War and Morality

By Samuel Brittan at Financial Times:

If I intentionally kill another person I will be subject to a long term of imprisonment or even, in some jurisdictions, the death penalty. But if I kill 1,000 people, I might receive a medal; or if a million, I might be promoted to field marshal or even president, provided only that those killed come from another side of a border in a state known as “war”.

There is, however, a tradition which, while not resolving the paradox, does something to mitigate its evil consequences. This is known as the Just War….

In Morality and War, David Fisher seeks to develop it [the theory] further in response to today’s circumstances. He is almost uniquely qualified for this task, having been trained as a moral philosopher and then having spent his career as a senior official in the UK Ministry of Defence.

The Just War doctrine has always insisted that “the onus of proof should rest on those seeking to disturb the tranquillity of the world by resorting to war”. It is permissible if and only if it is authorised by a competent authority, if it is for a just cause, if it is undertaken as a last resort and if the good likely to be achieved exceeds the harm of the war itself. And, of course, non-combatants should not be targeted.

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  • phil_style

    Just war is not possible any longer. Given that so much of our industry and and economy is directly correlated to military power it’s not so easy to make the distinction between combatant and no-combatant any more. Is the Armaments factory a valid bombing target, even if it employs “civilians”? Ever since Napoleon, there is only total war – because the entire economy is mobilised to the task.

    “the onus of proof should rest on those seeking to disturb the tranquillity of the world by resorting to war”
    What about defensive war? Combatants always justify themselves as the defender, even those who strike first almost always rely on pre-emptivity to a clear and present threat. The justification of conflict in this manner is simply the delusion that in war, there is no “aggressor” because one has already been attacked. In this manner, one always placed the onus of proof on the other, who reciprocates by making the same claims.

    Also, just war theory assumes that rational controls can be placed on human violence. History tells us otherwise. The logic of war is:
    1. Reciprocity, and
    2. Escalation to extremes.
    No rational justice can co-exist with that inevitable logic.

  • This is a perfect example of how foolish it always sounds when a person who claims to be a follower of the Prince of Peace tries to excuse the killing of another person based on the national interest of one secular nation-state over another. For example, war is OK when…”it is for a just cause”

    Has anyone started a war under the premise that their cause was unjust? Listen to Hitler’s speeches, he was quite convinced his cause was just. So were the 9/11 hijackers. So were the Crusaders.

    Even the poster child for just war, i.e. the Allies victory over Nazism in World War II, was a) replete with massive civilian casualties (Hiroshima, Dresden, etc.); b) the direct result of the prior insane World War and c) ended up seeing millions of people moved from one genocidal totalitarian state to another.

    Christians should seek to be peacemakers, not excuse makers.

  • Bob Young

    @Arthur – good on ya, mate.

  • Fish

    Is there a “Veng War” theory? Just War theory is a nice abstraction, but I recall very few mentions of it in the run-up to invading Iraq. Our nation wasn’t looking for justice but vengeance. Thus, Veng War theory.

  • RobS

    @Arthur — yup, very good.

    Can you (or someone) take it another step (as this seems to be my struggle point) is the response to the Hitler/Nazism type situations?

    The corrupted government & military war machine rises up and start killing thousands, then millions. What level does a response become military based? Chamberlain in the UK was not appeasing Hitler and just getting lied to (as I recall).

    At what point does a Christian who doesn’t like war say, “War is hell, but innocent victims need their cause defended.” Or do we?

    I’m not asking, taunting or pushing buttons here. I have honestly wrestled this one around in my head and would seek some ideas/perspectives on it. Scripture based is better if possible. –thanks

  • RobS

    Maybe use a practical example in the last 24 hours: Samartian’s Purse reports a refugee camp they support in South Sudan had four bombs dropped on it by the government of Sudan (north).

    If it happens once, a second time, or a third time, does a line get crossed? One bomb hit a schoolhouse and failed to explode. God acts in those ways, thankfully.


    I ask because this is one of the brighest forums around, and value your ideas. Again, thanks.

  • dopderbeck

    I think some of these critiques of “just war” theory are important. I like Glen Stassen’s idea of “just peacemaking.” As a realist, however, I do have to acknowledge that the use of force is often required in this world to secure peace.

