During the past four weeks, many of us have been confronted by the images of the terror attacks in Israel and the response by Israel in Gaza. We have seen terrible pictures from the initial attack and subsequent scenes of destruction caused by days and nights of war. In the media, we see and hear accusations and counter-accusations. Unsurprisingly, many people have become confused and weary. Nevertheless, we cannot merely choose not to see and hear. For disciples of Jesus, this and every war present special challenges. In a few weeks, we will celebrate the coming of the “Prince of Peace,”—whose very name implies that war and violence are contrary to his nature and the world God intends.
The term “just war” has an implication sometimes lost on Christians. In the ordinary course of events, war and violence involve injustice. One might say that Just War Theory implies that war is intrinsically evil and causes endless suffering, the limits of which are set by the governments of the world and the nature of their armies.
Interestingly, to say that a war is just or unjust is to imply that there is such a thing as justice, and it can be applied to the kind of state-sponsored violence that war inevitably involves. To say that one embraces just war theory is to believe that combatants have moral and ethical limitations to what can and should be done before and during conflict. This, in turn, implies that there is a moral order to the universe outside of mere human feelings and desires.
Just war theory is often considered significant only in deciding to go to war, but just war theory also constrains what can be done during a war by those engaged in combat. An otherwise just war can be waged by unjust means. Beginning with the American Civil War and the emerging doctrine of total war, some implications of just war theory began to erode. By the end of the Second World War and the Allies’ victory over two enemies who regularly violated the rules of war, the theory had become as much a public relations tool as a valid constraint on war. This has been especially true during the recent Gaza conflict, in which the press and at least one combatant have misinterpreted the laws of war to justify otherwise unjust acts. In a world that worships power and the will to power, restrictions on violence are difficult to maintain.
This blog briefly covers the basic concepts of just war theory and hopefully helps readers determine their views on wars, including those currently dominating the headlines. The blog has two parts: the justification for war and rules that limit what may be done in conducting the war.
A, Deciding to Go to War (Jus ad Bellum)
For a war to be just, it must begin with just cause. A typical example of just cause is self-defense, though coming to the defense of an innocent nation is also a just cause. One result of treaties of mutual defense is that coming to the defense of a country with which one has a treaty of mutual protection renders the reason just if the underlying conflict is just.
In the situations of the Ukraine and Gaza, from the perspective of just war theory, Russia’s attack on the Ukraine cannot be just. As to the current Gaza conflict, the onslaught of Hamas on Israel and the death of many civilians also cannot be cause for war. After September 11, 2001, there was no question that some response to the World Trade Center and other attacks was warranted. Interestingly, the situation was not so clear as to the subsequent decision to invade Iraq. Some think the Afghanistan campaign was just but deny that status to the Iraq campaign.
In deciding to go to war, the parties’ intention is important. Even if a cause might be construed as just, the war cannot be just if the true motive is unjust. For example, if a political leader creates a war to advance their power or cling to power, this would not be a just intention. War-time political leaders are to be motivated, personally, by reasons that make a war just for the nation.
One argument made against the Second Iraq War was the fear that the President of the United States was perhaps partially motivated by threats made against his father, a former President. One is not entitled to begin a war for merely personal reasons. In the case of Ukraine, if the rationale for the war is simply to reconstruct the Russian Empire, the cause cannot be just. If Hamas intended to draw Israel into a fight in Gaza in hopes of destroying its army and bringing other nations into the conflict, the cause is not just.
A just war can only be declared by leaders of a legitimate political authority in compliance with the political requirements of that community. This means, for example, that a terrorist organization is never entitled to declare war, and any war in which a terrorist group engages is not a just war. Terrorist groups are not governments. (Hamas has recently denied that it has a duty to citizens of Gaza, claiming their safety is the responsibility of the United Nations. This is inconsistent with being a legitimate government.) In the case of Al Qaida, the situation is obvious: Al Qaida was not a government, nor did it have a warrant to conduct a war.
