The Unjust War Theory

Wednesday, 19 March 2003

From recent news articles:

Christian church leaders and lay people are taking an unusually prominent role in the U.S. anti-war movement, arguing that an attack against Iraq would not fit the theological definition of a "just war."

Richard Land, speaking for the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, the largest denomination in the United States, recently wrote to Bush assuring him that the Iraqi threat satisfied the conditions of a "just war."

All war is unjust. In war, soldiers kill people who have done them and their nation no harm, and they are killed in turn by soldiers on the opposite side of the conflict. Noncombatants, including children, die in war, even if every effort is made to avoid killing them. Mistakes are made, and people die. War kills and maims people, destroys property, and ravages the environment. Even after the bombs stop falling and the bullets stop flying, the effects of war linger, and more die. Destroyed infrastructure--roads, bridges, government facilities, hospitals, railways--results in death from normally preventable illness, starvation, and unsanitary conditions. Remnants of munitions--such as land mines, undersea mines, and depleted uranium shell casings--lurk unnoticed in the countryside or under water, waiting to explode suddenly or emitting radiation surreptitiously for millennia. Chaos in the country under attack leads to the rise to power of authoritarian and often brutal local leaders, or warlords.

Those who wage war arrogate to themselves the divine prerogative to decide who will live and who will die. Cain killed his brother, and Lamech killed a total stranger, but war kills people by the thousands, or even by the millions. War is the greatest evil that humankind has ever invented, and it always involves great injustice. Yet despite the inherent injustice of war, is it ever justified?

Historical Survey of Just War Ideas

Christians from earliest times have struggled with the issue of whether a Christian can be a soldier and whether war can ever be justified. Marcion, often labeled the first great heretic of the church, rejected the god described in the Old Testament as inferior to the true God, who was the father of Jesus Christ. The Old Testament god was a god of justice, who led Israel to attack their enemies, whereas the God of the New Testament reflected the teachings of his son, who commanded his followers to love their enemies.

Orthodox Christians rejected Marcion's separation of the Old Testament and New Testament God into two beings; consequently, they often made use of lessons from the Old Testament when formulating their attitudes toward war. Although some early Christians refused to serve in the Roman army, others did, believing that Paul's statement in Rom 13:1-5 permitted them to.

Once Constantine became emperor and legalized Christianity, most Christians' attitudes toward warfare became somewhat more positive, and the concept of a "Just War" began to be discussed. Ambrose, bishop of Milan in the fourth century, built on the ideas of Cicero and suggested three criteria for the Just War: (1) war must have a just cause (i.e., the state defending itself); (2) when conducting war, the enemies' rights must be observed; (3) clergy should abstain from fighting.

The classical formulation of the Just War Theory was promulgated by Augustine, bishop of Hippo, in his various writings. Augustine's thoughts concerning the Just War may be summarized in five points: (1) war must have a just cause (including the failure of another state to act justly toward its inhabitants, thus allowing certain wars of aggression); (2) war must be motivated by the cause of justice rather than a desire to inflict harm, wreak vengeance, gain power, etc.; (3) war must be waged by a legitimate authority (i.e., a state); (4) war must be a last resort; (5) war must be conducted justly.

The issue of the Just War continued to be discussed and reformulated throughout the Middle Ages. Gratian in the twelfth century, for example, added his ideas (culled from earlier sources) that war should be formally declared and that noncombatants should be spared. Augustine's formulation continued to be the classic statement of the theory, though medieval writers tended to stress that Just Wars should be wars of defense.

Little changed after the Reformation. Luther and Calvin both addressed the issue of the Just War, but neither developed anything substantially new. Since then, other criteria have been advocated, including that a war that is launched should have a likelihood of success and that the means used in war must be proportionate to the ends.

Some Christian groups, most notably the Anabaptists and Quakers, adopted a pacifist position, rejecting entirely the notion that a war could be just. Though pacifism has always been a minority position (at least since the time of Constantine), it has been generally respected even by Christians who hold to Just War doctrine. Pacifism has inspired many people, both Christian and non-Christian, over the years, including Gandhi in South Africa and India and Martin Luther King, Jr., in the United States.

