Just War vs. Justifiable War

Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, takes issue with Christian just war theory and suggests we replace it with the concept of justifiable war:

Just war theory today is a composite that has evolved from ideas developed by various religious figures. In the 5th century, St. Augustine discussed in City of God the circumstances under which killing could be justified and empires legitimately expanded. In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas laid out a more elaborate just war doctrine in his Summa Theologica. He wrote that three conditions were necessary to make a war just: it must be ordered by a competent authority; the cause must be just; and the combatants must have “a right intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil.”

Modern just war guidance involves both the decision to go to war (jus ad bellum) and how to fight one (jus in bello). This latter set of criteria focuses on proportionality (how much force is used), targeting (avoiding non-combatants), and means (avoiding certain classes of weapons).

Most of the debate, however, reflects the more basic decision of when to go to war. Building on the writings of both Augustine and Aquinas, there must be a just cause as well as a decision by a competent authority sanctioning the undertaking. War must be a last resort. There must be a good chance of success. And projected benefits must outweigh projected costs. The theory also holds that all the criteria need to be present before a war can be deemed just and hence undertaken.

One problem with just war theory is that it is too subjective. What constitutes a just cause is in the eyes of the beholder, as are the probability of success and any estimate of likely costs and benefits.

Just war theory is also too confining. Is the United Nations Security Council the only competent authority, or was NATO’s approval enough to make the Kosovo war just? Waging war only as a last resort means risking the lives of many while other policies are tried and found wanting.

That’s why justifiable war is a more useful concept. Justifiable wars undoubtedly include wars of necessity, that is, wars in which the most vital interests of a country are threatened and where there are no promising alternatives to using force. World War Two and the first Iraq war of 1990-1991 following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait would qualify, as would wars of self-defense

The question is whether wars of choice can also be justifiable. By definition, wars of choice tend to involve less than vital interests and the existence of alternative policies. Vietnam, Kosovo and Bosnia were all wars of choice. So, too, was the second Iraq war begun in 2003.

Are wars of choice ever justifiable? The answer is “yes” when using force is the best available policy option. The argument that the goal is worthy and that war is the best option for pursuing it should be strong enough to garner considerable domestic and international support. More important, the case should be persuasive that using military force will accomplish more good for more people at a lower cost than diplomacy, sanctions, or inaction.

What is “just” is too subjective, justice being in the eye of the beholder? Well, what about “best available option”? What is your criterion for “best”? This is what happens when relativism reigns. Of course relativists can have no basis for a just war. But they also do not have a basis for a justifiable war. “Just war is too confining”! This is what relativists cannot stand, that morality restricts what they want to do. As relativists usually admit, morality is ultimately irrelevant, and it all comes down to the unalloyed exercise of power.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://necessaryroughness.org Dan at Necessary Roughness

    Someone help me with this concept of proportionality. It seems to me that if you go to war with anything less than your best, you’ll get more people hurt because the enemy will think they have a chance and not surrender as quickly.

  • http://necessaryroughness.org Dan at Necessary Roughness

    Someone help me with this concept of proportionality. It seems to me that if you go to war with anything less than your best, you’ll get more people hurt because the enemy will think they have a chance and not surrender as quickly.

  • kerner

    I have said this before, but, every war this country has ever fought was a war of choice. Certainly every time we insisted on unconditional surrender rather than a negotiated end to a war when the enemy was willing to stop fighting, the continuation of that war was a war of choice. This whole question is a false dichotomy; there is always a choice other than war. The question is never, “must we fight?”, it is always, “should we fight?”.

  • kerner

    I have said this before, but, every war this country has ever fought was a war of choice. Certainly every time we insisted on unconditional surrender rather than a negotiated end to a war when the enemy was willing to stop fighting, the continuation of that war was a war of choice. This whole question is a false dichotomy; there is always a choice other than war. The question is never, “must we fight?”, it is always, “should we fight?”.