This element of just war theory is important concerning the present conflict in the Middle East. Hamas and Hezbollah are terrorist organizations. They have no warrant to attack Israel, and as we shall see below, the laws of war prevent the means used—violence against civilian populations. Furthermore, if Hamas attacked Israel not to protect the interest of the citizens of Gaza but on orders of a third party (Iran), there is no question but that the war is unjust. In thinking about just war, it is essential to distinguish between the attack of private agents and organizations and the attack of a legitimate authority.
The principle of just proportionality is one of the most complicated to evaluate. Not every action by a state towards another state can be used as a pretext for unlimited war. For example, let us suppose that, instead of invading Israel, killing many people, and taking captives, Hamas had merely fired a missile that landed in the middle of the Sinai desert, killing no one. Such an act would justify some kind of response; however, it would not justify the kind of war now unfolding.
The principle of proportionality also requires state actors to consider the likely results of the war. For example, in the case of the United States invasion of Iraq, just war theory required leaders to consider the possibilities of success or failure. Perhaps more importantly, combatants also must consider whether or not an action would involve costs and suffering beyond what was necessary to accomplish the goals of the United States.
In the specific case of the Second Gulf War, the given purpose of the United States was to prevent Iraq from becoming a source of terrorism, and in particular, terrorism using weapons of mass destruction against the United States and its allies. Many argued that the goals of the United States could be achieved without a war. This is a possibility that our leaders were required to consider in their decision-making.
The same thing is true of the current war in Gaza. One requirement on Hamas, if it is a legitimate authority, is the question, “What will the condition of Gaza be after this war?” If the answer to this question is, “It will be completely destroyed,” then just war theory restrains any government from engaging in such a war. Underlying this idea is a kind of Augustinian notion that the peace a war results in must involve a superior condition of the parties to that condition in which they found themselves before the war. For example, in the case of the Second World War, a world without the violence and tyranny of Hitler was a profound reason for the war.
Just war requires that the participants explore and investigate reasonable alternatives before engaging in war, such as negotiation, diplomacy, economic sanctions, etc. Because war involves inevitable suffering by innocents, the question must always be asked, “Is war really necessary?” if the war is unnecessary, then it cannot be just. Those of us who remember the beginning of the Vietnam War and the beginning of the Second Gulf War remember that our government spent a good deal of time persuading people that the war was a last resort. In the case of Vietnam, it was not until after an alleged attack on US vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin that the war was felt to be legitimate. In the case of the Second Gulf War, it was only after attempts to disarm Iraq peacefully failed that the decision to go to war was felt to be just.
Both of these instances indicate the application of a prior principle to this notion of last resort. It is never a last resort if a particular circumstance is being used as a pretext for going to war. So, for example, the fact that we have been unable to peacefully get a wreck to agree to get rid of its weapons of mass destruction could not be a justification for war if the leaders of the country knew there were no weapons of mass destruction or actual threat from the alleged enemy.
For Christians, the doctrine of last resort is fundamental. For a Christian to believe that any war is just, it must be the case that there is no reasonable alternative but to engage in conflict. If there is any reasonable means by which the peace can be maintained, then, for Christians, that alternative must be taken. Although this is not a part of just war theory, in my view, this particular requirement implies that Christians have to take certain risks to avoid war.
B. Just Conduct of War (Jus in Bello)
In addition to principles that restrain the decision to go to war, ethical principles govern how combatants conduct themselves during combat.
Just because a war is justified, not every means can be used to conduct that war. Just war theory requires that combatants attack legitimate targets. Civilians, medical personnel, religious groups, and aid workers are not legitimate targets of military attacks. Although an army force may attack another enemy force with resulting deaths as a side-effect, they are justified only if necessary and proportionate. Targeting civilians and aid workers is never permissible.