  • Gloria

    I want to take this opportunity to thank all of our brave veterans who have given many years and often times their lives to our country.

  • My belief is that Just War is only a noble attempt to justify redemptive violence. Sadly, Augustine (a fellow Christian) was instrumental in devising this theory. Since then, many battles and wars have been fought, along with thousands of deaths with the understanding that war is moral under certain circumstances. Ironically, the Ten Commandments doesn’t give any exceptions when it states, “Thou shall not kill.” (Exodus 20:13)

  • dopderbeck, in all honesty can you think of one time where war lead to peace? And peace for whom? Americans? Maybe, civilians in war-torn countries? Unlikely. Violence begets violence. I just can’t think of an instance that is exempt from this.

  • Actually, that article is from the other FT – Financial Times— rather than First Things.

  • Clint

    JoeyS, can you think of one time where war prevented a madman from ruling the world? I’d call that peace. Happy Veterans’ Day.

  • Joe Canner

    FiveDills #9: I wouldn’t blame Augustine for coming up with Just War Theory. He was just reacting to the propensity for violence and overreach that accompanied the new found military power that Christians had access to after Constantine’s conversion.

    More to the point: post-Augustine, how many wars have “Christian” nations fought that actually adhered to Just War Theory? How many wars has the US been involved in that did?

  • Clint, I can think of plenty of times which madmen were stricken from the earth due to violence, but in none of those situations can I demonstrate that it lead to peace.

  • RobS

    @10 JoeyS, I think most will agree it’s a horrible thing. Just trying to consider realistic situations to see if all violence can be avoided.

    Consider: August 1990, Iraq just up and invades Kuwait with 100k soldiers. Turn a blind eye? Coalition troops are moved in for 5.5 months before any serious action is taken (mid January 1991). Saddam Hussein and the perpetrators had that much time to recant their position.

    Does the global community owe Kuwait justice in a case like that? I’m guessing after 5+ months, the diplomatic calls for change were not working too well.

    Many far different, but to consider other cases: Serbia, Kossovo, Rwanda, Sudan in more recent years. South Korea before that. China, France, Pacific islands, Poland, etc before that. When others begin a conflict, is there any responsibility (or moral duty) to act?

    Maybe does this fall under the “as far as it depends on you, be at peace with all” (Romans 12:18 paraphrase) type of situation? Seriously, I struggle with defining the line, so just highlighting the gremlins on this one.

  • #13 Joe Canner – And Augustine is a product of 4th century Constantinian Christianity. Therefore, he more or less came up with Just War. Although the concept had been around prior to Augustine dating as far back as Cicero (50 BC).

  • Scot McKnight

    Sorry Joe Carter. I changed it to Financial Times.

  • Adam

    Is it just to go to war with a country that wrongly believes it is engaged in Just War?

    How do you punish violations of Just War?

  • CJW

    The opening line is false. Frequently a single person is killed by police (usually) enforcing the law. Shall we have no more police? Can a Christian be a police officer if it means potentially using lethal force? On the flip-side it is increasingly easy to kill thousands without the use of weapons. The unnecessary perishing in situations such as the aftermath of Katrina provides an important counterpoint.

    Those who wish to discuss killing in terms of only those who wear green uniforms (armed forces) must explain why killing by those who wear blue uniforms (police) and suits (politicians, bankers, technocrats) should be excluded from the scope of discussion.

  • DRT

    We can’t rationalize our way in this type of thing. Just war theory is simply a way not to burn our ships (whether or not that ever actually happened) and provides an escape clause that invalidates the game. If we would not fight, there are many many things that would change, and not just the decision to go to war.

  • DLS

    ” If we would not fight, there are many many things that would change

    – No disagreement there. Of course, that change would be far scarier than you can possibly imagine.

  • DRT

    Well, there would be three things that would change

    1. More budget for other activities
    2. Planning horizon would get much longer
    3. and…what was the third….dang…ummmm….ooops.

  • I too have struggled with this idea (RobS) and articulating it in all it’s permutations. I think more and more I see Christians role of peacemaker in war. We won’t stop war but instead of trying to defend or justify it from a Christian perspective maybe we should be looking at binding the wounds (emotional and physical), care for the orphans widows and refugees who result from war.

