Is There Such a Thing as a Just War?
The justification, as well as the principles behind war has been debated upon over the centuries. Wars have been waged as early as the first groups of human civilization during the dawn of history. However, as human civilization developed and became morally inclined, man began questioning the validity and necessity for groups to engage in war. Although most agree that violence is not a good thing, the problem lies in the fact that some people could really be violent. Therefore, the question evolves towards how can violence be countered?
The just war theory is an attempt to identify when engaging in war is justifiable or not. It is widely accepted that states have the obligation to defend itself and its citizens, and to defend justice. The protection of human lives and morals are, first and foremost, the reason of government and it is sometimes necessary to resort to force to fulfill its duties. Just war is, therefore, a necessary evil, so to speak. Nevertheless, there are still many issues that need to be addressed for the theory of just war to be fully accepted.
Picture this: You are a head of state and you have just received an intelligence report that a huge army from a foreign land is marching fast towards your city. You have confirmed the reports and learned that the intention of the marching army is to invade your state and know that they have already invaded the other states. You try to resort to diplomatic negotiations but failed. You are left with two options: to defend your city and your people or submit to tyranny. Which would you choose? Let us further complicate the dilemma by adding that you know there is no chance of winning a battle against such a huge force of invading army. However, you also know for a fact that when you surrender, men will be forced to join their army or be sold as slaves or worse, murdered; women will be raped and after that, women and children will be kept as slaves. To make it simple, you are faced with a situation where the most possible outcome is total annihilation.
The just war theory, according to Mark Evans in his book Just War Theory: A Reappraisal, “is used to denote that specific body of moral doctrine found within Christianity” (p. 1). Jesus’ teachings were radically opposed to the martial virtues of the Roman Empire: that “wars could be glorious and warrior’s heroic embodiments of humanity at its noblest” (Evans 2). Instead, Jesus taught about loving one’s enemies and “to turn the other cheek” when offered violence. However, while Jesus rejects violence and advocated living a life of peace, Christians could not easily avoid the need to confront wars and had to work out a method that would sufficiently be compatible with the teachings of Jesus. The conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantinople I brought about changes in the Christian view of war.
A century before Jesus, Roman diplomat Cicero outlined the concept of a just war. It includes just cause such as to impede an invasion; a formal declaration of war such that the other side may have the chance to put things into right; and that war should be conducted with justice—that is, innocent civilians must not be included in the violence. Milan Bishop Ambrose, in the fourth century, borrowed the idea of Cicero for a just war. By 416 AD, only Christians could be soldiers in the Roman Empire. In the fifth century, St. Augustine wrote in The City of God that in the face of civil disorder, the resort to violence is justified but regrettable. He outlined the necessary conditions for a Christian leader to wage a just war, but he was quick to insist that the faithful not engage in wars of religious conversion or for the purpose of destroying heresies or pagans. He argued that war is not supposed to be a tool for the Church. Evans explained this by saying that to restore a just order as best one can, “violence may be necessary if no alternatives remains viable. But it must be used as sparingly as possible, never wavering from its moral intentions and only ever to be deployed by legitimate civil authorities” (p. 3). The City of God was written in response to those who criticize that the fall of Rome was due to its abandonment of pagan religion for Christianity, arguing that the use of force is justified only if done in the service of Christ. From Augustine, the concept of just war became a more important idea than being a pacifist.
The fall of Rome was succeeded by barbarian influences in Europe, which once more gave rise to highly militaristic cultures based on warrior code of glory and honor in battle. With the fall of the Carolingian Empire and the relative stabilization of European borders after Christianization, there would be “an entire class of warriors who had very little to do but fight among themselves and terrorize” the peasants (CBN). In the 10th century, in reaction to the violence brought by war, the Peace of God movement was introduced by the Church which is an agreement that protected noncombatants who could not defend themselves. Excommunication was the punishment for attacking or robbing a church or monastery; for robbing or beating the poor or the peasants; or for robbing or attacking any clergyman who is not bearing arms.
Perhaps the most famous example to use in the examination of a just war within its religious context would be the Christian Crusades in the 11th through 13th century. The Crusades were asserted to be Holy Wars with religious justifications. Surprisingly, the Crusades brought upon moral issues that were against the concept of just war. It started as a response from an appeal by Emperor Alexius I to the Pope for help to resist Muslim advances into the territory of the Byzantine Empire. The response, however, was much larger but less helpful than Alexius I desired. Pope Urban II had called for a large invasion force not merely to defend the Byzantine Empire, but to retake the Holy Land as well. In his speech, the Pope called for the Franks to “stop their internal wars and squabbles. Let them go instead against the infidel and fight a righteous war… Let none hesitate… God wills it” (Knox). He promised that “God Himself will lead them, for they will be doing His work. There will be absolution and remission of sins for all who die in the service of Christ” (Knox).
