Just War

In my last blog I mentioned something about a “just” and “unjust” war. Some of asked who decides if a war is just or unjust? The simple answer is that the people who have the power and authority to go to war have to answer that question. But they don’t answer it in a vacuum. Ideas about what constitute a just war have been around for thousands of years. In more modern times, civilized countries have agreed to standards to help answer the question. It’s known as “Just War Theory.”

One of the first persons to wrestle with the question of justifiable war was the Greek philosopher; Cicero (104-43BC) Cicero believed the use of force was justifiable only when the war was declared by an appropriate governmental authority acting within specific limits. Out of his writing came the first attempts at a Just War Tradition; a set of mutually agreed rules of combat that guided civilized countries. These mutually agreed upon rules of combat were possible of a belief in the existence of a universal norm for human behavior which transcended the laws of individual nations and governed their relations with each other. Even in Cicero’s time, however, it was recognized that rules of combat were only possible between two similar enemies. When wars between nations were primarily based on differences in religion and or race/ethnicities, mutually agreed upon rules were rarely applied or followed. But even among the worst of enemies, and the worst of wars, some acts have always been deemed dishonorable while other acts have always been deemed honorable. Since the time of Cicero, Just War Tradition has been the most universally recognized moral theory by which the use of force has been evaluated.

The next major step in Just War Tradition was taken by St. Augustine (354-430AD). St. Augustine was the Bishop of Hippo in northern Africa. He was also a philosopher and the most influential church father for the Western Church.

St. Augustine “Christianized” Plato. He saw war as an extension of the right of governing. He said, “The natural order, which is suited to the peace of moral things, requires that the authority and deliberation for undertaking war be under the control of a leader.” Augustine believed war was a permissible part of a life of a nation, and the power of prosecuting a war was part of the natural powers of a monarch, ordained to uphold peace. For St. Augustine, was not something Christians should shun, rather, it was something that was part of the life of a nation, ordained by God, through natural law.

For St. Augustine, a war was just only if it was fought for the right reasons and waged under right authority. The only “right” reason to justify war was the desire of peace. Augustine wrote, “Peace is not sought in order to provide war, but war is waged in order to attain peace.” In fighting war, the goal must be to do that which is necessary to obtain peace. Augustine also taught the necessity of just treatment of prisoners and conquered peoples.

Almost a thousand years after St. Augustine came St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Aquinas “Christianized” Aristotle, and wrote extensively on ethics and politics. St. Aquinas presented the general outline of what became Just War Theory in his Summa Theologicae. In this monumental tome Augustine discussed not only the justification of war, but also the kinds of activity that were permissible in war.

St. Aquinas argued that war was justified when three basic conditions were met:

(1)    The war was prosecuted by a lawful authority with the power to wage war.

(2)    The war was taken for just cause (self-defense or defense of others).

(3)    The war was undertaken with the right intention (“the desire of peace”).

The next major step in came under Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), the father of international law. Grotius secularized Just War Theory, making it more acceptable for the age of the Enlightenment. He wrote that war was justified under three conditions:

(1)    The danger faced by the nation was immediate.

(2)    The force used was necessary to adequately defend the nation’s interests.

(3)    The use of force was proportionate to the threatened danger.

During the 20the century, in response to the invention of nuclear weaponry and the Vietnam War, Just War Theory underwent a revival.

Just War Theory deals with the justification of how and why wars are fought. Just War Theories offer a series of principles that aim to retain a plausible moral framework of war.

Modern day Just War (justice bellum) has two parts: First is jus ad bellum (“justice of war”); rules that govern the justice of war.

(1)    Having just cause: Initiating acts of aggression is unjust; defending against aggression is just. The question is, \what constitutes aggression? Is it physical injury? Violation of territory? Insults? Trade embargos? Social injustice? What constitutes aggression?

