The Just War Tradition and the War on Terrorism*

The Just War Tradition and the War on Terrorism*

Kenneth B. McIntyre

            The attacks on the United States that occurred on September 11, 2002 and the subsequent American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have occasioned a reconsideration of the character and relevance of moral judgment in a time of war.  Although the attacks themselves have been universally condemned, at least in the Western world, the American decisions to attack Afghanistan and Iraq in response have provoked both approbation and denunciation.  Many of those who have made these public judgments on the morality or immorality of the war on terrorism have justified them by appealing to a particular doctrine or theory of just war.  However, the fact that there is such disagreement between two groups who claim to share certain assumptions about the morality of war indicates that just war doctrine is not as simple or unified as the appeals to it suggest.

            In fact, there is no single authoritative just war doctrine, but, instead, the term ‘just war’ refers to a tradition of thinking about war which dates to the time of the Greeks but was more fully elaborated by the Christian thinkers of medieval and early modern Europe.  A tradition is a set of more or less coherent practices, and it is, thus, an inherently ambiguous thing defined more by its continuity than by any essential characteristics.1  It will be fairly rough around the edges, and the various thinkers who contribute to the tradition will do so for a great variety of reasons. 

            In distinction from the tradition itself with its complexities and ambiguities, doctrines, which are necessarily created by abstracting certain strands from the tradition, appear as caricatures, exaggerating certain features of the tradition to emphasize certain arguments.  These doctrines are generally concerned with recommendation, and, thus, are pre-eminently practical.   Indeed, the just war tradition itself is comprised of a great variety of practical doctrines about the morality of warfare.  Proponents of just war doctrines have always been concerned with the problems of practical or moral life.  Just war doctrines do not provide philosophical accounts of the nature of war and peace, but, instead, offer maxims or principles which are meant to be relevant to moral judgments about war and the conduct of war.

*A paper presented at the Roundtable on Christian Perspectives on Public Policy Issues, Kentucky Heartland Institute on Public Policy Issues, Campbellsville University, April 6, 2004.

            In this paper, I will delineate a just war doctrine based upon some of the more persistent features of the just war tradition.  I will also offer a précis of the history of the tradition and briefly distinguish the tradition from other ways of the thinking about conflict which have been common in the West.  I will conclude with a brief examination of the conflict which has emerged between various proponents of just war theory over the conduct of the American war on terrorism. 

            The just war tradition does not represent the only way that we in the West have thought about war.  There are at least two other traditions of thinking about war that have informed the practical and theoretical reflection of Western statesman and scholars.  Dr. Medley’s paper concerns one of these, the tradition of Christian pacifism, and I will only remark that pacifism is distinguished from the just war tradition, not by its commitment to peace which is shared by proponents of just war, but by its claim that all wars are immoral or unjust because wars can never serve the cause of peace.2  The other tradition, commonly called realism, maintains that war exists outside the boundaries of moral judgment.3  In a Christian context, realism is often connected, ironically enough, with the notion of the crusade or holy war.  The connection lies in the notion that, once a crusade is declared, any means necessary to ensure its success are justified.  The just war tradition rejects both the pacifist’s claim that all wars are unjust and the realist’s claim that morality is irrelevant to war.  Instead, proponents of the just war tradition claim that war, like any human activity, is the result of human choices and subject to moral judgments about its character.  Further, contrary to the claims of pacifism, proponents of the tradition claim that in certain circumstances war can be justified and is, in fact, a positive good, but is subject to limitations in terms of both the reasons for fighting and the means of fighting.