This principle has played an essential role in the current Gaza war. The indiscriminate firing of missiles from and into civilian areas by Hamas cannot be justified. This is not a justifiable means of conducting war. It’s a deliberate attack on innocent civilians. As to Israel, the charge is often made that they are dropping bombs in civilian areas on civilians. Israel responds that they are attacking legitimate military targets. They often give examples of their diligence in determining this was a military target. If this is the case, then just war theory allows the collateral damage to civilians because the targets themselves were targets of military necessity.
Just as the principle of proportionality applies to a decision to go to war, it also applies to how one conducts a war. Justice during war requires that military forces cannot use force or cause harm exceeding any strategic or ethical benefits in any particular military operation during a war. The general idea is that militaries should use the minimum force necessary to achieve legitimate military aims and objectives.
The doctrine of proportionality in the conduct of war is one of the most difficult to embrace. During the late days of the Second World War, President Truman authorized the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands of people. When deciding to use the bomb, Truman had to decide against the views of some of his generals and admirals, who believed that it would be possible to simply blockade Japan and avoid the use of the bomb and the killing of innocent civilians. The decision to use the bomb was made to save American lives in the event of an invasion of Japan. Today, scholars of war argue on both sides of this issue.
This is of contemporary importance. In the Ukraine war, the Russians have threatened to use tactical nuclear weapons. At least once during the current Gaza war, an individual (since disciplined by the Israeli government) suggested that the use of atomic weapons would be justified in that conflict. Once again, the use of weapons of mass destruction, which are sure to kill civilians to achieve a military goal that can be achieved by other means, cannot be justified.
Since the end of the Second World War, this principle has become increasingly challenging to implement. During the Second World War, all of the parties engaged in the mass bombing of civilian areas. The idea developed that the use of the V1 and V2 weapons by Hitler was a mere terror technique, unjustified by the laws of war. Yet, the Allies defended the bombing of civilian areas in Germany and Japan on the grounds that it would shorten the war. This is an area in which just war theory must take a turn towards restraining governments in using weapons and tactics that inevitably cause disproportionate damage to the enemy.
Intrinsically Unjust Means of War
There are specific means of conducting war that may be intrinsically unjust. For example, there are conventions against the use of chemical and biological weapons during wartime. The experience of the governments of Europe during the First World War, in which sarin and other gases were used, convinced everyone that these weapons were intrinsically evil. There may be additional elements of warfare, for example, the use of torture, that are inherently unjust.
After the Second World War, the treatment of American prisoners by the Japanese and the subsequent trial of some soldiers who were engaged in that treatment proceeded on the assumption that the laws of war prevented the mistreatment of captured soldiers. During the recent incursion into Israel, it is alleged that Hamas beheaded certain prisoners, including children. The use of beheading by some combatants during the War on Terror was an example of the use of a tactic that is intrinsically unjust.
During the recent gods of war, it is alleged that Hamas has used ambulances and hospitals to shield its fighters and its leadership. If true, this would be an unjust method of conducting war. Because hospitals and ambulances are protected during combat, the use of hospitals and ambulances to shield combatants inevitably requires that the opposing force make complex moral judgments and accept the necessity of civilian casualties. One reason why soldiers must wear uniforms is so that discrimination can be made between legitimate combatants and civilians who are protected. Techniques that blur that distinction are inherently unjust.
I am sure that some readers will object to portions of the content of this particular essay. I’ve tried to use various examples, including the United States of America, to clarify that the principles of just war theory are not simply “Western” or designed to give an advantage to the United States and its allies. They are principles of war that stretch back early in Western history. Muslim and other philosophers have notions of just war theory that are similar to those discussed here. Perhaps in a future blog, I can discuss just war theory from the perspective of other cultures.
I hope that this particular blog will help readers evaluate the conduct of their governments, as well as the behavior of the governments mentioned. If all that is real is matter, power, and the wheel to power, then there cannot be universal ethical restraints on governments or their citizens regarding the use of violence. Ultimately, what matters is winning.
If there is an inherent restraint on war, and if war is in some sense a violation of the shalom of the world and there are principles of just war, then the reverse is true: Not every action is justified because it advances our cause.
Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved