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Sunday, October 16, 2011

What Constitutes Just War?

Theories of Just War

Michael Tain


The question of what makes a just war is one that philosophers, statesmen, generals, and even common citizens have examined and debated throughout human history, but in order to examine this question fully and completely, war itself must be defined. A general definition would include that war is the actual, intentional, and widespread armed conflict between political communities; and that those political communities can be further defined as entities which are either existing states or ones that intend to become states. This definition would also make allowances for civil wars, while including terrorist organizations, which often aspire to statehood or certainly wish to influence the development of statehood in a particular population or geographic area. Additional understanding to the meaning of the term war can be gained through the works of the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz who stated that war is both “the continuation of policy by other means,” and “an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.” War can thus be described as an intentional widespread act of violence by one group, political community, or state upon another with the intention of gaining the opponent’s acquiescence or cooperation in an issue of territory, law, or governance.

One of the earliest, and more influential, philosophers to examine the question of what makes a just war was Saint Augustine. Augustine’s views on war were intimately tied to his statements and beliefs about mankind and its relationship to God and creation. In these he professed the belief that creation is the handiwork of a God of goodness; and that any evil that exists, or as he would put it an absence of good, is due to humans choosing to remove God from their lives, and thereby committing evil or good-absent acts. On the issue of war itself he clarified that carrying out war was an appropriate act by the leaders of a nation or state, likening it to their justification and right in punishing wrongdoers within their realm, except in this case punishing those who had committed wrong outside their borders. However, within this authorization or justification of war Augustine was very clear that it was only extended to monarchs or leaders of a city or state; and even then should only be used to support and attain the common good of the state and its people, for the natural order is “the peace of mankind.”

The theory of just war was further developed and examined throughout the medieval period with important input and refinement from such religious and philosophical luminaries as Thomas Aquinas and Saint Anselm. Two basic, yet intrinsically related, ideas were the end result: jus in bello and jus ad bellum. Both are related to the justness of war, but jus in bello examines what may be justly done during war, while jus ad bellum examines what justifies going to war. Jus in bello, what may justly be done in war, included such issues as the war should be one of proper intentions, it should be in proportion to the goal sought, and it should not involve the killing of innocents or civilian non-combatants. Jus ad bellum, the justification for making war, include that the war must be waged by a legitimate authority, it must be carried out for a just cause, it must be a last resort, there must be a formal declaration of war, and there must be a reasonable prospect of success. Although “rules” for war, an inherently chaotic, violent, and brutish enterprise by definition, may seem nonsensical to the modern observer, the reality was and is that attempts to put rules or codes of behavior on just such activities is part of the nature of mankind to strive to act justly, or as Saint Augustine would have said to act with God in their lives.

Later religious and philosophical leaders such as Erasmus and Martin Luther also examined the question of just war, although not always with the clarity of thought shown by previous thinkers. As an example Luther used Saint Augustine’s rationale about rightful authority for war when criticizing a peasant’s revolt, stating that the peasant’s actions were in violation of the authority vested in the rulers by God. Yet he also encouraged the German nobility and people to revolt against, or make war on, the Roman Catholic Church, by almost any definition the accepted rightful religious and often secular ruler of the time period. While Luther’s thoughts and encouragement were most probably correct given the corruption and venality of the Church he was encouraging war against, it would be difficult to justify them within the strict framework of jus ad bellum.

One philosopher who examined the question of just war extremely closely was Hugo Grotius; and he examined it through a number of prisms including the law of nature, the law of nations, and divine law. It was Grotius’ belief that God, or divine law, wished humans to protect themselves, have the needed requirements of life, and punish those who transgress. It was also his belief that if God wished those things or ends for mankind, divine law would also wish or mandate the means to achieve those ends. Thus if both the ends and the means to achieve them are wished by God, war and its results are not only sometimes necessary, but by definition just, as God’s will or divine law is always just. Grotius also thought that war could not only be justly undertaken for wrongs already committed, but also for wrongs not yet carried out, in short an early version of a pre-emptive strike. Once one sorts through the many exhaustive definitions that Grotius gives for just war and just actions in war, a general summation of his beliefs might be that war is justified when it is on the side of right, yet the side of right can be one not easily discerned by fallible humans.

Although the question of what makes a just war may be fairly easily answered through some of the frameworks and ethical systems developed by the few great thinkers listed here, mankind must always examine war very closely and truly. War can certainly be described or delineated as just or unjust, but neither definition or ethical debate changes the fact that lives are lost in war, never to be regained, their divine spark snuffed out through the actions of man; and the larger question, at least to me as one who has served in the military, has to be how the divinity that inspired and created that spark views its loss at the hands of man.


Michael Tain is a student of Ethics at Midway College in Kentucky.  He works in the Medical field.

Related reading:  Ethics of War; Why War is Never Really Rational; Kissinger on Afghanistan War: Is There a Strategy?;

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