Just War Theory

From dKosopedia

Jump to: navigation, search


Just War theory is a set of moral principles to be used in determining (a) when fighting a war is justified jus ad bello and (b) concerning proper conduct of war jus in bello. It is distinct from pacifism, an ethical or moral objection to the use of force, and from the Geneva Convention, a diplomatic agreement that establishes war crimes and their consequences.

Just War theory was first codified by Augustine, who made it religiously possible for Christians to participate in war. If Augustine developed a theory that overcame early Christian pacificism, Thomas Aquinas and his followers further developed just war theory in opposition to religious crusades. As summarized by leading contemporary Just War theorist Michael Walzer: "Just war [<i.jus ad bellow</i>] was an argument of the religious center against pacifists, on the one side, and holy warriors, on the other, and because of its enemies (and even though its proponents were theologians), it took shape as a secular theory." (The Triumph of Just War Theory (and the Dangers of Success).) Jus in bello is an argument against the idea, expressed by Cicero that during war the law is silent (inter armes leges silent). (Compare the modern saying: All's fair in love and war.)

Just War theory is now widely used in and outside the church, and is in fact studied by officers in the US Armed Forces.

The basic principle underlying just war is that "competent authority" (those in whom governing responsibility has been invested) has a responsibility to protect the innocent. This differs from classic Christian pacifism, which maintains that violence cannot be resolved with violence, and seeks another way of changing the situation. Neither ethical system is entirely satisfactory.

There are six criteria that must be met before taking up arms can be considered "just". These are sometimes collectively referred to as jus ad bello:

  • Just cause: the classic case is a war fought to fend off an aggressor nation. Wars may be fought to right a wrong -- to redress harms already done -- or, if the other criteria are met, particularly "last resort," to preempt sufficiently serious harm. If no harm can be demonstrated, there are no grounds for war.
  • Competent authority: usually taken to mean that only governments can wage war. Rebel movements, militias, and mercenaries, no matter how just their cause, cannot claim the necessary authority. However, it is conceivable that an extra-governmental force that fought to establish governance in a vaccuum could be considered justified under this criteria.
  • Just intention: not only the cause must be justified, so must the intent of those making the decisions. For example, had American troops marched on Baghdad in the first Gulf War, there action might have come under questioning on these grounds. The announced purpose of the Gulf War was to liberate Kuwait; a further move to depose Sadaam Hussein would have had to be justified by more than expedience.
  • Last resort: is not necessarily exactly what it sounds like. As Michael Walzer explains: "We say of war that it is the 'last resort' because of the unpredictable, unexpected, unintended, and unavoidable horrors that it regularly brings. In fact, war isn't the last resort, for 'lastness' is a metaphysical condition, which is never actually reached in real life: it is always possible to do something else, or to do it again, before doing whatever it is that comes last. The notion of lastness is cautionary--but this caution is necessary: look hard for alternatives before you 'let loose the dogs of war.'" (The Right Way.)
  • Reasonable hope of success: to avoid unneccessary bloodshed, a country must decide if it can accomplish its goals. Even a nation faced with an overwhelming aggressor might choose not to fight on this basis.
  • Preference: the good that comes of the war must outweigh the bad. This argument is often cited in reference to the casualties produced in the current Iraq war vs. the casualties suffered by Americans in the September 11th attacks.

In addition to the jus ad bello criteria, there are two criteria for jus in bello, or conduct in war:

  • Discrimination: the means of conducting the war must be carefully chosen at the outset, based their moral acceptibility. As just war scholar Theodore Weber points out, "This may rule out some means altogether, regardless of their military benefit, but it also sets up the distinction between what is collateral damage and what is simply mass murder."
  • Proportionality: the damage done by the war must be proportionate to the cause. Care must be taken to limit collateral damage, and wherever possible, harm to civilians and non-combatants must be avoided. This is subtly different than the criteria of preference, above. For example, the recent American assault on Fallujah might have been preferential when considered in the larger context of the war and its aims, but almost certainly was not proportionate to the precipitating event: the killing of four American mercenaries.

Whether or not the war in question is justified under the jus ad bello guidelines above, forces are expected to abide by the jus in bello standards.

The Wikipedia entry on Just War adds two points to the jus in bello list, concerning torture and treatment of prisoners of war. However, these are usually considered under the criterion of discrimination, above.


The application of these principles to the war in Iraq reveals (albeit in hindsight) the Bush administration's shaky case for war. For example, the administration claimed "just cause" due to a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda, a link that was exposed as false after the beginning of the war.

It is more difficult to assess the other criteria: the intentions of the administration have never been made clear, despite a number of different and sometimes conflicting claims. The same is true of their hope of success; since it is still unclear what they hoped to accomplish, it is difficult to say whether or not they had a reasonable hope of achieiving that goal. (To the extent that the administration's goals are known, however, it seems safe to say there was no reasonable hope of success, at least not outside of neo-con circles.)

It also seems clear that the administration did not exhaust all alternatives to war.

The most difficult--and disturbing--of the criteria, however, are preference and proportionality. Because the aims of the war were never clearly delineated, we can only guess as to what might have happened had we not gone to war. At the very least, it is safe to conclude that the administration's claims of Iraqi complicity in terror networks and possession of weapons of mass destruction were greatly overstated, if not downright fraudulent. This leads to the conclusion that the administration was desperate to avoid consideration of the just war criteria exactly because they were fearful of not meeting them. That, in turn, suggests that the Iraq war is built on an ethical foundation as unstable as the sands of that country's desert.

Personal tools