The Common Good
May 2004

Just? Unjust?

by George Lopez | May 2004

The Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war has opened up a new front in the debates over "just war" theory.

Many Christians are convinced that all warfare is antithetical to the gospel,

Many Christians are convinced that all warfare is antithetical to the gospel, and that being a disciple of Jesus means rejecting violence. Others assert that some war is justified, and the church has established principles by which to discern whether or not a particular war can be considered just. Modern weaponry and tactics have called into question some of the basic assumptions about the just war theory, and have even moved some in the church to reject the possibility of a justified war in today’s world.

In the wake of increased terror attacks and the Bush administration’s war on Iraq, the just war tradition has split between "traditionalists," who consider that the application of just war criteria presumes against war, except in extraordinary circumstances, and those who take the "permissive" approach, who have argued that we live in extraordinary times and thus have "broadened" the criteria for a justified war to include pre-emptive war. George A. Lopez, the author of this article and an advocate of the traditionalist approach, assesses the tensions embedded in this just war debate.

—The Editors

Since the Vietnam era and the introduction of nuclear weapons, debates have been wide ranging about the utility of just war criteria to influence political decisions about the use of force, as well as for making individual moral decisions about which policies to support. In the wake of the 9-11 tragedy, much sharper divisions have emerged among the various positions on the ethics of war.

The divisions deepened in reaction to the Bush administration’s articulation of the nature of the combined threat of terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and rogue states, and its development of the pre-emptive war doctrine in light of these threats. The ferment has crystallized three contending approaches to decisions about waging war in our age: the pacifist, the "traditional" just war school, and the "permissive" just war approach.

The pacifist approach—best expressed in the historic peace church traditions and more recently by groups such as Pax Christi—considers war to be a failed and immoral option. Violence begets violence, and a multitude of options exist for large, powerful states to deal nonviolently with the various threats posed by terrorists. By the nature of pacifism’s minority position and a nasty political dialogue that treats it as irresponsible, if not treasonous, this approach has not received its due discussion in the public square. Pacifism offers more to the policy dialogue than is often recognized.

The traditional just war approach argues that however new and unprecedented these terror-dominated times may seem, in fact ethicists and policymakers have always had to face new challenges in weaponry and strategy that tempted leaders to exceed the normative standards of their era. Reaction to today’s new challenges—"rogue" nations and non-state groups—can and should be governed by the prudential criteria just war thinking provides, including a presumption against the use of force as the initial response.

Partly in reaction to the first two approaches, the "permissive" school of just war theory argues that terrorist attacks—which put under threat our very values and social order—demand a clear and definitive response, reactively and proactively.

These summaries fail to capture the full complexities of each position, but they sketch the divided terrain. Each school falls short of helping us sort through the realities of the global violence we face, especially when the positions become laced with political dynamics. What we need is further debate among the contending schools; I would argue that such ethical thinking about war is now more, not less, relevant to our troubled times.

AS IS GENERALLY understood, just war thinking is governed by the ad bellum criteria (about when it is just to go to war) and the in bello criteria for the way a war might be justly fought. In searching for an effective response to the Sept. 11 attacks and in consideration of the Iraq war, three ad bellum concerns emerged as primary: the exhaustion of prior remedies; the competent and legal authority to wage war; and the assurance that a more just situation would emerge as a result of the war. Each of these conditions takes on special meaning in a world with a singular superpower, the presence of functioning international organizations, and an initial act of violence committed by non-nation-state actors who abhor principles of both international law and ethics. In this world, where does just war theory become relevant?

Last resort. The big tension between the traditional (or "prudential") and the permissive school of just-war theorists is whether war must be a last resort. Prominent scholars such as Michael Ignatieff and Jean Bethke Elshtain express the challenge from the permissive school: Waiting for "last" casts an advantage to those who are already norm violators and permits them to increase the costs to the innocent (presumably in our own nation-state). That statement is true, but it ignores the prudential claim that last resort actually means last, with all other options exhausted.

In recent times "last resort" tends not to be defined globally or self-evidently, but rather by the patience, prudence, or power of the U.S. president. One way to move to a more objective assessment of last resort would be to explore the credibility and intentions of the prewar conflict-resolution techniques. At the heart of the pre-Iraq war debate was the question of whether prewar conflict resolution efforts were credible; this question was inadequately explored by traditionalists, except perhaps for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Proponents of the war suggested that by defying U.N. and U.S. resolutions and sanctions for more than a dozen years, Iraq had exhausted prior remedies, making war the last resort. The flaw in this argument is that the U.S. and U.N. policies—punishing sanctions, intrusive inspections, and a ready-to-deploy force near Iraq’s borders—had seriously weakened, if not decapitated, Iraq’s power to wage war.