Just War Conditions

            There are several characteristic, or at least persistent, features of the just war tradition.  Of course, not all of these features are common to every thinker in the tradition, but I have chosen to be comprehensive rather than coherent and so the list is fairly complete.  So, what makes a war just?  Theorists have distinguished between considerations about the justice of going to war, using the Latin term ius ad bellum to describe these, and considerations about the just conduct of war, using the Latin term ius in bello to describe these.4

            I will describe the ius ad bellum terms first.  These are considerations to be taken into account when deciding to go to war.  These considerations have been divided into two categories, legitimating considerations, which are those concerned with determining whether the war is just in itself, and limiting considerations, which are concerned with prudential judgments about a particular war.5

            The first legitimating consideration is that the goal of war must be to create a more enduring peace.  However, a durable peace doesn’t merely mean the lack of war, but suggests, instead, that the conditions of human flourishing are enhanced by the predicted outcome of the war.6  Thus, for example, the peace produced by an all-out thermonuclear war would not by definition be a durable just peace.

            The second legitimating criterion is concerned with the justice of the cause of the war.  Self-defense has always been considered a just cause.  The questions here concern the definition of self-defense.  Is it merely the defense of a state’s territorial integrity, or can a state retaliate against another state for a previous, but completed attack like Pearl Harbor?  Other types of war which historically have been judged to be just include wars waged to prevent injustice from occurring and wars waged to punish an injustice which has already occurred.  Although most contemporary just war thinkers have rejected these two justifications, they have been used by defenders of the war on terrorism to justify pre-emptive strikes against states with weapons of mass destruction as a prevention of possible injustice, and have also been used to justify a war in which weapons of mass destruction have not been found as a punishment of a tyrannical regime.7  The problem with the latter two justifications is that they are generalizations taken from an analogy in which an authorized state either prevents a criminal from committing a crime or punishes a criminal after a crime is committed.  However, there is no analogous institution at the international level to the authorized state.  Thus, the analogy breaks down and we are left with actions at the international level which are condemned as vigilante justice when they occur within a state.8

            The third legitimating consideration is whether the authorities conducting the war are doing so with the right intention.  Of course, the right intention in the Christian tradition is Christian charity, or love, but the secularization of this concept as ‘humane concern’ has not been overly successful.  This criterion does rule out wars of revenge or ethnic/racial hatred, but the difficulty with which intention is judged has rendered this consideration less relevant to contemporary conflicts.9  In fact, the consideration of intention has often been included as an aspect of the first criterion that the goal of war must be an enduring peace.

             The final legitimating consideration concerns the authority to wage war.  A war is considered just only if publicly announced and fought by legitimate authorities, which in the modern era means the state.  Although the United Nations has achieved a certain international authority, the state remains the primary locus of political authority in the modern world.  This question of proper authority is not concerned with the approval of the action by any particular group, but with the recognition of the legal, procedural, constitutional, or geographical authority of the decision.  This consideration is complicated in the international arena by the question of whether tyrannical or unjust regimes can be properly understood as authoritative regimes.10  It is complicated domestically in the US by constitutional arrangements, or derangements, like the extra-constitutional shift in the location of war-making authority from the Congress to the Presidency that has taken place in the US government over the past fifty years.

            Unlike the legitimating considerations which are concerned with the intrinsic justice of engaging in a particular conflict, the limiting criteria are prudential considerations which are supposed to help decision-makers avoid lengthy, extraordinarily destructive, and inconclusive wars like the Thirty Years War, the American war in Vietnam, and the Soviet war in Afghanistan.  There are three of these and they are both logically and historical secondary to the legitimating considerations.

            The first limiting consideration, generally called proportionality, entails that, if a war is to be just, there must be a reasonable notion that the good that will result from it will outweigh the inevitable evils of war, and also that the evils of the war itself should not outweigh the evil of suffering the particular wrong which occasioned the war.  For example, it would have been unjust to carpet bomb the entire Arab world because of what happened on 9/11.  The second limiting consideration is that war be considered only as a last resort.  This can mean either that other avenues have actually failed or that, in the judgment of proper authorities, they would likely fail.  The third, and final, consideration is that there must be a reasonable chance of success.

            As I said earlier, these are prudential considerations, and they depend, to a certain extent, upon access to information which is not available to those outside of positions of authority.  None of these have the character of mathematical formulations, but they are all concerned with a general conception of ‘fairness’, both to one’s own population and to the enemy population.  These seven criteria make up the ius ad bellum considerations.

            The second general category of considerations associated with the just war tradition concerns the just or proper conduct of the war itself.  There are two primary categories of ius in bello considerations.

            The first which echoes the ius ad bellum consideration of the same name is proportionality, which means here that the harm caused by particular actions taken within the war should not overwhelm the possible good to be gained by those actions.  Thus, considerations of proportionality generally rule out actions like slaughtering prisoners, ‘bombing them back to the stone age’, and ‘wiping out a village in order to save it’.  These actions are generally not proportional to the goals of just warfare and they undermine, if not completely eliminate, the possibility of an enduring peace.  This was the type of unjust conduct in war to which the ancient Celtic Britons were referring when they said of the Romans that “they make a desert and call it peace.”11

            The second consideration about the proper conduct of war is concerned with the proper discrimination of non-combatants and combatants.  Non-combatants cannot be intentionally targeted as part of war strategy.  However, according to the doctrine of double effect which states that a secondary effect, if not intended, does not necessarily undermine the justice of an action, non-combatant casualties do not necessarily signal an unjust action during wartime.12  However, considerations of the doctrine of double effect must take proportionality into account, as well.  Thus, although targeted bombings of military establishments sometimes result in civilian casualties, they are not unjust unless either the civilians themselves are the targets or the actual lethality of the bombings is disproportionate to the aim of the bombing and undermines the possibility of future peace.

            These are the primary concepts developed by just war thinkers over the past 1500 years for the purpose of determining the justice of any particular conflict.  These ideas form a set of practical maxims designed to aid those in authority in their decisions about war.      

History of Just War Tradition

            I will now spend some time offering a brief summary of the history of the just war tradition concluding with a brief comment on the current debate within the tradition about the justice of the war on terrorism.13  The first complete elaboration of just war doctrine appeared in the fifth century AD in the works of St. Augustine written during the barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire.  However, a latent conception of just war doctrine emerged from the intra-mural martial practices of the Greek cities and from the theoretical justification of these practices by philosophers like Plato and Aristotle.  Greeks recognized rather significant limitations on wars between cities relating to the timing of the conflict, the treatment of prisoners, and the necessary discrimination between combatants and non-combatants. For example, all wars stopped during the Greek Olympics, and participants were given freedom to travel through enemy cities to participate in the games. 

            The Romans also maintained restrictions on combat.  Some of these restrictions were enumerated by Cicero who wrote that a war could be justified only if conducted by a legitimate authority after issuing a formal declaration.  Further, Cicero claimed that public oaths must be followed during wartime, and that a magnanimous peace settlement was necessary to avoid future war.  In Cicero, we see for the first time the implicit distinction between ius ad bellum, or the appropriate justifications for going to war, and ius in bello, the appropriate criteria for actions during a war.  Of course, these justifications were rather minimal for Cicero and the Romans, and they had more to do with the maintenance of order and honor than with the Christian conception of morality which informs St. Augustine’s more complete formulation.

            In elaborating a specifically Christian version of just war doctrine, St. Augustine incorporated Greek and Roman ideas about just cause and just conduct into a more general defense of Christian involvement in civil life.  Until the conversion of Constantine and the subsequent conversion of the Roman Empire, the Christian community had remained largely outside the political community of Rome.  However, the conversion of Rome and, more importantly, the invasion and destabilization of the Roman Empire by pagan and heretical barbarians convinced St. Augustine of the need to justify the involvement of Christians in the defense of what had become a Christian realm.  For St. Augustine, the concepts of just war were particularly, and, in fact, only appropriate to Christian states.  Christian states had an obligation to maintain justice, and, thus, not only was self-defense a just cause but intervention in the affairs of other states could be justified if these other states were acting unjustly either to their own citizens or to other independent states.  However, St. Augustine insisted that, not only must the cause of war be just, but that the intention of the state must be just as well.  For Augustine, an intention could be just only if it was motivated by Christian charity and aimed at the securing of a more durable peace.  Augustine, following Cicero, also insisted that only a legitimate authority could wage war, and he adopted from the Romans and Greeks many of their notions of what constitutes the just conduct of war, namely the distinction between combatants and non-combatants (including a special declaration which excluded those in religious orders from taking part).

