The Just War 101 Archive

The previous essay on proper authority took its bearings from the fact that human beings, as human beings, have a divinely appointed responsibility to care about order and justice. We see this at the very beginning, in the cradle garden. God says to Himself, “Let us make mankind in our image.” Precisely what this means is multi-faceted and complex. Some of it, however, is quite plain and can be found in the clause that immediately follows: “Let us make mankind in our image and let him have dominion over all the earth.” Dominion is not domination. Human beings were never meant to simply lord over creation and to bend it arbitrarily toward their will. Instead, human authority is always marked by responsibility and a participant in Divine Law. Human authority is a vehicle for the proper exercise of stewardship.

That, of course, is merely part one of the Edenic plotline. Immediately following the mandate to exercise stewardship is the human refusal to do so. God made mankind in order that He might love mankind and that mankind might love him. Love, however, must be freely given or it is not, in fact, love. Freedom has costs. One of those costs is risk, including the risk that human beings might choose not to love God. I presume it is not a spoiler to observe that humanity did, in fact, rebel. From that moment onward, stewardship—dominion—has to account for the fact of ongoing human rebellion.

In light of the fall and of human responsibility to maintain the conditions of justice, order, and peace, the fundamental question before us is, “when might just societies have to employ force against those who violate order, justice, and peace?” In response, the just war framework, taking its cue from Thomas Aquinas, envisages three causes: protection of the innocent, recovery of what has been wrongly taken, and the punishment of evil.

The qualifier in each of these causes—‘innocent,’ ‘wrongly,’ ‘evil’—is crucial. The reason can be most easily seen by examining the first cause. It would be insufficient to declare—as positive international law states—simply self-defense, as such, as a just cause. When commenting on just cause, Thomas explicitly lists only recovery of what has been wrongly taken and punishment of evil. It is not that he does not believe a sovereign has the right to defend his realm against attack. On the contrary, Thomas makes a greater allowance than Augustine for private self-defense.

But, in the classical just war view, the defense of the common good is the central rationale for just war as a whole. Insofar as the need for defense provides a just cause, it does so on the basis of the sovereign’s responsibility to protect order and justice. The reason that the qualifier in “protect the innocent” is so important is now clear: only the innocent have a right to be defended. To insist otherwise, to propose national sovereignty without qualification as a human good, and thereby to make national self-defense simply the model of justified war, is amoral. It ignores questions of motive, intention, cause, and the moral quality of the regime. It implies, as Nigel Biggar has insisted, for example, that as soon as the Allies invaded the borders of Germany in 1945, Hitler’s belligerency became self-defensive and so justified, and the Allies’ war-making became aggressive and so unjustified. A more domestic-oriented popular example concerns an armed burglar who has taken hostage the residents of a home he is robbing. When the police arrive and fire at him, he does not have a “right” to fire back. He has no moral permission to defend himself. Only the innocent do. Of course, if the details of the example scenario change significantly enough then the robber’s right to defend himself might return.

For reasons including these, a Christian realist view of just war refuses to take national self-defense as its paradigm. The Christian view is that since justified war is always a response to a grave injustice, it must always aim to rectify that injustice. This response may take defensive or aggressive forms. It may move seamlessly from defense to aggression, or it may begin with aggression. Justified aggression is what so-called “humanitarian intervention” is all about. The doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is, in effect, an attempted reassertion of the Christian paradigm of justified war. Luther’s—and others’—cautions against making matters worse, often through unintentionally swapping tyranny for anarchy, remain important considerations.

In any case, this responsive, reactive posture is essential. The just war view can never countenance the initiation of violence. Force, justly deployed, can only ever be reactionary—never inaugural. When given a simple choice between violence or non-violence, in which either will equally effectively requite an injustice, protect the innocent, or mete out appropriate punishment, the just warrior will always choose non-violence. The point is that just war analysis kicks in only when unjustified violence or the clear and credible threat of unjustified violence is already unjustly perpetrated, and the only thing now in question is the manner of response.

Put another way, the Christian view of just cause allows that a war is justified only when it intends to stop and correct a grave injustice that threatens genuine and important human goods or those social and political matrices upon which the flourishing of individual persons depends. Because it reacts against injustice and defends justice, the just war use of force is also, in essence, punitive. This makes war a necessarily moral enterprise. It is not about defending, Biggar insists, without evaluation, “whatever borders history or positive law happens to have posited, nor about maintaining a stable regional status quo, regardless of the evils behind those borders or the justice that could be done in transgressing them.”

Some argue that such a view of war risks fostering moral self-righteousness and loosening the reins of war. It is true that the Christian just war tradition has most often encouraged intervention, but it is untrue that it encourages conflict. The fact that there is cause to intervene in the first place means that the opportunity to avoid conflict is already past. Conflict has already erupted someplace. Of course, it is not necessarily the case that the just response to conflict has to be, itself, violent. Intervention can begin and end with a rebuke. Escalation will depend almost entirely on whether, at what point, and under what terms the aggressor is willing to stand down. 

While it is also true that this will require some to make moral judgments over others, this ought not to deter us. The political ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain once quipped that “human nature is a complex admixture…good Harry Potter with a bit of evil Voldemortian temptation thrown in.” Knowing something about the poor condition of their own souls, Christians, above all others, Biggar stresses, should be allergic to simple binaries in thinking that the just warrior stands against the unjust perpetrator as simply righteous against unrighteous, clean against unclean. In fact, the punitive nature of just war is grounded in the recognition of the dignity of those punished. To respond appropriately to the moral choices of others is to take their status as moral beings seriously. It is to acknowledge that what they decide to do actually matters. It says they and their choices are significant.

It is here that the rather uncomfortable idea that punishment of evil is a justified cause for going to war. Justice might be a single thing, but it has many species—including retributive. Retribution is, in essence, moral payback. We can tell it is a species of justice because you are paying back what is owed to someone. In this case, what is owed is correction—also known as punishment. Ideally, punishment is not its own end. We punish—we correct—because we want not only to keep the innocent safe from someone else’s misdeeds, but also because we desire what is best for the person being corrected. If we understand sin correctly, then we understand that the person most harmed by sin is, in the end, the sinner.

There are likely no morally neutral actions when it comes to human relations. Everything we do either nudges or propels others closer toward or further from being that kind of creature likely to say “yes” to Christ. Everything we do shapes our own hearts into that kind of creature that either longs for heaven or who longs to continue trying to drag the universe into orbit around themselves for all of eternity. A part of correcting those around us from doing evil is to help shape their lives into that kind of creature that lives to be pleasing to God.

While this might seem reasonably clear when it comes to using war as a means to punish monsters such as Hitler, Pol Pot, or bin Laden or—on a group scale—terrorists, it is not likely to be the case that war is a means to punish the typical rank and file soldier arrayed against us. But war is not typically waged against the average soldier as such, but only against their regime—of which they find themselves, to varying degrees of willingness, a representative of. How a just warrior relates to one such as these is a matter for a future essay.

For now, it is enough to close with an assertion. The presence of a justified cause for war is not, in most cases, merely a mild permission for the mobilization and deployment of sufficient to address and rectify the just cause—it is likely a mandate. Stewardship requires that we do not let the innocent be trampled, injustice to go unrequited, or evil to remain unpunished. The rest of the ad bellum framework, including proper intention, proportionality, probability of success, and whether there are less destructive means available to right the wrong help the authority to decide whether the only thing likely to reestablish order, justice, and peace is proportionate and discriminate force.

Then, and only then, is there cause–even mandate–to unleash the dogs of war.