Analysis of Just War Criteria

In comparison with the reasons, whether stated or denied, that governments throughout history have normally gone to war (e.g., internecine rivalries, religious fervor, lust for Lebensraum, ethnic hatred, desire to quash disfavored political or economic systems), the Just War Theory sets a high standard. It is my contention, however, that the standard is not high enough. I will examine each of the traditional criteria and evaluate them from a contemporary Christian perspective.

1. Just Cause

Before making war, according to the Just War theory, a nation must have a just cause. Some Just War theorists limit the just cause to self-defense (i.e., repelling an invasion), while others (e.g., Augustine) add vengeance for a wrong done. A few contemporary theorists--and many non-theologians who are leaders of government--would like to see the concept of a just cause extended still further to include preemptive strikes against nations that have not yet acted but are perceived as threats. Thus, the idea of a just cause can be and has been stretched to become almost meaningless. Any national leader can manufacture "evidence" that one's own nation has been wronged and claim that it has a just cause to go to war. Even Hitler tried to make it appear that the Polish army had attacked the Germans, thus leading the Germans to invade Poland on 1 September 1939. Similarly, the U.S. claimed that their ships had been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin, justifying the escalation of the war in Vietnam (cf. also the casus belli of the Spanish-American War).

In order to keep the idea of a just cause from being a meaningless mantra, theologians must insist that the only just cause for war is actual self-defense. Attacking another nation because that nation is threatening to attack (at least in the mind of the other nation) cannot be considered a just cause. Consider what would have happened shortly after India and Pakistan tested their first nuclear weapons and massed troops along their common border if the notion of a preemptive strike had been entertained. Southern Asia might well have been embroiled in the first full-blown nuclear war, and millions might have been killed. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and troops on both sides stood down, but the dangers of believing that a preemptive strike might be allowed under the Just War Theory should be obvious. If there is such a thing as a just cause for one nation to go to war with another, it must only be for the purpose of self-defense.

The idea of protecting innocent civilians from political persecution--including genocide--within the borders of a single country can be formulated in terms of self-defense, but one must be careful in doing so. Possible just reasons for going to war to stop persecution within a country will be discussed below.

2. Proper Motivation

Augustine believed that the moral intent in the mind of a party at war helped to determine whether the war was just. If the intent is to restore justice and order, then the motivation is right, and the war might be just. On the other hand, if an army is out to get revenge, or gain territory or riches, or foment revolt, the motivation is wrong and the war cannot be just.

The problem with this criterion is that it is too subjective. It is all too easy for the leader of an armed group to claim that his intent is to restore justice. Revenge is often couched in terms of just deserts: the perpetrators of an act of war must be brought to justice. Both sides in a conflict regularly use the rhetoric of justice to support their actions, and it is clear that the two sides in a conflict cannot both be on the side of justice when a war is being fought. Even if the leader of an army, or a nation at war, is not spewing pure propaganda concerning the nation's interest in justice--even if the leader believes that his cause is right--this fact alone does not put that army on the side of justice. Only neutral observers can judge which side in a conflict is just, if either, and often only by taking a historical perspective long after the facts. Usually unbiased observers will be able to identify both reasonable and unreasonable attitudes and actions on both sides of a conflict. The bottom line is that proper motivation is useless as a criterion for determining whether participating in a looming war can properly be called just.

3. Legitimate Authority

For Augustine, only leaders of governments have the legitimate authority to wage war, so any war of rebellion or revolution is by this definition unjust, from the standpoint of the revolutionaries. This argument was particularly useful to Augustine in his arguments with the Donatists, a schismatic group of Christians in North Africa. Only those authorized by the Roman emperor had the authority to make war, and since the emperor shared Augustine's Catholic faith, that effectively meant that the Catholics could subjugate their opponents by force, if necessary, but their opponents could not "justly" fight back.

The apartheid government in South Africa used the passage in Rom. 13:4 to claim that only the officially constituted government, and not groups like the African National Congress, had the legitimate right to bear arms. Contemporary governments similarly call armed opponents by labels such as "terrorists" or "rebels." They refer to their fighting troops as "soldiers," while their enemies are merely "gunmen," or perhaps "guerrillas." The fact that "guerrilla" literally means "warrior" does not preclude its pejorative use on the lips of existing governments.