The onus is on the just war theorist to provide a consistent and sound account of what is meant by just cause. Examples of just causes include self-defense, defense against probable acts of aggression, and defending others.

(2)    Being declared by a proper authority: Proper authority resides in the sovereign power of the state. However, the notion of proper authority therefore requires thinking about what is meant by sovereignty, what is meant by the state, and what is the proper relationship between a people and its government.

(3)    Possessing right intention: The right intention for war is for the cause of justice and not for reasons of self-interest or aggrandizement. The question, of course, is, “At what point does intention separate itself from self-interest?

(4)    Having a reasonable chance of success: The cost and benefits of a campaign must be calculated. The thrust of this principle is that human life and economic resources should not be wasted in what would obviously be an uneven match.

(5)    The end being proportional to the means used: In other words, the damage done by war should be minimized.

The second part of Just War (justice bellum) is jus in bello  (“justice in war”); rules that govern just and fair conduct in war. Two principles guide jus in bello. The first principle is the Principle of Discrimination – who are legitimate targets in war? It is considered unfair and unjust to attack indiscriminately, since non-combatants are deemed to stand outside the field of war proper. There is, however, a Doctrine of Double-Effect that is applicable under this principle that justifies killing civilians in was as long as their deaths are not intended by accidental (“collateral damage”).

The second principle is the Principle of Proportionality—how much force is morally appropriate?  The idea behind this principle is to temper the extent and violence of warfare to minimize destruction and causalities. The Principle of Proportionality demands that a battle ends before it becomes a massacre.

Since WWII, two basic documents have been issued which resulted in increased recognition of Just War Theory in the international arena: The charter for the Nuremberg war crimes trials and the United Nations Charter. Based on these two documents, here is a summary of the principles of Just War Theory:

  1. A just war can only be waged as a last resort.  All non-violent options must be exhausted before the use of force can be justified.
  2. A war is just only if it is waged by a legitimate authority.  Even just causes cannot be served by actions taken by individuals or groups who do not constitute an authority sanctioned by whatever the society & outsiders of the society deem legitimate.
  3. A just war can only be fought to redress a wrong suffered.  For example, self-defense against an armed attack is always considered to be a just cause.  Further, a just war can only be fought with “right” intentions: the only permissible objective of a just war is to redress the injury.
  4. A war can only be just if it is fought with a reasonable chance of success.  Deaths & injury incurred in a hopeless cause are not morally justifiable.
  5. The ultimate goal of a just war is to re-establish peace.  More specifically, the peace established after the war must be preferable to the peace that would have prevailed if the war had not been fought.
  6. The violence used in the war must be proportional to the injury suffered.  States are prohibited from using force not necessary to attain the limited objective of addressing the injury suffered.
  7. The weapons used in war must discriminate between combatants & non-combatants.  Civilians are never permissible targets of war, & every effort must be taken to avoid killing civilians.  The deaths of civilians are justified only if they are unavoidable victims of a deliberate attack on a military target.

There you have it, a brief history and explanation of Just War Theory. Using the last 7 principles above, think of our current war(s), and what you know about the war(s). Then, use a scale of 1:10 (10 being the highest) and rank how you think our country is doing on each principle. Add up your score, and then decide if you think our current war(s) is just. Of course, as you do this, realize you don’t have the same information as our military and political leaders. If you did have that information, your score would be different.

My score is around 55. What is yours?


3 thoughts on “Just War

  1. I actually score us at around 74, if my math is right. It gets a little fuzzy at the last resort point, whether you can honestly negotiate with parties who consider lying to you honorable. I am also aware that as a civilian, I do not, and should not have all the intelligence available on the situation. I do have a problem with us muscling Kadaffi and alAssad militarily. Factoring the Libyan not-war does lower my score to about yours. or perhaps even lower. I must admit I had not seen Just War Theory, thanks for posting it. It gave me a headache, but it was a good education.

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  3. Pingback: Top Social Justice Issues | Floods of Justice

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