            To this day, St. Augustine’s conception of just war remains the primary source of Christian thinking on the subject for both Protestants and Catholics.14  However, substantial changes did occur in the Middle Ages and at the beginning of the modern period, and a renaissance of the just war tradition has occurred in the West over the past fifty years which has produced further alterations and developments.  The dissolution of the Roman Empire and subsequent emergence of feudalism and the divided sovereignty associated with it presented a major challenge to the vision of the state in Augustine’s version of just war. The divided loyalties characteristic of feudalism encouraged the practice of considering the justice of a conflict in terms of those authorized to conduct a war and the frailty of the medieval economy encouraged canon lawyers to think of the justice of a conflict in terms of protection of property.  This concern about property led to St. Thomas Aquinas’ most significant contribution to the tradition which was to suggest that the ends of a conflict must be proportional to the harm which caused the conflict, and that the means by which a state engages in a conflict must be proportional to its ends, which, of course, must be to secure a more durable peace.

            The Protestant Reformation which, along with the rise of the modern state in the 16th and 17th centuries, shattered the unity of Christendom also undermined the unanimity of the Christian churches concerning just wars.  Although the Anglican and Lutheran churches continued to publicly subscribe to some variation of just war doctrine, the reformed churches generally did not.  Further, the secularization of the emerging European states and the reaction to the wars of religion which had devastated Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries encouraged the formulation of a secularized version of the just war tradition.  Those, like Grotius, who were involved in this secularization were, in fact, Christians, but emphasized the rational character of the just war tradition.  Grotius also stressed that the novel associations which were beginning to be known as states were the repositories of certain rights, such as the right to self-defense.  This emphasis on the rights of states rather than on their duties to justify their actions actually tended to undermine the importance of practical reflection on the just causes of war, reducing just cause to the defense of territory against aggression.

            Over the past four centuries, the modern state has become the primary, if not sole, locus of political authority.  As this process of consolidation occurred, the relevance of the just war tradition receded.  The emergence of various types of liberal governments in Europe and America also served to undermine the conception of just war.  Liberalism in all its forms (Lockean, Kantian, Utilitarian) has maintained an uneasy relationship with war, and has tended to support a kind of crusading realism.15  In fact, from the 18th to the 20th century, the just war tradition became associated primarily with the Roman Catholic Church, which retained particular doctrinal variations of the tradition as authoritative for its members.

            The contemporary renaissance of just war thinking began during World War II with the open and quite explicit condemnation by both Protestant and Catholic theologians of the massive and unlimited bombing of civilian populations by the Allied states.16  The Cold War, which began almost immediately after the end of World War II, presented an even greater challenge to the just war tradition as the Western states, especially the US, depended for its defense upon a doctrine of massive nuclear retaliation against the Soviet Union and its satellites which, theoretically, could have destroyed life on the planet.  Thus, the recrudescence of the problems of non-combatant immunity and proportionality of response occasioned the reconsideration of the relevance of the just war tradition to the analysis of contemporary conflicts.      

