The Failure of Just War Theory

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a former regular here at Ordinary Times who lives in a small rural town about two hours southwest of Portland, Oregon with his wife, kids, and dog. He enjoys studying and writing about the world of employment, which is good because that's his job. You can find him on Twitter.

Related Post Roulette

34 Responses

  1. Rob says:

    I tend to agree with Damon Linker. I think that Just War Theory was, from the git-go, a justification and a rationale for wars that a very worldly Church felt it necessary to promote and/or participate in for political reasons. Even today philosophical sophistries are constructed to justify American foreign aggressions, and the inevitable “collateral” damage that they inflict, using Just War theory. But, at no point in history were “Christian” armies any less prone to rape and pillage than any other kind of armies, once they were able to get the upper hand on the enemy’s turf. Nothing could be easier than to justify self-defense, or defense of the weak, in pragmatic terms. But is discipleship in Christ meant to be a pragmatic modus operandi? Or are the imperatives of the flesh rather to be transcended in deference to a higher Good?Report

  2. Pinky says:

    “There is no war that can meet all of its criteria. “

    There is no single Just War theory. There are different criteria depending on the thinker. Aquinas had three criteria: a legitimate authority, a just cause, and a right intention. Those conditions can often be met. Desert Storm comes to mind. A peaceful nation was attacked, and the attackers stood ready to attack another nation. World powers intervened to free the captive nation. Note that a war may be just even if some actions taken during the war are unjust, depending on who you ask.Report

    • Damon in reply to Pinky says:

      That may be true, but remember, the US ambassador basically green lighted the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam when she had a 1 on 1 chat with him (prior to the invasion)Report

      • Pinky in reply to Damon says:

        But that doesn’t really address the matter, does it? Even if that’s an accurate characterization of the discussion, Country A can’t justly green light Country B’s invasion of Country C.Report

      • notme in reply to Damon says:

        Really, we told Saddam to go ahead and that we would just stand by? Wow, I’d like to see the transcipt of that convsation. I suppose this is the same way we green lighted the invsion of S outh Korea by the North because S. Korea was not included in the strategic Asian Defense Perimeter outlined by Secretary of State Acheson in his 1950 speech to the national press club?Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Damon says:

        “The US ambassador basically green lighted the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam”

        Yeah, this is an unfair reading of the conversation. Should the Ambassador have been more clear and warned explicitly against the use of force? Probably. But she was just talking about the specific boundary dispute (which everyone in the world has).Report

      • Damon in reply to Damon says:


        Whether or not it’s an unfair reading is a matter of intreperation, especially since we’re talking about a major power talking to a minor power, during a convo about the “massive numbers of troops” on the border. It’s the duty of the one speaking to be sure the meaning of their words are received correctly, especially in diplomatic situations. The fact that April was unclear, is, by default, a green light.Report

    • Kyle Cupp in reply to Pinky says:

      On the one hand, you’re right that there’s no single just war theory; but on the other the term is used to refer to a general set of conditions that has developed over time. Aquinas had three criteria, but the tradition that followed from him expanded on his thought and added more. But, yes, not everyone agrees on the criteria or their exact number.Report

      • Pinky in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

        I think you’re trivializing an important matter. Your argument about whether it’s possible to meet the criteria of a just war is going to be greatly affected by the criteria. I mean, I’m looking at the sentence I just typed, and I’m awestruck that you’re essentially arguing the opposite.Report

      • Rob in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

        So, as I read all of the comments above and below this one, the consensus seems to be that Jesus would have us do nothing different than what Henry Kissinger, or Dick Cheney, or, say, Winston Churchill would have us do. Or, perhaps what is being said is that Just War Theory has nothing to do with Jesus, one way or the other; we’ve asked him to leave the room while we set our agenda. Where am I wrong?Report

      • Kyle Cupp in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

        I have that effect on people.