Medieval Christians believed that, as David had slain Goliath with a sling, God continues to favor his faithful with victory when they fought with just cause. The First Crusade, in particular but was not limited to, had sacked several cities on their way to Jerusalem and had “unleashed an unprecedented wave of impassioned, personally felt pious fury that was expressed in the massacres of Jews that accompanied the movement of mobs through Europe, and violent treatment of ‘schismatic’ Orthodox Christians in the East” (CBN). Bands of poorly organized crusaders attacked and destroyed Jewish communities, forcing the Jews to convert into Christians and massacred those who did not. The Crusades had also caused the fall of Constantinople, which they were supposed to help protect in the first place. Clearly, the Crusades were not in conformity with what Augustine has preached.
St. Augustine’s argument that war was sometimes a “necessary evil” was seconded by St. Thomas Aquinas, but Aquinas sanctioned war against unbelievers only when Christians are threatened with harm, and even then, only when toleration is unsustainable (Evans 3). Thus, at least for him, the Crusades were not sufficiently just. Evans explained that “the failure of the Crusades did much… to discredit explicitly religious-based justifications for war” (p. 3). A new basis for the just war theory emerged from an understanding of the nature of human personhood. “No war could be just simply because one’s opponents did not share one’s religion, for justice was rooted in a natural law which was shared by all peoples,” Evans added (p. 4). By the 17th century, the concept of justice was consolidated through the ideas of international law as the regulating basis of inter-state relations. The protection of sovereignty and national interests became prominent in the just war theory. Thus, the emphasis on defense against threatened or actual attacks as the just cause for war acquired refocused meaning. However, Evans held that “it would be misleading to think that… defense of the sovereignty was offered as the sole possible just cause for any length of time” (p. 4).
In September 11, 2001, the United States of America was inflicted with a series of coordinated attacks which prompted the Bush administration to react by proclaiming a right to preemptive self-defense. The Bush administration points that the change in the nature of military threats justifies preemptive war. However, preemptive war poses a dilemma to the just war theory’s principle of self-defense since terrorist attacks are really not considered waging war. The question is: “how long, in an era of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, can states afford to wait to use their military force in self-defense?” (Evans 25). Evans explained that “preemptive military action is undertaken to eliminate an immediate and credible threat of grievous harm. Those acting preemptively believe that an adversary is about to attack, that the assault is inevitable, and that preemptive strike can eliminate the threat or at least reduce the harm that the anticipated assault would cause” (Evans 25). It may be justified when the attacker has a clear intent to cause harm and when waiting for the threat to finally be fulfilled greatly increases the risk of injury. Today, preemptive war is an official US military doctrine.
Preemptive war is differentiated with preventive war in the sense that where the former is “undertaken to thwart or mitigate an imminent attack,” the latter is “undertaken to make sure that an adversary never becomes a significant threat” (Evans 26). Preventive war is often associated with aggression and is not generally accepted in the just war tradition. Some of the more famous, or infamous, examples of preventive wars include the attack on Pearl Harbor and the events in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
One issue that must be resolved in wars is the effect that it presents to those involved. There is little doubt that wars can bring economic and ecological damages, but more importantly, we must recognize that wars can bring serious psychological effects not only for the combatants but also to the civilians, especially women and children. Post-traumatic stress disorders and deep depressions are common to those who have been affected by the violence of war. “They rip apart the mind and soul in the same way that bullets and bombs mutilate the body,” according to Bob Herbert in an article relating to the story of a soldier who served in Iraq when the US declared war five years ago. In World War II, a Catholic soldier wrote: “during the war, I went to the Catholic army chaplain and asked if it was right for me to fight in this war. He said a clear yes—the British had a just cause against Hitler… But to this day I want to know whether German Catholic soldiers were told by German priests that they were fighting in an unjust war?” (PPU). If soldiers who have been trained in combat situations could be afflicted by war like this, how much more could civilians’ experience?
The Peace Pledge Union, an opposition to the just war theory, argues that “Just War rules are either completely ignored or only held by a few.” There is no neutral referee to reprimand the side who broke Just War rules. They argue that there has been no war in which either side has fully obeyed the rules of a just war. They claim that people could not acquire accurate information to judge whether a country’s war is just or not and that “the real truth about a war is usually hidden by governments.” Furthermore, they argue that “nobody can tell in advance if a particular war will bring more good than evil, or that its method will be ‘proportionate’ to its results.”
Opponents of just war theory, or pacifist if you may, find war to be immoral. They argue that intentionally killing someone is universally accepted as immoral. In Christianity, killing is directly prohibited by God as part of His commandments. In war, killing is a matter of fact. Hence, pacifists claim that nothing can justify war. But if killing is a basis to which wars are renounced, then we should abolish all policy that involves killing. Death penalty is another issue which involves “unnecessary” killing of individuals, of which morality is also being debated. If wars are prohibited in the ground of killing, death penalty should be as well. So euthanasia and assisted suicide should be made unlawful. Eventually, the issue on animal rights, as it also encompasses killing of animals, should also be resolved.
Andrew Fiala, in his book The Just War Myth: The Moral Illusions of War, argues that “the just war theory expresses our best moral thinking about war. But it is false to assume that since we know what a just war would be, just wars actually exist. In fact, there are no just wars” (p. 3). He compared the concept of just war with the concept of true love and argued that while we have ideas of true love, to believe in its existence is to court heartache. This means that while Fiala does not admonish warfare, just as it is too often too difficult to find true love, he realized how hard it would be to wage a just war. Calls to violence and vengeance, once unleashed, are extremely difficult to channel and control. Hence, the phrase “all is fair in love and war.” Fiala held that “it is too much to say that war in general is wrong or just. Our judgments must be about particular wars or types of war” (p. 4).