Just War and the War on Terror

            Contributions to the rejuvenation of the just war tradition have come from a great variety of sources.  Protestants like Paul Ramsey, James Turner Johnson, and Jean Elshtain, Catholics like John Finnis, Joseph Boyle, and Germain Grisez, and secular thinkers like Michael Walzer have all made significant contributions to the development of the tradition.17  However, as one might expect from writers with such diverse backgrounds, there have been sharp disagreements about what the tradition means and what the tradition suggests about the current conflict over terrorism.  There are some, like Johnson, and Elshtain, who maintain that the current war on terror is a manifest example of a just war, while there are others, like John Finnis and Cardinal Ratzinger, who maintain that, although the war in Afghanistan was minimally justifiable, the war in Iraq was manifestly unjust.  The divide can best be understood in terms of the different aspects of the tradition that each side emphasizes.  The ‘hawks’/pro-war thinkers tend to stress the legitimating criteria, especially the ‘just cause’ criterion, to the neglect of other considerations, while the ‘doves’/anti-war thinkers emphasize the limiting criteria and the ius in bello limitations on war-fighting.18  This difference in emphasis explains how two groups of thinkers who agree about the general conception of what makes a war just, and even agree that the western countries have a just cause, disagree vehemently over the justness of the various wars themselves.  In this case, the critics of the war rightly point out that ‘just cause’ is not the only consideration.  Proponents of the war who neglect the other considerations are narrowing the tradition to such an extent that it resembles the crusading ideal of total war more than the just war conception of strictly limited war.  

            However, there are several other differences between the two sides to note.  The ‘hawks’ have rightly stressed that, according to the tradition, decisions about the justice or injustice of a particular war can be made only by proper authorities, and that anti-war critics are not authorized to make these types of decisions.19  This argument brings up the difficult question of the character of authority in modern democratic states.  Although authority may be ultimately derived from the ‘people’, the ‘people’ authorize certain individuals to make decisions on war and peace, and the just war tradition is directed at influencing these individual decision-makers.

            Further, opponents of the war claim that there is a presumption against war in the tradition that the proponents ignore. Although this claim is historically incorrect, contemporary Catholic doctrine has incorporated aspects of pacifism which now exist rather uneasily alongside its traditional commitment to the just war tradition.  This pacific tendency has been especially pronounced since the peaceful fall of the old communist governments in Central and Eastern Europe and Soviet Union.  Thus, in the Catholic case, although the hawks have their history right, their current commitments to an older reading of the tradition leave them tenuously related to a Church which has become less overtly tied to any particular just war doctrine.20

            After having covered 1500 years in about 5 pages and having also tried to note some of the general questions about the war on terrorism raised by thinkers in the just war tradition, I conclude by suggesting that the just war tradition, despite internal distinctions and divisions, remains the most intellectually and practically viable way for Christians to come to terms with questions of war and peace in the contemporary world.  The notion that war is not intrinsically evil, but the result of human choices which occur within a world comprised of lesser and greater goods and evils, and, thus, that choosing war is sometimes not only a lesser evil but a positive good offers the Christian an avenue out of the Manichean duality of pacifism and realism.  The Christian in the just war tradition, although not of the world, is in the world, and, being in it, acts to make it a place where faith, hope, and charity are possible by making it a place where the human community can flourish in a more adequate approximation of the peace of the Lord.


End Notes

            1 As Michael Oakeshott writes, “it belongs to the nature of a tradition to tolerate and unite an internal variety, not insisting upon conformity to a single character,…[and having] the ability to change without losing its identity.”  Michael Oakeshott, “Introduction to Leviathan,” in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Press, 1991) 227.

            2 Mark Medley, “Gospel Pacifism,” presentation Roundtable on Christian Perspectives on Public Policy Issues, Kentucky Heartland Institute on Public Policy Issues, Campbellsville University, April 6, 2004.

            3 For a brief synopsis of the realist argument, see David Mapel, “Realism and the Ethics of War and Peace,” in Terry Nardin ed., The Ethics of War and Peace (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton Univ. Press, 1996) 54-77.

            4 Not every just war theorist accepts this distinction.  For example, John Finnis claims that it is not “a helpful distinction,” and is “scarcely part of the Catholic natural law tradition.”  John Finnis, “The Ethics of War and Peace in the Catholic Natural Law Tradition,” in Terry Nardin ed., The Ethics of War and Peace (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton Univ. Press, 1996) 25.