  • Nemo

    Haas seems to raise some valid criticisms of the “just war” theory as currently conceived. What impact does technological development have on this? The theory was developed by Aquinas, long before the invention of the missile or nuclear warhead—and the option of one nation (or rogue group) to take out an entire city. Such ability changes the nature of self-defense, forcing decisions that were unthinkable when the original theory was developed. May it not require modification, not because “just” is no longer good enough, but because as conceived the theory implies that only retaliation is “just”?

    I’ve been reading Doug Feith’s “War and Decision”, which gives an inside view on the decisions being made in Afghanistan and Iraq. These are real issues that real people have to deal with as a part of their vocation. “Oops” doesn’t quite cut it if they make a mistake. The “relativism” dismissal (complete with scary exclamation point and the typical slippery slope) of an attempt to seriously discuss some of the shortcomings of a war theory developed before the advent of the knight is unconvincing at best.

  • Nemo

    Haas seems to raise some valid criticisms of the “just war” theory as currently conceived. What impact does technological development have on this? The theory was developed by Aquinas, long before the invention of the missile or nuclear warhead—and the option of one nation (or rogue group) to take out an entire city. Such ability changes the nature of self-defense, forcing decisions that were unthinkable when the original theory was developed. May it not require modification, not because “just” is no longer good enough, but because as conceived the theory implies that only retaliation is “just”?

    I’ve been reading Doug Feith’s “War and Decision”, which gives an inside view on the decisions being made in Afghanistan and Iraq. These are real issues that real people have to deal with as a part of their vocation. “Oops” doesn’t quite cut it if they make a mistake. The “relativism” dismissal (complete with scary exclamation point and the typical slippery slope) of an attempt to seriously discuss some of the shortcomings of a war theory developed before the advent of the knight is unconvincing at best.

  • James Hageman

    What is a “Christian” just war theory? But a civil one is necessary. The difficulty for Haas must be the same as that for all those who seek to dissociate modernity from Christendom–what to do when you spend down the corpus; or have finished off the corpse (to be O’Conneresque).

  • James Hageman

    What is a “Christian” just war theory? But a civil one is necessary. The difficulty for Haas must be the same as that for all those who seek to dissociate modernity from Christendom–what to do when you spend down the corpus; or have finished off the corpse (to be O’Conneresque).

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    It seems to me the American Indians were not justified in fighting according to “just war” theory. That to me says there is a huge problem with this theory.
    I may agree with Veith that some of this has to do with relativism. But there also seems to be a good deal of relativism in the theory.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    It seems to me the American Indians were not justified in fighting according to “just war” theory. That to me says there is a huge problem with this theory.
    I may agree with Veith that some of this has to do with relativism. But there also seems to be a good deal of relativism in the theory.

  • WebMonk

    Bror, I agree with you that a theory that says the American Indians weren’t justified in their fighting has some pretty tough hurdles to get over.

    I’m not sure that Just War theory would put the Indians in the wrong though. They were defending their homeland from invasion, and that’s a BIG part of Just War theories. Not the only part, but a big one.

    Why do you think Just War theory would say the American Indians weren’t justified in their fighting?

  • WebMonk

    Bror, I agree with you that a theory that says the American Indians weren’t justified in their fighting has some pretty tough hurdles to get over.

    I’m not sure that Just War theory would put the Indians in the wrong though. They were defending their homeland from invasion, and that’s a BIG part of Just War theories. Not the only part, but a big one.

    Why do you think Just War theory would say the American Indians weren’t justified in their fighting?

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    webmonk,
    because they didn’t have a chance in hell of winning. That is why.
    “Most of the debate, however, reflects the more basic decision of when to go to war. Building on the writings of both Augustine and Aquinas, there must be a just cause as well as a decision by a competent authority sanctioning the undertaking. War must be a last resort. There must be a good chance of success. And projected benefits must outweigh projected costs. The theory also holds that all the criteria need to be present before a war can be deemed just and hence undertaken.”
    There was no good chance of success. if all the criteria need to be present then the Indians were not justified in fighting.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    webmonk,
    because they didn’t have a chance in hell of winning. That is why.
    “Most of the debate, however, reflects the more basic decision of when to go to war. Building on the writings of both Augustine and Aquinas, there must be a just cause as well as a decision by a competent authority sanctioning the undertaking. War must be a last resort. There must be a good chance of success. And projected benefits must outweigh projected costs. The theory also holds that all the criteria need to be present before a war can be deemed just and hence undertaken.”
    There was no good chance of success. if all the criteria need to be present then the Indians were not justified in fighting.

