Justified and Just War

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In the 5th
century, St. Augustine articulated the circumstances under which
war was justified. Eight hundred years later, St. Thomas Aquinas
shed further light on those instances in which waging war could
be considered “just.” Until recently, there was no need to explore
the semantic differences between something being “justified” or
“just” because the former only existed in the presence of the
latter. By replacing the word “rationalized” for justified, the
debate on going to war takes on a different meaning, for it eliminates
the need for the action to be seen through a moral or ethical

In American
, a recent work by Army officer turned college professor
Andrew Bacevich, foreign policy and military interventionism are
explored in a fashion which implies that our political leaders
typically see our acts of aggression through the lenses of omnipotence.
Bacevich, commenting on “Operation Just Cause” in Panama, remarks
that, “No doubt Bush believed that his cause was just. But then
so had every other president, from McKinley through Reagan, who
had ordered comparable military operations throughout the Caribbean,”
(70). As Americans, we have assumed a mantel of moral superiority
that tacitly claims that all our acts are just. In a sense, because
Abraham Lincoln was “honest Abe,” and George Washington “could
not tell a lie,” there is a presidential line of succession that
imbues American leaders with an unquestionable moral timber. This
implies that the justification of our actions is a given, and
therefore no longer requires debate.

In wake of
the recent war, many commentators have opined something along
the lines of, “with our stunning success, surely the naysayers
can see that they were wrong.” What needs understanding is that
the Pope is not currently roaming the halls of St. Peter’s wondering
how he failed to foresee the U.S. Marines routing the Republican
Guard. The left may have been opposed to the war on political
grounds, but there are a number of observers who opposed the war
not because of potential casualties, but because we had already
suffered a casualty of conscience. Undoubtedly, Saddam was an
evil man who deserved to be deposed, but if our motives were simply
altruistic, our troops would now be mobilizing for the war in
the Sudan, where the longest running civil war in history still
rages, having already left millions dead. If ever going to war
could be considered just, this would be the classic case. Alas,
the Sudan is not part of the administration’s “road map” for peace,
and holds no perceived importance in terms of economics or international

Deputy Defense
Secretary Paul Wolfowitz recently stated that our success in Iraq
has had a “shaming effect,” throughout the Arab world. What he
does not realize is that he has actually given them a compliment
by saying this, for one cannot feel shame if one does not have
a conscience. Twenty-first century America is not capable of shame,
and that means the rest of the world had better acquiesce, or
prepare itself to be “shocked and awed” into democracy, materialism,
and Britney Speares. A war being justified should be the same
as a war being just, but that is not the case when a society has
removed war from the realm of ethics, religion, or morality. In
our quest to keep religion and politics separate, we have allowed
the justification of war to be debated in terms of dollars and
cents, or bombs dropped and body bags required, rather than right
and wrong. G.K. Chesterton, at the outset of World War I, stated,
“If a war is not a holy war, it is an unholy one.” Regrettably,
the American mind does not understand such harsh tones. We operate
more comfortably in shades of gray where absolutes have been eliminated,
along with the need to label a war as just.

When is war
justified? It may be best to defer to the saints, who were more
concerned with the salvation of souls than the salvation of an
administration. In short, war is justified only when waged by
legitimate authority, as a last resort, and with a reasonable
chance for success. It should be waged only in response to a serious
wrong, with a sense of proportionality, and in a manner that distinguishes
combatants from non-combatants. Finally, peace must be the end
aim of war, and that peace must be just. When these conditions
are not met, warfare cannot be justified, despite what all the
flag waving and speech making may incline one to believe.

30, 2004

Schroder [send him mail]
is a graduate of the Naval Academy and a former Marine infantry
officer. Having resigned his commission, he is to begin doctoral
work in political science this fall at Louisiana State.


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