            5 The distinction between legitimating and limiting principles is taken from Drew Christianson, S.J., “Whither the ‘Just War’?,” in America (24 March 2003) 7-11.

            6 According to Finnis, the peace which is the goal of a just war is based upon the Christian concept of caritas, which “is materially synonymous with the ideal condition of integral human fulfillment” which, in turn, is connected with the love of one’s neighbor as oneself.  See Finnis, “Catholic Natural Law Tradition,” 17.

            7 For a defense of US government action during the war on terrorism from a just war perspective, see George Weigel, “Moral Clarity in a Time of War,” in First Things 128 (January 2003) 20-27.

            8 Finnis argues that, without an authorized government, there can be no authorized punishment.  See Finnis, “Catholic Natural Law Tradition,” 20-24.

            9 For an example of the tendency to ignore right intention, see James Turner Johnson, Can Modern War Be Just? (New Haven, CT:  Yale Univ. Press, 1984) 16-29.  Johnson spends a chapter defining various just war criteria, but, although he mentions right intention, he does not define it or offer any explanation of what it is.

            10 Michael Walzer defends humanitarian interventions by suggesting that states that do not respect ‘human rights’ are no longer authoritative.  Like the justification of punitive war, Walzer’s justification of humanitarian intervention relies on a false analogy based on the police and judicial powers of an authorized state.  There is no competent international authority to make the types of judgments that Walzer understands to be necessary to declare a regime illegitimate, and, thus, the analogy falters and we are left with a conflict between, on the one hand, individual states justifying their invasion of other states by unilateral declaration, and, on the other hand, the invaded states claiming the right of self-defense.  See Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars:  A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations (New York:  Basic Books, 1977) 101-08.

            11 The quote is from Tacitus’ Agricola, but is cited from Roland Bainton, Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace (Nashville, TN:  Abingdon Press, 1960) 23.

            12 For a more elaborate explanation of the doctrine of double effect, see Joseph Boyle, “Just War Thinking in Catholic Natural Law,” in Terry Nardin ed., The Ethics of War and Peace (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton Univ. Press, 1996) 44-45.

            13 Much of what follows is taken from Roland Bainton’s book on the historical relationship between Christianity and warfare.  See Bainton, Christian Attitudes, chaps. 2, 6-8, 11-13.

            14 As Bainton writes, “the position of Augustine…continues to this day in all essentials to be the ethic of the Roman Catholic Church and of the major Protestant bodies.”  Bainton, Christian Attitudes, 99.

            15 For a discussion of the relationship between liberalism and warfare, see Nicholas Rengger, “On the Just War Tradition in the Twenty-first Century,” in International Affairs78 (2002) 356-58.

            16 For the historical context of the just war renaissance, see Rengger, “On the Just War,” 354-57.

            17 See Paul Ramsey, The Just War:  Force and Political Responsibility (New York:  Rowman and Littlefield, 1968); James Turner Johnson, Can Modern War Be Just?; Jean Bethke Elshtain, Just War Against Terror:  The Burden of American Power in a Violent World (New York:  Basic Books, 2003); John Finnis, Joseph Boyle and Germain Grisez, Nuclear Deterrence, Morality, and Realism (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1987); and Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars.

            18 Drew Christensen makes this observation in Christiansen, “Whither the ‘Just War’?,” 7-9.

            19 Weigel makes this point in every article that he writes on the subject.  See Rowan Atkinson and George Weigel, “War and Statecraft:  An Exchange,” in First Things 141 (March 2004) 14-22.

            20 For a critique of the notion that there is presumption against war in the just war tradition, see Weigel, “Moral Clarity,” 20-27.  For a fuller description of contemporary Catholic doctrine on warfare, see Christiansen, “Whither the ‘Just War’?,” 10-11.