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What is War?

War is conflict among states where armed forces confront the
armed forces of another state. It is generally conducted within certain customs
or laws. By common consent war is generally seen as ‘just’ if it is in
self-defence and if it is sanctioned by the UN. However, there were just wars
prior to the formation of the UN and UN permission is not intrinsic to just war
theory. It is difficult to argue the idea of ‘just cause’ if the war is against
a state that poses no immediate threat, but which perhaps has an undemocratic

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War used to be something that you read about in history
books, but now you can see it every day. Apart from disease and natural
disasters, we see the horror of war all the time and not many other things are
able to bring home human suffering to such an extreme level. It can be very
hard to imagine why anyone would want to go to war with the population of
another country; that any sane individual would want to attack another country
to seize its land or to change its political processes. Therefore, there must
be a range of powerful motivations that would mean going to war.

Out of most social issues, war is probably the only ethical issue
that has produced such a large demonstration of public feeling. In the past,
war was seen to be something in far-off lands and the casualties were
predominantly professional soldiers on the battlefield. Today, travel and
communication means that the world has become a much smaller place and we
receive live coverage on television. The majority of casualties today are civilians,
who lose their homes, their livelihood, many even their lives. War most of the
time spills into terrorism which in many cases can present an even greater risk
and threat to everyday civilian lives.

People go to war for greed, for excitement and adventure,
for religion and politics. War is a very peculiar human activity and can bring
out some of our best traits, such as courage and self-sacrifice, and yet it can
also lead men and women to commit acts of cruelty and barbarism.

The Development of
Just War

The issue of the legitimacy of killing or using violence
against other people has occupied philosophers since ancient times. Most societies
have rules that forbid killings, to prevent a community falling into anarchy,
but they also distinguish between murder and killing in war or as a form of
punishment. This means that there has to be a clear understanding of what
constitutes a war and how it should be conducted. Aristotle, for example,
believed war was justified if self-defence was involved.

Old Testament writings show the Jews believed God commanded
them to fight their enemies. Stories also indicate their belief that it was
totally acceptable to massacre non-combatants: Deuteronomy 3:24, records the annihilation
of the King Sihon’s subjects: women and children included, ‘We left no

The arrival of Jesus marked a dramatic change because he
preached non-violence. ‘Do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you’, he told
his followers in Matthew 5:39. The early Church adopted this pacifist approach until
Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Church was
then required to change its approach to warfare in response to the state’s
political needs. St Augustine was instrumental in this departure from pacifism
and his ideas were developed by Aquinas. The theory of Just War, which began then,
continued evolving in the United Nations Charter and the Geneva Convention.


The Requirement for a
Just War

The requirement for a Just War changed as things went along,
Augustine stated that War can only be started by a recognised authority and
that there must be a Just Cause. Aquinas then added to the Just War in that he
added that a war can only be fought for a just intention which he defined as
the ‘advancement of God or the avoidance of evil’. A while later, The Catholic
Bishops of America developed three more clauses from Aquinas in 1983. The
claims of both sides must be evaluated before war can e started. It is called
comparative justice. There must be a reasonable chance of success to ‘prevent
the irrational resort to force or hopeless resistance when the outcome of
either will clearly be disproportionate or futile.’ This would prevent people
being killed or maimed for a hopeless cause. Proportionality, where the ‘damage
inflicted and the costs incurred by a war must be proportionate to the good expected
by taking up arms’, which means it would be morally wrong to use excessive
force to achieve a small gain. War must also be the last resort after all other
attempts to resolve the dispute by negotiation have failed. Finally, only
legitimate targets should be attacked and there should be discrimination between
combatants and innocent civilians.

Jus in Bello and Jus ad

When the morality of war is considered, there are two key
areas of concern which the Just war theory addresses. One is whether it is
right to go to war, which is known by the Latin name Jus ad Bellum. The other is concerned with who the war is to be
conducted against, know as Jus in Bello.

What is meant by
recognised authority?

Now let’s consider the criteria of Just War and see how easy
it is to put into practice. With a recognised authority, it is generally accepted
that only the head of the country or the state government is permitted to
declare war. In recent times there has been a move in public opinion to seek a
much wider permission for War. British involvement in the 2003 invasion of Iraq
only went ahead after a vote in Parliament but many people wanted the United
Nations’ authority for the war, this is mainly because the invasion of Iraq was
not in response to an attack.

What makes a Cause

Many would regard this as the most significant point, but
equally it is one of the hardest to determine. Doesn’t everybody thing their
cause is just? Is it possible to be objective? Augustine said, ‘A just war is
not to be described as one that avenges wrongs, when a nations state has to be
punished for refusing to make amends for wrongs inflicted on its subjects, or
to restore what has been seized unjustly.’ In Aquinas’ opinion, ‘Those who are attacked
should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault.’

What makes an
intention just?

There is some overlap here with the previous point because
Aquinas defined a just intention as the advancement of good and the avoidance
of evil. Here too it is difficult to be objective’ most states believe their
intention is just. This point was included to prevent rulers declaring war
simply because they wanted to destroy another country or for a totally
unrealistic cause. As Aquinas summed it up in
the Summa Theologica, for a resort to the sword to be
justified it must be on the authority of a sovereign, for a just cause rightly
defined, and for a right intention.



Why include comparative justice?

It was felt that if each
side thought about how their opposite number viewed the situation, it might
lead to a more peaceful outcome. The apportioning of punishment to the losers
and rights to the winners has to be carefully balanced to respect human rights
and create peace. Are the values at stake critical enough to
override the presumption against war?

Is it possible to assess the likelihood of success?

It is considered
wrong to start a war if you do not stand a chance of winning, because war
involved the destruction of life and property. So it would
be unethical for a state to sacrifice the lives of its people (and the lives of
its enemy’s people) in a futile gesture that would not change anything. However,
this condition can be dealt with by forming alliances with other countries in
order to make an unwinnable war winnable by ganging up on a common enemy. The
idea of ‘winning’ is not a simple one. It’s probably better to rephrase the
condition like this:

A war is only a just war if there
is a reasonable chance of success.

This way of putting it makes it
clear that there has to be an absolutely clear idea of what will count as
success before any decision can be taken about the moral rightness of a
particular conflict. Thus the aims of a war must be set out in advance.


This was included to ensure that
one state does not use war as a pretext for meting out totally unreasonable
force on another country. This clause is particularly important now that
weapons of mass destruction like nuclear or biological warfare exist in some
countries’ arsenals. The harm they can cause is truly massive and must be
measured against the gain. On the other hand, technological advances now make
it possible to target destruction extremely precisely: more commonly known as
the ‘surgical strike’.

last resort

None of the philosophers involved
in the Just War Theory relished the idea of war: all believed peace was
preferable in all circumstances. This clause requires countries to make every
attempt to resolve a dispute by negotiation before considering an armed

between targets

This clause was designed to
protect innocent civilians. It requires the war to be waged against soldiers
and military targets. In addition to people, buildings also have to be
considered, so in this circumstance, it would be wrong to bomb a waterworks or
a power stations.