The problem with identifying legitimate authorities exclusively with existing governments is that this definition ignores the problem of structural sin. Injustice exists in every society, so by extension every government is unjust, at least to some extent. Groups that feel compelled to use arms to overthrow what they consider an oppressive and unjust government may be viewed by outsiders as having a cause at least as just as that of the standing government. By Augustine's definition, the leaders of the American and French revolutions were illegitimate promulgators of war, and no contemporary "freedom fighters," whether on the left or the right, have the right to wage war, even in response to the most brutal oppression.

Despite its historical importance as one of the cornerstones of the Just War Theory, the idea that only legitimate authorities--at least if defined as existing governments--have the right to wage war is untenable. Nations regularly support their ideological counterparts in armed struggles in other countries, always claiming the high moral ground while doing so. This fact suggests that rather than extending the concept of legitimate authority to include certain well-defined revolutionary groups, the notion should be narrowed to refer only to decisions made by the international community through fair and properly constituted legal channels. Under current international law, the only body that could properly authorize war would be the United Nations. There are built-in structural injustices in the organization of the United Nations, such as the excessive power allotted to the five permanent members of the Security Council, but the idea of an international body that can authorize war is sound. World government will just have to catch up with the concept.

Having decided that only an international body like the United Nations can be considered a legitimate authority that is authorized to declare war, the next step is obvious: do away with the concept of international war altogether. In place of various national armies, an international police force can be established. Within a country with a reasonable system of justice, the police arrest suspected criminals, the suspects are tried in a fair court of law, and, if convicted, they serve a sentence in prison, or perhaps they are assessed some lesser penalty such as community service. Although the legal structure does not yet exist to allow an international police force, once such a force came into existence, unjust activities of one nation against another, or of the government of a nation against some of its own citizens, could be considered crimes, and the perpetrators could be arrested. Rather than wait for months or years while injustice festers, then wage a bloody war that kills thousands of innocent people, an international police force could move in as soon as a legal indictment was issued by an international court and arrest suspected criminals, regardless of their political or socioeconomic status within their own country. If the international community defines crimes effectively, so that activities such as proliferation of weapons and persecution of dissidents are considered crimes that fall under international jurisdiction, the likelihood of war can be greatly lessened. Crimes such as genocide, judicial mutilation, and espionage would obviously also fall under international jurisdiction if the crimes are sanctioned by a national government.

Someday an international police force, accompanied by well-crafted international laws that all countries are bound to recognize, may be a reality, and war can become a thing of the past. In the meantime, the concept of legitimate authority must be narrowed so that only the international community, through the United Nations or perhaps other duly recognized regional groups--but not individual nations--has the right to wage war.

4. Last Resort

The idea that war is the last resort, undertaken only after diplomacy has failed, is a well-established legal concept, but because it is a subjective judgment, it is of limited value in determining whether or not to wage war. It is all too easy for a nation, or a group of individuals with a complaint against their government, to claim that the injustice they are suffering is longstanding and that justice demands an immediate attack. Certainly war should be a last resort; the problem is in determining who has the authority to make the decision that the time for diplomacy has ended. If the arguments advanced for defining the legitimate authority to wage war as the international community are followed, then the concept of last resort can be added to the idea of legitimate authority as a corollary. Only the international community can authorize war, and then only as a last resort, as determined by the international community as a whole.

5. Just Prosecution of War

In times past, armies would often meet on the field of battle to fight one another. Soldiers in brightly colored uniforms (e.g., the British redcoats) would line up to fire their weapons at each other, at least at the start of the battle. Wars were formally declared, and sneak attacks were considered outside the range of proper behavior. Modern warfare, for the most part, has moved beyond these "gentlemen's agreements." Almost anything goes in contemporary wars, though some agreements among nations (e.g., the Geneva Convention) are often honored in regard to the treatment of prisoners and noncombatants.