  • Ryan

    Proportionality has to do with choosing to use a nuke to put down a few farmers with pitchforks, not with the quick end to a conflict by superior force.

    Check out the comedy “The Mouse that Roared” about proportionality! A movie about a poor country that decides to wage war on the US so it can get aid money after the US defeats it.

  • Ryan

    Proportionality has to do with choosing to use a nuke to put down a few farmers with pitchforks, not with the quick end to a conflict by superior force.

    Check out the comedy “The Mouse that Roared” about proportionality! A movie about a poor country that decides to wage war on the US so it can get aid money after the US defeats it.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Dan (@1), I don’t think you really fail to understand proportionality. If you do, ask yourself this question: why haven’t we started every war in the nuclear age by lobbing a melee of nukes? Wouldn’t that have been our “best” in starting our involvement in Vietnam, Kosovo, Iraq? If you think nukes would have been too much in those situations, then I believe you understand proportionality.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Dan (@1), I don’t think you really fail to understand proportionality. If you do, ask yourself this question: why haven’t we started every war in the nuclear age by lobbing a melee of nukes? Wouldn’t that have been our “best” in starting our involvement in Vietnam, Kosovo, Iraq? If you think nukes would have been too much in those situations, then I believe you understand proportionality.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Bror (@7), you raise an interesting question. And, along the way, show just how relative “just war” theory is to begin with.

    After all, how can anyone know beforehand the chances of their success? Surely America would win in Vietnam! Surely the Afghanis would lose when Russia invaded! And yet …

    I think there was a chance that Native Americans could have “won” by some definition, a la the Afghanis vs. Russia. And, moreover, I believe that, had they cared about just war theory, they would have felt they had a chance of winning, and were thus justified in fighting.

    Which is an entirely subjective measurement, of course — the United States obviously felt differently about their chances.

    Point being, I don’t necessarily disagree with just war theory (at least, as summarized here), but it’s clearly not some perfectly objective framework that leads to a deterministic answer.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Bror (@7), you raise an interesting question. And, along the way, show just how relative “just war” theory is to begin with.

    After all, how can anyone know beforehand the chances of their success? Surely America would win in Vietnam! Surely the Afghanis would lose when Russia invaded! And yet …

    I think there was a chance that Native Americans could have “won” by some definition, a la the Afghanis vs. Russia. And, moreover, I believe that, had they cared about just war theory, they would have felt they had a chance of winning, and were thus justified in fighting.

    Which is an entirely subjective measurement, of course — the United States obviously felt differently about their chances.

    Point being, I don’t necessarily disagree with just war theory (at least, as summarized here), but it’s clearly not some perfectly objective framework that leads to a deterministic answer.

  • FW

    I think alot of this is comming up directly as a result of arguments about torture.

    I argue that this is always good: to review the validity of a moral position can make one truly moral. It can be the difference between not doing something for fear of being punished (which is often very very good!) and not doing something because you are convinced it is wrong, even if you will be punished for not doing it (which looks like true moral conviction, assuming of course…).

    sometimes, for this exact reason, godless are more moral than religious people (cf “It is wrong because I was told God says it is”, vs “it is wrong because I have thought about it and agree with God that it is wrong”.)

    try this:

    Military action is an extention of police action. it is by nature defensive and intentionally proportional. Logically, exactly the same moral rules and restraints apply. Can anyone here think of how the rules that apply to police action would not also apply to military action?

  • FW

    I think alot of this is comming up directly as a result of arguments about torture.

