battlefield,” he wrote. “There are times when we have to assume that whoever is not on our side is the enemy.”

… which reminds me of another remark made by a recent US President …


… which in turn reminds me of the apparent paradox presented by Luke 11:23, “He that is not with me is against me: and he that gathereth not with me scattereth” — when set beside Luke 9:50, “And Jesus said unto him, Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us”.

2 Responses to “We do our job, He does His.”

  1. Charles Cameron Says:

    Interestingly enough, tonight’s Frontline program, Al Qaeda in Yemen [May 29, 2012, chapter 1 of 3 at the 5.54 mark] features an Ansar al-Sharia / AQAP political officer, “Fouad”, telling reporter Ghaith Abdul-Ahad through a translator:

    We’re at war with America and its allies. Just like Bush once said, if you’re not with us, you’re against us.

    Verbal blowback? 

  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    Money quote from Drones: How Obama Learned to Kill in The Daily Beast two days ago: 

    According to one of his advisers, Obama remained uneasy. “He would squirm,” recalled the source. “He didn’t like the idea of ‘kill ’em and sort it out later.’?”

    Weird punctuation, but an interesting marker.

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