Likewise, certain weapons are labeled "weapons of mass destruction" (WMDs)--biological, chemical, nuclear--and are outlawed. Of course, since many countries continue to possess and develop WMDs, and since some conventional weapons are just as destructive as traditional WMDs, the distinction between conventional and unconventional weapons systems seems somewhat contrived (with the exception of nuclear weapons, which can pollute the environment for years after an attack). It is particularly revealing that those nations with the largest and most deadly conventional weapons arsenals are among the most vocal at trying the ensure that other countries destroy any unconventional weapons they might possess. When the countries with large conventional arsenals also have large caches of unconventional weapons--even if they deny that they would ever use them--structural injustice clearly exists and must be addressed.

The first solution to this structural injustice is to redefine WMDs so that they include conventional weapons capable of killing large numbers of people. Thus, such items as cruise missiles and bunker buster bombs should be labeled WMDs, alongside biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. In addition, weapons that continue to be deadly for years after their initial use should also be considered WMDs. Such weapons include land and sea mines (if no built-in obsolescence mechanism is installed) and depleted uranium shells. Battleships, submarines, fighter planes, and bombers might also be labeled WMDs, or at least considered platforms for delivering WMDs. Once WMDs are redefined, then the world community can insist that each nation begin to reduce its arsenal of WMDs. The international community could even decree that no WMDs, as redefined, can be used by a nation under any circumstances, and that use of such weapons constitutes an international crime, punishable by an international court. Of course, if war itself is outlawed and replaced with an international police force, as discussed above, then the just prosecution of war becomes a moot point.

6. Noncombatants Spared

When all soldiers wore uniforms, or only men above a certain age engaged in warfare, or combatants met on a designated field of battle, it was easier to ensure that noncombatants were not harmed by war. With these rules of war no longer followed, however, it is perhaps inevitable that noncombatants are killed and maimed in much larger numbers than in times past. When sixteen-year-old girls are walking bombs, and when children carry rifles, the distinction between combatants and noncombatants is sometimes hard to determine. On the other hand, urban warfare--including the aerial bombardment of cities, even with so-called "smart" weapons--will almost always result in the killing of unarmed civilians who are taking no part in the war. Although certain measure can be taken to reduce the likelihood of civilian casualties (often euphemistically termed "collateral damage"), there really is no way to come close to eliminating these casualties in a modern war. The fact that it is impossible to do so illustrates the innate injustice of war. However, if the world community moves towards eliminating (redefined) WMDs, and if it ultimately succeeds in replacing national armies with an international police force, civilian casualties will drop dramatically and eventually almost disappear.

7. Likelihood of Success

On the surface, it seems reasonable to argue that unless success is likely, war should not be waged. However, two major problems exist with this line of reasoning. First, since success might be defined as something short of an immediate, complete victory, the threshold for an undertaking being likely to succeed is vanishingly low. Second, a powerful nation threatening a weaker nation can turn this principle on its head and justify massive overkill (see the discussion of proportional means, below) on the grounds that it is simply increasing its likelihood of success, and thus conforming to an established Just War principle.

"Success" in armed struggle is an ambiguous term. When the ancient Egyptians fought a battle, they always proclaimed victory, even if an unbiased observer might have thought that the battle was won by their opponent. Many other ancient and modern nations do the same. Sometimes success is achieved if an army survives an assault by a stronger force, or even if a smaller force holds out longer than expected against a larger force (e.g., the Battle of the Alamo). Suicide bombers might view success as taking one or two of their enemies with them when they die, and guerrillas fighting what they perceive to be an unjust regime might consider any minor victory they attain part of a pattern of success that will eventually result in the overthrow of their government. Success, then, has no universally agreed-upon definition; consequently, the likelihood of success is impossible to quantify.

8. Proportional Means

The idea behind the proportional means test is that a nation fighting a just war will inflict the minimal amount of damage necessary to achieve its goals. Many leaders see this Just War criterion as dangerous, because it might result in higher casualties among their allies, even if the total number of casualties on both sides is reduced. As mentioned above, by a bit of sophistry, it is possible to use the doctrine of likelihood of success as a counterbalance to proportional means, with the result that an overwhelming force is argued to be in conformance to Just War ideals. The concept of proportional means might be useful if it restrains a leader from the gratuitous slaughter of the enemy, but since almost any slaughter is arguably a way of preserving lives (that is, lives on one side of the conflict), proportional means fails to be a useful measure of the justice of armed conflict.