    I argue that this is always good: to review the validity of a moral position can make one truly moral. It can be the difference between not doing something for fear of being punished (which is often very very good!) and not doing something because you are convinced it is wrong, even if you will be punished for not doing it (which looks like true moral conviction, assuming of course…).

    sometimes, for this exact reason, godless are more moral than religious people (cf “It is wrong because I was told God says it is”, vs “it is wrong because I have thought about it and agree with God that it is wrong”.)

    try this:

    Military action is an extention of police action. it is by nature defensive and intentionally proportional. Logically, exactly the same moral rules and restraints apply. Can anyone here think of how the rules that apply to police action would not also apply to military action?

  • FW

    bror: the american indian situation brings mixed thoughts to me. i look at it as the same as all great migration waves, germanic, mongol, scottish, and the current immigrant wave hitting the USA, that prompted the defenders to build walls. This calls into question the very definition of the word “war” actually. I am trying to think the indian conflicts through by trying to imagine what would have been a completely just and moral approach on the part of white settlers and the powers in the US govt at the time who enabled them. what about that foundational american principle called “property rights”? I feel in over my conceptual head bror! heeeellllpppp me!

  • FW

    bror: the american indian situation brings mixed thoughts to me. i look at it as the same as all great migration waves, germanic, mongol, scottish, and the current immigrant wave hitting the USA, that prompted the defenders to build walls. This calls into question the very definition of the word “war” actually. I am trying to think the indian conflicts through by trying to imagine what would have been a completely just and moral approach on the part of white settlers and the powers in the US govt at the time who enabled them. what about that foundational american principle called “property rights”? I feel in over my conceptual head bror! heeeellllpppp me!

  • http://necessaryroughness.org Dan at Necessary Roughness

    Ryan (@8),

    Using a nuke to take out a couple of farmers is a matter of economics. There would be much cheaper ways of doing the same thing. :)

    Todd (@9),

    We don’t lead off with nukes because of the non-discrimination of targets in a nuclear blast radius and the acute and chronic effects of nuclear radiation. Nor do we like to use land mines, because after the battle armies choose to let them kill people long after the war. If that’s proportionality, then we need to find another word. We try our best to a fault not to harm anyone who’s not actively engaged with us.

    Proportionality sounds like we bring a knife to a knife fight, and that’s just not the Chicago way. :)

  • http://necessaryroughness.org Dan at Necessary Roughness

    Ryan (@8),

    Using a nuke to take out a couple of farmers is a matter of economics. There would be much cheaper ways of doing the same thing. :)

    Todd (@9),

    We don’t lead off with nukes because of the non-discrimination of targets in a nuclear blast radius and the acute and chronic effects of nuclear radiation. Nor do we like to use land mines, because after the battle armies choose to let them kill people long after the war. If that’s proportionality, then we need to find another word. We try our best to a fault not to harm anyone who’s not actively engaged with us.

    Proportionality sounds like we bring a knife to a knife fight, and that’s just not the Chicago way. :)

  • Gulliver

    For the first three centuries, Christians were pacifist to the extent that it was deemed immoral to harm someone else, except to prevent harm to others. Even that prevention should go so far as to stop aggression, not to punish with death.
    After Constantine, the Church took the position that defending the empire was in the interest of the Church.
    Just war theory was developed as a way to deal with the many small wars that took place between cities in Italy and peoples in greater Germany. The Church tried to state that an unjust war was one of aggression, to conquer. Diplomacy and treaties were developed to deal with problems outside of war. Under the Church’s excommunication, a government needed to justify one’s motives for going to war. After the 30 years war, the nations agreed that war over religion was not a just war.
    Since the “just war” concept was developed by the Church and Europe, it is rather difficult to apply this concept to pagan Am. Indians. Better questions would be 1) were the colonies justified in rebelling against the King of England? 2) was the south justified in war against the north? 3) was the United States justified in the Spanish-American war, WWI and WWII?

