Is Any War Just?

Does a Just War Exist Today?

David W. Hegg

We live in the diminishing space between the horrors of war on the one hand, and the daily assumption that what is going on halfway around the world won’t factor into our comfortable SCV lives. We may harbor some concerns as scenes of bombs and tyrants fill our screens, but they fade quickly as we enjoy all our protected village offers in the way of pleasant suburban living.

But what if war becomes a real possibility? How would we think about it? Is war ever the right option? And if it can be, how do we decide if perpetrating a particular armed conflict is ethical, and therefore, the right course of action?

For generations, ethicists have debated the concept of what has been termed “just war.” That is, an armed conflict considered ethically just and therefore, not a criminal act.

Just War theory holds to 4 criteria for justice in going to war, and 3 more for conducting war justly. For a war to be just, all 7 criteria must be met.

1. Just Cause: A war is considered just if its cause is just, defined as a defensive war. In this case, no war of unprovoked aggression can ever be considered just. Only wars in response to aggression already perpetrated can be morally legitimate.

2. Just Intention: A war is just only if its intention is simply to secure a fair and peaceful result for all those involved. This rules out wars of revenge, ethnic cleansing, or attempts at hegemony.

3. Last Resort: A war is just if all other means of ending the conflict have been exhausted. This includes diplomacy, sanctions, and other non-violent means.

4. Declaration by Properly Constituted Authority: War is just when it is declared, not by individuals, or vigilantes, but by legitimate governmental authorities.

5. Limited Objectives: The conduct of war is just when the objectives set are limited to a fair and lasting peace. This would exclude wars designed to annihilate a people, or destroy a nation’s infrastructure and ability to rebuild a functioning society.

6. Proportionate Means: The conduct of war is just when the means by which war is perpetrated are proportionate to the threat, and only such as are necessary to secure a fair and lasting peace. This would rule out the expansive use of nuclear arms.

7. Noncombatant Respect: The conduce of war is just when noncombatants are not attacked. Only those representing their governments in military service can be targeted, while civilians, the wounded, and prisoners of war cannot.

Today, while these 7 criteria still fill textbooks on ethics, the world has changed. Terrorism has created a conflict scenario that destroys all these criteria. Terrorists don’t play by the rules, and this leaves civilized society in a quandary as to how to respond justly to those who are unjust.

In addition, rank and file citizenry have no sure way of assessing whether these 7 criteria are being upheld since all the information we receive is carefully crafted, edited, and filtered through several layers of governmental spokespersons and the media. Simply put, we have no access to the data we would need to properly determine whether our leaders were entering into, and conducting, a just war.

I raise these issues simply to show the whole subject of armed conflict is much, much more complex than our discussions around the water cooler (does anyone have these anymore?) make it out to be.

Whether or not our nation takes up arms will depend on the integrity, honesty, and courage of our national political and military leaders. And I would submit we have almost no ability to influence their interpretation of the data, their political aspirations, or their commitment to proper ethical convictions. Simply put, we have no way of determining what war could be just, or of knowing if such a war is being prosecuted justly.

So where does that leave us? We do have two things we can do. First, we can be people of integrity in our own spheres of influence, attempting to promote justice and righteousness through lives of personal integrity, compassion, and courage. Second, we can pray for our leadership, asking God Almighty to lead them in the path of peace, understanding war is a contest where winning only means you lost less than your opponent.

Last Thursday was the National Day of Prayer. I believe we need much more than a day of prayer. We need lives of prayer because it turns out God is the only power that can bring lasting influence on those leading our country into tomorrow and beyond. May God bless America.