Results of the Analysis: Beyond the Just War Doctrine

This analysis of the historical Just War criteria leads to two major results. First, it is possible to envision a world in which war itself is outlawed and the international community can operate with a police force rather than with standing armies. Acts now considered war crimes, or at least possible justifications for war, would become regular crimes to be dealt with by international courts. This is clearly the goal toward which Christians should work.

Second, the current state of the international legal and justice systems does not allow for the creation of an effective international police force capable of dealing with international crime sponsored by national leaders. Thus, it is probably necessary, although extremely distasteful, to continue to consider war to be an option in some circumstances. However, most of the traditional Just War criteria have been shown to be inadequate, either because they set the standards for warfare too low or because the criteria are too ambiguous to be useful in making decisions. Only three of the criteria from the Just War Theory remain viable, albeit in forms that are more restrictive than traditionally understood.

(1) The only valid cause for war is actual self-defense. A nation that is under immediate attack has the right to defend itself without waiting for international sanction. However, because it is probable that even such apparently clear terms as "actual self-defense" and "immediate attack" might be twisted by leaders bent on going to war, the self-defense criterion must be subject to the judgment of the international community. If the international community determines that a nation that claims to be fighting a war of self-defense is distorting the meaning of the term "self-defense," it has the right to declare a war unjustified and determine what penalties will be levied against the aggressor. Ultimately, then, it is the international community that is the final arbiter of whether an individual nation has a valid cause to go to war.

(2) The only legitimate authority for authorizing nations, or groups of nations, to wage war is the international community, as constituted in a properly recognized body, currently the United Nations. The international community must certify the validity of all international wars before they can be waged (except for actual self-defense, as described above), and it can also authorize international intervention in intranational conflicts, for example, to prevent genocide or to stop a civil war. As the only legitimate authority for allowing war, the international community must abide by the principle that diplomacy is always preferable to bloodshed, and that war is a last resort. Only the international community has the authority to say when all diplomatic channels have been exhausted and war is now the only option for restoring justice and order.

(3) Wars must be fought in a fair manner, and in a way to minimize not only noncombatant casualties but also combatant casualties. One way in which reducing the casualties of war can be achieved is by redefining WMDs to include conventional weapons with large destructive capacities and gradually eliminating them. Existing protocols for the treatment of prisoners of war should continue to be observed. To prevent abuses of the POW designation, with its associated diminution of civil rights, international courts must have to right to determine whether people may legally be held as POWs or whether those held are entitled to due process under the law, access to attorneys, and so forth.

An Alternative to War

Pacifist groups like the Anabaptists and the Quakers have long held that war and other forms of overt violence are always wrong, even in self-defense. Taking the command of Jesus to love one's enemies seriously, the early Anabaptist leader Conrad Grebel wrote the following to Thomas Muntzer.

The gospel and its adherents are not to be protected by the sword, nor they [protect] themselves. . . . True believing Christians are sheep among wolves, sheep for the slaughter. They must be baptized in anguish and tribulation, persecution, suffering, and death, tried in fire, and must reach the fatherland of eternal rest not by slaying the physical but the spiritual. They use neither worldly sword not war, since killing has ceased with them entirely. . . .
The willingness to sacrifice oneself to avoid committing violence is certainly a high standard, and one that can rightly claim to be based on the example of Jesus. Two questions arise, however: (1) even if committing violence to save oneself is wrong, is refusing to use violence to save another person right? (2) can the rules of individual morality be applied as well to nations?

To address the first issue, Dietrich Bonhoeffer used the example of a madman driving a car into a crowd of innocent bystanders. It would be incumbent upon any Christian who had the opportunity to stop the madman to do so, using any means necessary, including violence. Most Christians have held that allowing one person to take another's life is wrong; aggressors must be stopped from harming others. Of course, the danger must be imminent to justify the use of force, especially lethal force.

Regarding the morality of nations, Reinhold Niebuhr argued in Moral Man and Immoral Society that nations cannot be held to the same standards as individuals. Specifically, Neibuhr argues that nations have the right to use coercion, even forceful coercion, in the cause of justice. However, he warns that the use of coercion is always morally dangerous, and he encourages individual citizens to develop strategies such as non-violent resistance to confront injustice.