  • Gulliver

    For the first three centuries, Christians were pacifist to the extent that it was deemed immoral to harm someone else, except to prevent harm to others. Even that prevention should go so far as to stop aggression, not to punish with death.
    After Constantine, the Church took the position that defending the empire was in the interest of the Church.
    Just war theory was developed as a way to deal with the many small wars that took place between cities in Italy and peoples in greater Germany. The Church tried to state that an unjust war was one of aggression, to conquer. Diplomacy and treaties were developed to deal with problems outside of war. Under the Church’s excommunication, a government needed to justify one’s motives for going to war. After the 30 years war, the nations agreed that war over religion was not a just war.
    Since the “just war” concept was developed by the Church and Europe, it is rather difficult to apply this concept to pagan Am. Indians. Better questions would be 1) were the colonies justified in rebelling against the King of England? 2) was the south justified in war against the north? 3) was the United States justified in the Spanish-American war, WWI and WWII?

  • WebMonk

    I’d say the American Indians could have “won” at a couple different points (very early points), but that would have required some significant changes on both parts – Indians and Invaders. There were points we can see with our “20-20 hindsight” when they fought though they most certainly couldn’t win, but at the time, I suspect the “obviousness” of Indian defeat wasn’t nearly as clear.

    I’ve never been a huge fan of Just War theory since it seems to be pretty mutable to individual interpretation. It has some very good things to take into account when deciding about making war in the broad-stroke situation, but when it comes down to details, I have yet to see a consistently agreed-upon application even in theory by proponents, much less in practice.

  • WebMonk

    I’d say the American Indians could have “won” at a couple different points (very early points), but that would have required some significant changes on both parts – Indians and Invaders. There were points we can see with our “20-20 hindsight” when they fought though they most certainly couldn’t win, but at the time, I suspect the “obviousness” of Indian defeat wasn’t nearly as clear.

    I’ve never been a huge fan of Just War theory since it seems to be pretty mutable to individual interpretation. It has some very good things to take into account when deciding about making war in the broad-stroke situation, but when it comes down to details, I have yet to see a consistently agreed-upon application even in theory by proponents, much less in practice.

  • Peter Leavitt

    Augustine’s ideas of just war did not allow for an imperialistic war. The heart of his views in Tranquilitas Ordinis had to do with the duty of a Christian state to establish a peaceful and just order. War, or the sword of the state, was allowed to protect that order against disruptive forces. He understood that in a fallen world the sword of state was a hard necessity. Earlier Christians in his view were mistaken with their pacifism. Aquinas, Luther and Calvin, also, held in favor of just wars.

    The decision to go to war is always hard, and in some measure subjective. Think of Lincoln and Bush II, both of whom agonized over the decision.

    Donald Kagan, the great Yale classics scholar, makes the point in a book On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace that in order to deter war nations must be well armed and credible in their determination to fight. He showed how many wars, including the Peloponnesian War and World War II, could have been prevented by stronger deterrence. What often happens in history is that the quasi pacifists and the isolationists succeed in avoiding the issue of war only to end up in terrible wars.

    Whether dealing with school yard bullies or rogue leaders, people need to be fully prepared and determined to fight in order to avoid a fight.

  • Peter Leavitt

    Augustine’s ideas of just war did not allow for an imperialistic war. The heart of his views in Tranquilitas Ordinis had to do with the duty of a Christian state to establish a peaceful and just order. War, or the sword of the state, was allowed to protect that order against disruptive forces. He understood that in a fallen world the sword of state was a hard necessity. Earlier Christians in his view were mistaken with their pacifism. Aquinas, Luther and Calvin, also, held in favor of just wars.

    The decision to go to war is always hard, and in some measure subjective. Think of Lincoln and Bush II, both of whom agonized over the decision.

    Donald Kagan, the great Yale classics scholar, makes the point in a book On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace that in order to deter war nations must be well armed and credible in their determination to fight. He showed how many wars, including the Peloponnesian War and World War II, could have been prevented by stronger deterrence. What often happens in history is that the quasi pacifists and the isolationists succeed in avoiding the issue of war only to end up in terrible wars.

    Whether dealing with school yard bullies or rogue leaders, people need to be fully prepared and determined to fight in order to avoid a fight.


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