On the question of why it seems so easy for political leaders—or pundits—to use the just war tradition to bless, sanction, or justify seemingly any decision, whatever the circumstances, to go to war, several things should be said.

But before saying any of it, it is important to recognize that the question is most often posed as a challenge. The just war tradition, the objection goes, given this propensity to abuse, doesn’t have any teeth, and is so hopelessly malleable that anyone can justify any ambition to break something or kill somebody. Thus, the question is meant to illustrate the just war tradition’s impotence—it’s doesn’t actually limit war.

Of course, it might be that the just war tradition is so often invoked because there really are so many adversarial actions that rise to meet the jus ad bellum moral framework that guides our deliberations over whether to fight. It might be true that to someone holding a hammer many things begin to look like a nail—but this would include actual nails. In a world needing reconstruction, there really may be a shocking number of nails.

But, of course, not everything we want to hit is a nail. Human beings are accomplished liars, and we are liable to falsely justify our actions to get what we want. But this isn’t to single out the just war tradition. Any set of rules are open to equivocation, cheating, and abuse. You give me an apple today in promised exchange for my plum tomorrow, and in 24 hours I might suddenly employ all kinds of justifications for why I needn’t live up to my side of the bargain. But nobody blames handshakes or the rules of fair play for my dishonesty.

Certain kinds of rules, moreover, are more susceptible to misuse than others. Those behavioral norms that are more general—like the just war tradition—rather than tightly detailed—like the rules of baseball—are precisely these kinds of rules. Christian ethics is full of such norms. You need only look at the recent career of “love your neighbor” in the culture wars to see the difficulty. We might rightly insist that context, tradition, revelation, reason, or prudence should settle disputes about what loving your neighbor mean but, nevertheless, people will justify all manner of things under the guise of “being loving.” Sometimes they do so with malicious cynicism, sometimes they do so honestly—however wrongly. Sometimes we simply don’t know what love might look like in a given scenario. But no one denigrates the law of love.

If this is true, then it’s also probably true that if some folks use the just war tradition to justify seemingly any military action, other folks use the same tradition to deny the right to use force under seemingly any situation. Equivocation, cheating, and abuse are tools for both the truculent as well as the more pacific.

My final thought about the question of why it seems so easy for the just war tradition to sanction any decision to go to war has to do with false appearances. We’ve all had the experience of having an injured finger or toe and being amazed at how often one seems to bang a sore appendage throughout the course of a normal day. Of course, it’s not that we hit a sore finger on something hard any more often than we hit any finger against something hard, it’s simply that the sore finger feels the hit more acutely. We simply never notice how often we bash our hands about when nothing is hurting.

I suspect something like this explains away much of the just war tradition’s alleged flaccidity. It’s not that it has no teeth. It is simply that we do not recognize all the times that just war tradition prevents war because much of the just war work is pre-deliberative, below the surface. We don’t attack Canada when they violate some fishing treaty—or send us Justin Bieber. Some things we simply know just don’t (quite) rise to just cause. If some things do, we simply know in some cases that diplomacy or negotiation will sort the trouble out, thereby preventing the use of force from being the only resort left to us. Because we don’t see the work the just war tradition does, behind the scenes as it were, on a day-to-day basis, its abuse—or the frequency of its proper use—seems out of proportion to those occasions when public debate about using force leads, in the end, to deciding against force.

To my mind, this shouldn’t be surprising. The just war is not a bit of new moral legislation crafted to allow us to adjudicate questions of using force. It is the articulation of tacit moral frameworks we deploy when making all many kinds of moral decisions. Concerns about proper authority—who can appropriately make this decision; about just cause—do we have sufficient reasons to do this thing; and about right intent—are our motives properly ordered; guides our thinking about moving morally through our world—not just across the battlefield.

This should comfort those who believe the just tradition remains an able guide to help people of faith eager to be faithful to both God and neighbor—especially the oppressed neighbor—in our belligerent world. It will be cold comfort to those who, while clamoring that the just war tradition ought to have teeth, resent the tradition all the more when it decides to bite.


Marc LiVecche is the managing editor of Providence

Image: U.S. Army Spcs. Eddie Bell, foreground, and Jacob Rannals pull security during a patrol with Afghan national police in Hakim Jan village, Afghanistan, Sept. 15, 2014. Bell and Rannals are infantrymen assigned to the 4th Infantry Division’s Company D, 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Whitney Houston