Can war ever be just? Can there be rules about war so that fair play is possible? Has there ever been a war with a just cause?
Those who think so belong to what is called the Just War tradition. Many believed that the 1939-45 War against Nazi Germany was a just war. Recently, the Gulf War was also portrayed as justified, especially by most of the tabloid press in Britain. The main reason for this was that it stopped Saddam Hussein taking over Kuwait. This was seen by many to be a just cause, one of the rules of a Just War. Other rules of the Just War tradition include not killing unarmed people - for example women, children, the old, civilians and soldiers who have surrendered.
Christians for the first three centuries after the death of Jesus were pacifists. They rejected the Just War tradition. They felt they should follow the teaching and example of Jesus. Thus they believed in loving their enemies even if this meant persecution. However, in the year 311CE (Common Era) the Roman Emperor Constantine made being a Christian legal for the first time in the empire. As Christianity began to be more favoured there were significant changes developing within Christianity. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (died 397CE) borrowed Cicero’s idea of Just War and made it part of Christian thinking. One of Ambrose’s students was Augustine (died 430CE) who developed the idea of Just War thinking further. One of the additional rules which he added to the above was that a Just War must respect conscientious objectors. In Augustine’s time this meant the religious professionals. From Augustine onwards Just War thinking became more important than the earlier pacifist teaching of the church. Meanwhile, by 416CE only Christians could be soldiers in the Roman empire.
In about 1140CE a monk called Gratian took Augustine’s thinking and Roman Law and introduced the idea of Just War to modern international law. There have been many important thinkers about Just War since then, including Aquinas in the 13th century, Vitoria in the 16th century and so on down to the 20th century. The Reformation began in 1517 and most Protestants from that time have favoured Just War teaching. The Lutherans in Germany and the Church of England made the Just War position part of their creeds. The Anabaptists and later the Quakers were unusual in being pacifists.
World War II
Modern Just War Rules
1. war must be undertaken by a lawful authority
2. A war may be said to be just when waging it prevents something worse happening. For example, defensive intent is necessary and sufficient in the face of a threatened invasion which could result in the loss of many innocent lives.
3. A Just War enables us to look at particular wars and ask is this right? It enables individuals to be selective conscientious objectors. This means an individual might have chosen to fight in World War II but not in Vietnam. Others who are not normally pacifists are nuclear pacifists on the grounds that nuclear weapons break Just War rules.
2. Who is the neutral referee reprimanding the side breaking the Just War rules? War is not a game. Just War rules are either completely ignored or only held by a few.
3. Where in times of war can an ordinary individual get accurate information on whether her/his country’s war is just or unjust? The real truth about a war is usually hidden by governments. Only later as history may the truth become clear.
4. Modern methods of warfare make it almost impossible to avoid harming civilians, thus breaching one of the Just War rules.
5. The Just War theory ignores the widespread belief that killing is wrong in any circumstances. Therefore nothing can justify going to war, which inevitably involves killing. 6. Nobody can tell in advance if a particular war will bring more good than evil, or that its methods will be ‘proportionate’ to its results.
The Peace Pledge Union (PPU) argues that any killing, let alone on a mass scale, cannot justify any likely ‘good’ to be achieved. No ‘good’ can justify the deliberate death of another. No cause, not even a defensive one in which possessions, territory or life are threatened, can ever justify fighting and killing.
References and further reading
More on civilian dead
The Peace Pledge Union being a non-sectarian organisation comprising of atheists, agnostics and adherents of a variety of religions, has no collective view on religion.