    As far as I can tell Jesus never fought against the war machine of the roman empire, he just compelled his followers not to participate in the empire mentality of power and oppression. The early Christians understood this and we’re know for resisting conscription. It was only in the 400s when the empire and church merged and soldiers were required to convert to Christianity that the discussion about “just war” started.

    I can’t stop the war mongers but I can respond to the affliction of thier Just Wars….

  • Steph

    The Just War Theory as explained here doesn’t seem to address the morality of war, only to limit the times and ways in which war is conducted.

    It’s simply a tool to judge when it is “permissible” to “disturb” the peace.

    It doesn’t exactly say that killing a human being in the context of war is good, moral, and just.

    Of course, it’s only a brief statement, but I would be inclined to read “just” here as meaning justifiable, a war in which, if you laid out your reasons for engaging in war, many reasonable people would say, “well, yes, I can see your point” even if they would add a “but” after it.

    I think we err when we discuss Just War as a statement that indicates a church/the Church puts its blessing on a particular war … or war itself. It is a way of speaking to power to restrain power.

    I have lived in the military community for 12 years now, 11 of them as a military spouse, and I will say I’ve seen very few “war mongers” among them, to reference the comment right before mine (23). Of course you may not have had the average soldier in mind.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    Hey dopderbeck @ 7,
    Since you say that “the use of force is often required in this world to secure peace,” has peace ever been secured using force? OK, so truce between particular antagonists has occurred, but hasn’t this always been through the use of a force, a destructive technology, an amoral strategy greater than that used by the eventually vanquished? How exactly does that get “justified” in the context and obligations of “following Jesus” and taking up our cross in conformity to his example?

  • Fish

    If you have a large enough army you can always have the pax Americana. True peace is not reached at the point of a bayonet.

  • DLS

    “True peace is not reached at the point of a bayonet.

    – Nor is it reached by capitulation and pacifism.

  • DRT

    DLS, but there is more than one way to exert influence and power.

  • Steph I was certainly not suggesting that soldiers are war mongrels. My apologies if that was my implication. Funnily enough I’ve never seen a soldier “start” a war.

    All this take about justice reminds me of the old testament concept of justice. In the OT Justice is more akin to right relationships among all things in the created order and is used most often in reference to the powerful not misusing thier power over the weak. I wonder how that plays out when the most powerful military nations march into significantly weaker nations under the guise of “just” war…

  • DRT

    DLS, fyi, I don’t understand how we can succeed with a non-violent perspective in this world, but do believe we should be devoting more resources toward it….. I don’t think we have even really tried all that much.

  • Tim

    What enables a pacifist to be a pacifist, and come out relatively unscathed? Or for that matter, what enables a pacifist to hold such a view and sleep easy at night, not having the slaughter or oppression of innocents on their conscience knowing they didn’t do all they could to prevent it?

    There are a lot of people in the world out there who would be more than happy to subjugate and victimize those who would not raise arms in defense of themselves or their neighbors.

    Of course, we all know the answer, and that is…divine intervention? No, that’s not quite right, didn’t work out to well in the Holocaust. No, it’s the effectiveness of non-violent intervention such as diplomacy and sanctions right? No, those techniques take some time to be effective and often never really are. In the interim, untold millions can be slaughtered or otherwise have their live made a living hell.

    Well, then what is it? What do we do in this modern age to keep those at bay who would otherwise trample over every innocent they could? Could it be that we fight back? For ourselves and others? Is it perfect? No. Do we have regrets? Yes. But there is no other way that works this side of Heaven. And those who would have others lay down their arms, while in the comfort of their own armchair, enjoy the luxury of not watching the world burn because others (thankfully) will still fight when called.

  • scotmcknight

    Tim, seriously, you need to read some good stuff by pacifists … start with John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus. You are asking questions that assume a social framework not assumed by the pacifist in the Anabaptist tradition.

  • Tim


    While I always value your perspective and recommendations, I don’t ever believe that recommending reading substitutes for an argument. I would be very interested to see you expand your argument.

  • Fish

    What is of interest to me is how we evolved to the point where our individual morality seems almost always to become subsumed to that of the organization right or wrong.

    Whether it be anything from a mob to a university to an army to an entire nation, human beings will do things in groups to other people that they would never ever consider doing as individuals to other people.