Fiala explains that “the just war ideal works best when there is a clear battlefield and when it is easy to distinguish combatants from non-combatants” (p. 5). Just war tradition, however, does not apply well to modern warfare against insurgencies and terrorism. As an example, Fiala argues that the easiest solution to counter insurgencies is “to kill or imprison as many of the male population as possible and to severely punish villages and neighborhoods that support insurgent operations” (p. 5). This, however, obviously does not conform to moral standards. Some argue that the moral solution to counter insurgencies “is to take the moral high ground and employ political, economic, and social tactics in addition to the tactics of (morally restrained) hard power” (Fiala 6). The problem lies in that insurgents are willing to employ brutality and, more often than not, have more political authority on their locality, which would be difficult to counter when just war tradition is employed. Which brought Fiala to conclude that “in order to win a war, injustice may be necessary” (p. 6).
Another solution to counter insurgencies is just to leave them by. People become insurgents when they do not want someone who is foreign to them interfere with their affairs, which, taking all things into account, they have the right to assert. But not because one can find a peaceful solution to a particular situation means that there is one for every problem. Insurgencies and terrorism, for example, are different in that while you can leave the insurgents to their own affairs, terrorists will come after you. In cases like this, there is a just cause for preemption.
Opponents of the just war tradition insists on the immorality of war. For the religious pacifist, it is better to “turn the other cheek,” let God be the judge, or allow their adversary to develop conscience. However, if morality is the real issue here, then the question would be: would it be more morally permissible to tolerate tyranny or terrorism than to counter its evil? Violence is not the solution to counter violence would likely be the answer. Peace, they claim, is the answer. The question again is: will the other side accept the peace offered? The most credible answer would be: “we hope so.” End of discussion.
The answer to the situation given at the beginning of this paper depends on one’s principle. If one believes in honor and the glory of dying in battle fighting for survival and principle, then engaging war for the purpose of defense would be the more rational choice, whether there is a slim chance of victory or not. On the other hand, one chooses to remain a pacifist, accepting slavery rather than fight for what is right, hoping for some divine intervention to save them. If I were made to choose, I’ll be the former.
The idea of fighting for peace makes sense in theory. However, the problem lies in that what makes sense in theory often fails in practice. The concept of a just war is characterized by at least two features: that is should have been based with a just cause (jus ad bellum); and that it is waged with justice in conduct (jus in bello). But, as have already been argued, war has turned out to be more complex and difficult to control. That is why just war advocates suggest the use of force only as the last resort—to resort to arms only for the protection of innocent lives and when all diplomatic means have failed. No matter how we would love to live in peace, we have to face the fact that there are some who are willing to employ violence for their gain and has no respect for boundaries. As Thomas Nagel asserts: “it is naïve to suppose that there is a solution to every moral problem with which the world can face us. We have always known that the world is a bad place. It appears that it may be an evil place as well” (p. 144). The real problem with war is not why it was waged but how and what comes after. If we could somehow find a way to restrict combatants to adhere with justice in conduct and give effort to address the effects of war, then we can fully realize justice in war.
I will leave you with another scenario. You are, again, a head of state. Your country is threatened by terrorist attacks. Many lives have already been lost and you know that the attacks will not stop if you do not do anything. You try to negotiate with the terrorist groups but while negotiations are still going, other attacks are done. The economy is suffering; people are unsatisfied and fear for another attack. Finally, the terrorist group launched coordinated attacks within your state not only damaging properties crucial to the economy but killing thousands of innocent lives and injuring countless more. How long will you resort to diplomatic solutions? Do you not think that, in the long run, waging a war against the terrorist group to finally end the attacks would bring more good than harm to your people and would save countless innocent lives? Or would you rather wait futilely for your enemies to be “enlightened” and stop its evil ways?
Augustine of Hippo. The City of God.
Evans, Mark. Just War Theory: A Reappraisal. Edinburg University Press, 2005.
Fiala, Andrew. The Just War Myth: The Moral Illusions of War. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008.
Herbert, Bob. 19 March 2007. “Death of a marine.” New York Times. 16 July 2008. <http://select.nytimes.com/2007/03/19/opinion/19herbert.html>
“Just War: Can any war be just?” Peace Pledge Union (PPU). 13 July 2008. <http://www.ppu.org.uk/learn/infodocs/st_justwar.html>
Knox, E. L. Skip. “The First Crusade: Urban’s speech.” Boise State University. 13 July 2008. <http://crusades.boisestate.edu/1st/02.shtml>
Nagel, Thomas. 1972. “War and massacre.” Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 2, 123-144.
“Overview of the Crusades.” 2008. Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN). 13 July 2008. <http://www.cbn.com/spirituallife/ChurchAndMinistry/ChurchHistory/Crusades_Wikipedia.aspx>