Competent authority. The question of who is a competent authority to wage war is a complicated one in the present day. Neither classical nor modern just war thinkers envisioned today’s entangled set of alliances, "coalitions of the willing," and international institutions. Our globalized system of trade, science, human rights, and environmental regulations comprise a right authority and global governance that works with national governments to accomplish many public concerns. But the United States has not accepted that such transnational competence could be extended to the national security arena. Rather, in the wake of recent tragedies the United States has pulled farther away from such organizations, claiming, for example, that the United Nation’s caution in authorizing war was a kind of moral weakness and an intrusion into U.S. sovereign rights. This is much more about politics and culture than about just war ethics, but the former always set the context for the latter. The lesson of the past three years is that this relationship warrants deeper exploration.

Just outcome. Perhaps the most controversial ad bellum criterion in recent cases involving the use of force lies in the prospects of a just outcome of such a war. The promise that a population will—generally and over the long term—realize greater justice and quality of life after the disposition of a brutal ruling structure is persuasive in justifying war. It plays very well in the public square, even as an after-the-fact justification for war. But the vague claim to be "better than the past" should not be good enough for serious ethical thinking about the conditions that would justify war.

In assessing current conditions on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq, the pacifist claim rings more true than others: Peace and justice have not been the result of war in either country—at least not immediately for all, in the sense that V-E Day produced. While life without the Taliban or Saddam may be politically better, and while internal and external agencies are ostensibly working in each case to develop a more peaceful and just society, at the same time anarchy and structural violence abounds.

The empirical truth is that wars supposedly waged to establish justice actually result in new dangers and dislocations for civilians, if not outright anarchy, as the war ends. The justice achieved is selective, but it is extolled dramatically in the political arena as self-reinforcing justification for war. New realities dictate that war should only be deemed just if the victor is completely committed to order, stability, economic prosperity, and political peace. A high bar indeed, but that is what some consider precisely the proper role of just war thinking, at its best.

At first glance, in bello criteria concerns—the dual criteria of discrimination and proportionality used by fighting authorities to minimize civilian casualties—seem simpler than ad bellum in the current era.

Discrimination demands that wars are fought in such a way that civilian casualties are minimized.

Proportionality requires that combatants do not use more violence that needed to win a battle or a war.

While the primary purpose of the development of smart weaponry and targeting procedures was to make modern war fighting more efficient, some argue that such developments also make modern war "more humane." War planners were quick to note, in regards to the Iraq war, that embedded reporters and international agencies did not report large-scale deaths or serious collateral damage, and certainly not intentional attacks on civilians, during the war. This was used by those who supported the war as further justification for their stance.

While war planners announce their intention to reduce civilian casualties, starting with the first Gulf war they have also refused to discuss the number of civilian casualties. Gen. Tommy Franks could not have been more direct: "We don’t do body counts." While not a violation of the letter of the principles of proportionality and discrimination, this policy could not be more offensive to the spirit of these criteria. This reluctance to take responsibility for whatever civilian casualties may occur flies directly in the face of just war thinking. In a time where the military seeks to wage major war and minimize military casualties, just war theory should be no less aggressive about the absolute protection of civilian innocents. That principle calls the military to follow its own proclaimed intent.

The changing nature of war means that it is both more complicated, and more important than ever, to keep track of civilian deaths. The terrible reality of the first Gulf war was that the destruction of infrastructure by large-scale bombing in Baghdad (and elsewhere)—under the "Powell doctrine" of overwhelming force—led to the unplanned death of large numbers of civilians after the cease-fire—for example, those sickened by unpurified water. Similarly, U.S. forces made heavy use of cluster bombs and enhanced uranium weapons during each war. The secondary and long-term effects of these weapons on civilians continue months or even years after the bombs are dropped. In reality these civilians are no less casualties of war than if they were killed on the day the bombing began. But given the relatively brief nature of the official combat periods, these dead become invisible.

Experiences in Afghanistan and the second war on Iraq add to this trend. Overwhelming war-fighting capacity leads to a relatively quick declared end to official hostilities. But that is followed by an extended period of attempts by the victorious power to bring stability, through methods that demand much more direct confrontation between "soldiers with boots on the ground" and pockets of resistance or assumed resistance. Thus it’s not surprising that discrimination and proportionality, which officials claim were carefully protected during the bombing phase of war, give way to "post-war" search-and-destroy missions that increase the civilian casualty record in number and proportion. This in bello concern then comes full circle to connect with the justice ad bellum concerns that should govern the war-making party.

Some no doubt consider the existence of three angles of ethical vision on the problem of modern war as a rich and vibrant moral tradition. Maybe. The lesson of the past two years is that the contending claims talk past one another and fail to recognize the inadequacies of their own positions in the face of real data about war. With the recent anniversary of the start of the Iraq war and the ongoing violence around the U.S. occupation, along with continuing terror violence in the Middle East and Europe, the lack of genuine discussion and debate among the three positions only weakens our ability to develop an ethical response to the changing nature of war.

George A. Lopez is director of policy studies and senior fellow at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He writes frequently about ethics and the use of force.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Related Stories

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)