Justified and Just War

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 paradigm.

In American Empire, 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 stability.

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.

March 30, 2004

John 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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