        And I concur: if the particular criteria of just war theory that I maintain cannot be met are not held by you to be part of just war theory, then my calling just war theory “a failure” wouldn’t be a judgment on your specific theory. However, the theory (or, you prefer, set of theories) that I’m calling a failure have criteria (like proportionality) that I judge to be impossible to attain, and these are criteria typically mentioned in just war talk these days.Report

    • KatherineMW in reply to Pinky says:

      The first Gulf War fails the “right intention” test. It’s true that Saddam invaded another nation, but the US didn’t go in out of support for the principle of collective security; they attacked because they didn’t want Saddam having control of such a large portion of the Middle East’s oil reserves.Report

      • @katherinemw

        I’ll push back a little on this (but not a lot, because I agree that oil was probably what made the situation so pressing). I tend to believe that the ideal of collective security, if it is to have any heft, is something that is done as a practical matter in concrete situations. In that sense, the First Gulf War might be interpreted as an example.

        I’m not sure what I think of collective security as an ideal, by they way. Or rather, as an ideal-informed-by-practice. It can lead to a lot of do-gooding wars that help few people and create a lot of damage. But if the First Gulf War had to happen–and I’m not saying it did have to happen–then I think I would have preferred the multilateral way it happened than the mostly unilateral way the Second Gulf War happened.Report

  3. Damon says:

    I’d say that there really is only one instance of just war: When you country is invaded.Report

    • Glyph in reply to Damon says:

      Say there are 26 nations in the world. You and I live in Nation Z. Nation A invades B, then C, then D, then E, and so on.

      If we declare war on Nation A at any point before Y falls to A and A crosses our borders, that’s unjust?

      I realize the concept of preemptive war has gotten a bad rap (and deservedly so), but it seems to me there must, at least theoretically, be times when you can see the writing on the wall and decide to take the offensive while you still can. Else you put yourself at extreme strategic disadvantage for a principle that will not survive your nation’s fall.Report

      • Damon in reply to Glyph says:

        By that logic, China, Russia, India, most of Africa, and the ME should band together and attack the US.

        Yes, that logic works, and it’s worth considering as a unlikely event.Report

      • Murali in reply to Glyph says:

        By that logic, China, Russia, India, most of Africa, and the ME should band together and attack the US.

        That idea has got at least one thing going for it.Report

    • notme in reply to Damon says:

      So we should have waited until the Nazis and japanese had conqured all the world before we helped out and got our head out of the sand? Or we should have let the soviets take over western europe b/c it wasn’t our country?Report

  4. Stillwater says:

    Just wars aren’t just rare, they’re nonexistent. At least according to the criteria of traditional just war theory.

    Doesn’t that rather support the view that it’s a fraud rather than a failure? I mean, if there isn’t any set of criteria upon which the use of military force could be justified, then the persistence of a theory claiming there is really is fraudulent, no?Report

    • Stillwater in reply to Stillwater says:

      Alsotoo: as for abandoning it, what would you put in its place? It seems to me that something like “imminent threat” constitutes a pretty useful principle (or criterion) for determining when military force is morally justified.Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to Stillwater says:

        “Just war” theory, unless its precepts are distorted by people who want to justify themselves with it, is far more rigorous than “imminent threat”. The “imminent threat” metric provides justification for wars of aggression as long as the aggressor is sufficiently convinced that they would have faced an attack if not for going to war (i.e.: the rationale initially bought by the American people about the Iraq War).

        A “just war”, however, must be a last resort. Thus, we must know that all peaceful attempts have failed. We don’t know that peaceful means have failed until we (or an ally) are attacked, therefore pre-emptive or “preventive” wars are never just. In addition to this restriction, force must be proportional (i.e.: to be statistical about this, in order for the war in Afghanistan to be just, the US would have had to be able to win it with fewer than 3000 deaths total. The probability of the US being able to do so was extremely, extremely low, ergo the war in Afghanistan is not a just war. Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip in Operation Cast Lead is another obvious example of a war contrary to this principle, as well as to the principle of not targeting civilians, as well as to the “objective of a ‘just peace’ ” qualification.)