    One theory postulates that during the millions of years we were prey on the savannah, we learned to act in concert toward threats from predators. Some of the actions might have included giving up a member of the group to a predator so that the rest could escape.

    Thus, blood sacrifice and our loss of individual morality when in a crowd may have the same root.

  • Tim


    If you get a chance to come back to this thread, I’d welcome any expansion on this statement, “You are asking questions that assume a social framework not assumed by the pacifist in the Anabaptist tradition.”

    Which questions? And which framework?

    Here are some additional questions:

    If the cost of pacifism is to watch the world burn or otherwise suffer terrible oppression at the hands of those who would be happy to use violence to achieve their ends (whether political, economic, religious, or ideological), is it a theologically justifiable cost?

    Let’s say, for instance, South Korea (heaven forbid) adopts a pacifist stance? So North Korea isn’t going to then go ahead and “reunify” them forcibly? They won’t oppress them totally? Murder or imprison anyone who resists? Eventually stamp out much of their religious freedom? Their access to religious texts? Draft their youth into their army? What do you think the “underground” South Korean Christian community would look like after decades of totalitarian rule? Like the underground Christian community during the time of the early church? Hardly. Even Paul could write his letters from prison. With every technical advantage to monitor and control the populous, you’d have a real life 1984 on your hands.

    And what about for America? Is this what the Anabaptist pacifists would have us accept for our country? If it came down to it? All I can say is, good luck raising Christian children power that overthrows your pacifist government decides that a ideologically secular society is in order, and bans all religious expression, and removes from the custody of religious parents little ones to be raised by the state. Or perhaps a Fundamentalist Islamic power would appreciate control of our country and youth? After nearly every Bible is burned and every toddler indoctrinated as Muslims, what will be the prospects for the Anabaptist pacifist utopia being realized?

    Or are these the wrong questions?

    In any event, I would like to know what you think are the right questions, and what the right “social framework” is to work through these issues.

  • Tim

    “…Christian children power…” should be “…Christian children if the power…”

  • Steph

    Tarun, 29, no apology needed. I was seeking a clarification.

    When I was in college, we experienced the first Gulf War. I remember sitting in the TV room at my dorm and hearing a sort of tally given: deaths on our side, deaths on theirs. I think they had just flashed a picture of a burnt out skeleton, still at the wheel of his vehicle (a death on “their” side). And one of my friends laughed. I could swear there was cheering as well. And clapping.

    So, I was profoundly influenced (upset) by that experience. I learned, in time, that the way a college student behaves is not a good tool to evaluate the motivations and thinking of a professional soldier. When OBL was killed, while the college students and people in stadiums were rushing out onto the street, my neighborhood in a large military community (not a base, a community saturated with military) was quiet. It was quiet the next day. No words about it as I dropped the kids off at school. No cars honking, no cars painted with #1 USA, no extra flags displayed.

    There is so little I can speak to in this debate. But this one thing I can testify to. I have met so many soldiers in the past 12 years that I have great respect for, even though I approached this journey (marriage to the military) as someone with strong pacifist leanings. I haven’t figured them out, I don’t fully understand their motivations, but they are not who I once thought they might be. And I respect them also as followers of Christ.

    I feel like an outsider in the military community. I am an outsider to the pacifist community. I live this tension every day. You should see my Facebook page explode with conflicting messages on certain days. Yours may too, for that matter.

    But once in a while I put in my two cents’ worth.

  • What would the best responses be, according to Christian pacifism, to 9/11, the German attack on Britain in WW2, the assault by Americans against Native Americans in the 18th and 19th century, or the invasion of Spain by the Moors? Or other examples of severe aggression? I know there were pacifist voices at least in the case of WW2 but don’t know what they advocated.

  • Steph #37, I really appreciate your comments. It’s important to realize or remember that the locus of warmongering, even if you see that as America’s posture, is not in the professional military.

  • Dan

    Tim @35, I think these are relevant questions we all should discuss. FWIW, a prof at Bryan College, J. Daryl Charles, wrote Just War Moral Reflection for JETS a few years ago (2005 I think). He makes some good points (available online).

    Unfortunately with SBL/ETS this upcoming week I don’t think you will get much response back from Scot. Also, this post is at the end of it’s lifespan.