Non-violent resistance has often been effective in transforming society. Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Desmond Tutu are just three examples among many in the twentieth century who urged others to use nonviolence to confront evil, and they were successful in their opposition to British colonialism, American racial injustice, and South African apartheid. Even the Nazis were opposed somewhat successfully by Danish nonviolent resistance. Despite these success stories, however, counterexamples are also available. Nonviolence did not save the Jews in the Third Reich, Cambodians under Pol Pot, or the Tutsis in Rwanda.

Though a society in which certain laws and human rights are internationally recognized and universally enforced is easy to envision, a pervasive ideology stands in the way. Nationalism, often referred to more positively as patriotism, presently prevents the establishment of a system of international law and law enforcement that could eliminate both the causes of war and war itself. As Neibuhr points out, though patriotism inspires individuals to act unselfishly in defense of their fellow citizens, it ironically converts this individual selflessness into national egoism.

International law does not require the elimination of nations, only the elimination of nationalism and its resultant ideology, the myth of sovereignty. Niebuhr worries that "what lies beyond the nation, the community of mankind, is too vague to inspire devotion," but there is no reason that his concern should continue to be true. If Christians take seriously the statement in John 3:16 that God so loved the world, they should be active proponents of internationalism as a solution to the problem of war. Christians must proclaim that opposition to internationalism is just a manifestation of the sins of racism, xenophobia, and prejudice. When nations willingly give up their perceived right to attack other nations, and when an international police force and a court system exist that can arrest and prosecute criminal behavior perpetrated by national leaders against their own people, then war will indeed be a thing of the past.

Conclusion: Toward an Unjust War Doctrine

The phrase "just war" is a misnomer. As noted earlier, no war is just, and labeling a war "just" too often leads to smugness and self-righteousness that ignore the suffering that all war causes. If further evidence of the inherent injustice of war is necessary, the euphemisms used for war indicate the lengths to which people will go to disguise the harsh reality of war. Consider the following terms, and their meanings:

The use of these and other terms by governments seeking to justify their own violence, or by media outlets that support the government to one extent or another, leads to the greater acceptance of war as a solution to conflicts of various sort. Instead of using terms that sanitize the horrors of war or that demonize one's opponents in a conflict, people interested in justice and peace should use terms that accurately portray the reality of the situation being described.

Rather than seek to justify any given war as just, Christians should instead state that all war is unjust and should only be condoned when it is clearly a lesser evil than other non-lethal alternatives. The Just War Theory should be abandoned as woefully inadequate in the present day. It was created at a time when Christianity had just gained ascendancy in the Roman Empire, and it makes assumptions inconsistent with the teachings of Christ and with modern political realities. Many of the Just War Theory's traditional criteria for going to war set the threshold for war too low, and other criteria are too subjective to be of value. Under the Unjust War Theory, all three of the following conditions must be met:

  1. The war being undertaken is an actual self-defense from immediate attack, or it is a war intended to stop the perpetration of well-defined international crimes, such as genocide.
  2. The international community authorizes the nation to make war, or, in the case of a nation acting in self-defense, agrees that the nation was right to defend itself; a corollary to this condition is that the international community should determine when the threat has disappeared and war is no longer necessary.
  3. The war will be carried out without weapons of mass destruction, defined to include any weapon--biological, chemical, nuclear, or conventional--that is capable of killing large numbers of people or inflicting heavy destruction.

The Unjust War Theory, though clearly superior to the Just War Theory of the past, should be seen as merely an interim measure, made necessary by current political realities, including excessive nationalism; stockpiles of WMDs; and inadequate international political, legislative, judicial, and enforcement structures. Once the current structural evils have been eliminated and structures more conducive to international justice have been put in place, the world can move beyond any need for war in any circumstance and toward a future where worldwide peace and justice are attainable goals.

Background material used in this article was taken from several sources, including Douglas Bax, "From Constantine to Calvin: The Doctrine of the Just War," in Theology & Violence: The South African Debate, ed. Charles Villa-Vicencio, pp. 147-171 (Braamfontein, South Africa: Institute for Contextual Theology, 1987); John de Gruchy, "Radical Peace-Making: The Challenge of some Anabaptists," in ibid., pp. 173-185; and Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1932).

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