        I don’t agree with all of the “just war” principles – it invalidates the possibility of a revolution ever being just, whereas my preference is to hold revolutionaries and governments to the same standard – but it’s far more rigorous than just an “imminent threat” criterion.Report

    • KatherineMW in reply to Stillwater says:

      Just War theory goes back to Roman times. A just war may be nonexistent in modern war, where at least one and almost always both sides invariable kill substantial numbers of civilians, but it may have been a relevant concept in days before modern war. Certainly some pre-modern wars (e.g., the Thirty Years’ War) killed and devastated the livelihoods of overwhelming numbers of civilians, but it was at least theoretically possible for a war to be fought that didn’t involve attacking civilians.Report

  5. Burt Likko says:

    If we abandon the failed theory of “just war,” then is there a fallback position by which war can be waged in a manner that minimizes or mitigates the inevitable moral stain of intentional, aggressive killing? Put another way, if it is impossible to wage a just war, then is it possible to wage a war with as little injustice as possible? A few things come to my mind:

    1. Modern, precision-aimed weapons can be deployed so as to focus destruction and death on military targets and minimize collateral damage to civilians. To the extent they succeed in this mission, does this at least reduce the moral blame of causing death? (And if so, does that lead us to the conclusion that killing an enemy soldier is worth less of a moral blemish than killing a noncombatant?) Similarly, from a moral intention standpoint, the instruments of war are typically not aimed at civilians; the term “collateral damage” itself indicates that the loss of life and property was an unintended co-effect of attacking a military target.

    2. We can never, ever say that all non-violent means of reconciling an international dispute have been exhausted. There’s always a possibility that further economic sanctions will produce the desired result. For instance, how can we be sure that it will only take another year of embargo before the revolutionary government of Cuba will have no choice but to give in to the overwhelming economic pressure and agree to free, open, and fair democratic elections and unrestricted repatriation of émigrés? So the Aquinas-and-progeny theories that include a criteria that nonviolent means must be exhausted first was never meant to be taken literally, and there was always a limit of reasonability on it.

    3. If a targeted decapitation strike, otherwise known as “assassination,” would bring a war to a very swift and politically favorable conclusion by eliminating the political leaders who refuse to back away from the confrontation creating the war, wouldn’t that suggest at least a utilitarian argument for such strategems as opposed to sending young men with guns but no political discretion whatsoever out into the field to kill one another? A wise (if unscrupulous) man is credited with responding to a moral challenge to a similar tactic by demanding: “Explain to me why it is more noble to kill ten thousand men in battle than a dozen at dinner.” Cold as Tywin’s argument is, the logic is difficult to refute.Report

    • KatherineMW in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Point 2: No, no, no, no, NO. If that is what the “just war theory” meant, then it would be meaningless, and an utter fraud. Its principles do not mean that we are justified in going to war with another country whenever that country refuses to do what we want it to do. The failure of non-violent means is not demonstrated, at minimum, until we are attacked and have verified that the attack is not the result of a misunderstanding or an issue that our enemies are open to resolving through non-violent means, but is part of a sustained intent to make war on us.

      After that requirement is satisfied, you can start looking at all the other requirements, such as not targeting civilians.

      There are very few – if any – just wars in history.Report

    • Chris in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Modern, precision-aimed weapons can be deployed so as to focus destruction and death on military targets and minimize collateral damage to civilians.

      Given how reliant those weapons still are on highly imperfect intelligence, particularly intelligence on the ground, I don’t think they come anywhere close to making it easier to justify war. And events in both Afghanistan and Iraq over the last 13 years support my position.

      There’s a secondary issue as well: the “cleaner,” or more accurate weapons get, the easier it is to abuse them and get away with it.Report

    • Patrick in reply to Burt Likko says:

      then is there a fallback position by which war can be waged in a manner that minimizes or mitigates the inevitable moral stain of intentional, aggressive killing?


      End it as quickly as possible.Report

  6. Chris says:

    Instead of calling just war theory a fraud, I would call it a failure. There is no war that can meet all of its criteria.

    I rather think that’s a feature.Report