Just War Theory: More Relevant Than Ever

Critics say the theory is used to justify any war a nation decides to fight. But it's held up over centuries for a reason.

The just war tradition traces its inception from St. Augustine's great City of God. Augustine argued that the vocation of the statesman may well require the use of force. Force is a feature of a fallen world. But Augustine contrasted war entered into reluctantly with Rome's opportunistic wars of aggression. According to Augustine, a decent order permits simple tasks to flourish in relative peace--the tasks of raising families, succoring the weak, educating the young, worshipping God. None of these can flourish if chaos, disorder, and violence prevails.

Over the centuries, and from this humble if powerfully cast beginning, just war teaching evolved into a complex doctrine. It is a tradition that relies on prudential judgments on a number of critical matters. Today, most importantly, its teaching is urged upon relevant decision-makers, those charged with the solemn tasks of making the determinations about whether, and when, a resort to force is justified.

There are critics of the just war tradition who claim, wrongly, that it is mere window-dressing--so many nice sounding nostrums behind which is little more than crude


. They mistakenly assume just war theory exists to justify any war a nation decides to fight. In fact, the tradition challenges precisely any use of force that is reckless or misguided.

For pacifists, of course, war is never justified; the complex discriminations of just war tradition are beside the point altogether. Other critics insist that the just war tradition may have worked well in previous eras, but has outlived its usefulness. It is, quite simply, out-of-date. These critics hold that, given today's weapons technologies, the rule of discrimination-requiring armies to distinguish combatants from non-combatants-can't possibly be met.


Some go further, claiming that the word "justice" itself can be given any meaning. Each side in a conflict naturally thinks its cause is just, goes this argument, and there is really no clear way to adjudicate between such subjective claims. It is impossibly old-fashioned, in this view, to believe that one can actually make a determination about what is more just, or less unjust, in the contemporary world.

There are decisive answers to these criticisms. Let's begin with the question of judging justice. The just war tradition is clear about the elements that go into assessing a just cause, or casus belli, of compelling force. It begins with a response to a direct act of aggression or the imminent threat of such. Other jus ad bellum considerations include right authority (private persons are not authorized to make war, only public authority can do that); last resort (everything short of war need not have been tried, but it must have been considered); and probability of success (don't barge in and make a bad situation worse.) Clearly, all these issues remain relevant to the present moment and to the Iraq situation specifically.

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Jean Bethke Elshtain
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