The oldest treatise on war, Sun Tzu’s classic The Art of War, expresses an essential ethical stance on the practice of warfare: war should be a last resort. He writes: “To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting.”
As with any subject in ethics, we cannot treat war as if a single set of universal moral principles applied to it. Mindful of the situation of relative ethics within which the modern world finds itself, it is prudent to briefly take stock of the traditional ethical stances on war.
In Buddhism, non-violence is a central tenet and war is
never permitted. In Christianity, those who actually follow the teachings of
Jesus are also pacifists for whom war is not permissible, while those who
instead follow the interpretations of later Churches adhere to a “just war”
philosophy we will examine shortly. Hinduism permits war in self-defence, but
the Hindu ideal of ahimsa calls for the avoidance of harm, viewing
peaceful conduct as a desirable and attainable goal. Sikhism has a “just war”
concept called Dharam Yudh (“war in the defence of righteousness”) that
specifies that war must only ever be a last resort, and that the minimum force
for success should be used. Islam, despite the popular perception, permits war
only in self-defence, requiring either that other nations have attacked an
Islamic state, or that a state is oppressing Muslims, and war in Muslim terms
must use the minimum necessary force, be conducted without anger, and avoid
injuring non-combatants or prisoners of war.
Nonreligious ethical traditions on war present no common pattern, and vary in response from pacifism to warmongering, even within the same ethical tradition. The most war-like philosophies ascribe to a system of Realpolitik which views ethical considerations as irrelevant in international affairs, while the most peaceful nonreligious individuals apply Utilitarian considerations to justify a non-violent stance directly opposed to war.
Before proceeding to consider the case for just wars, it is
necessarily to dismiss the claims of political realists that ethical criteria
cannot or do not apply at the level of the state. One can certainly believe
this, but since any legitimate state represents its people, a legitimate state
must reflect the ethics of its citizens. The political philosopher Michael
Walzer has argued that because states are the creation of individual people
acting collectively, they must represent collective concerns such as ethics,
and furthermore that any state that was motivated solely by the pursuit of
power cannot sustain the support of its people. Walzer contends that talk of
“the necessity” of states pursuing power is grossly exaggerated and ignores the
realities of foreign policy choices.
If the realpolitik position can be dismissed in this way, we are left with just two key positions to consider: that war can be just under certain circumstances (Just War theory), or that war is never just (pacifism). We will examine each position in turn.
Brian Orend contends that “all warfare is precisely, and
ultimately, about governance”, viewing war as a violent manner for determining
who gets control of a given territory – whether in terms of who gets power, how
resources are distributed, or whose ideals will be enforced. He notes that:
“war is the ultimate means for deciding these issues if a peaceful process or
resolution can’t be agreed upon.” Thus, to have grounding for a theory of just
war it is necessary first to have a theory of legitimate governance (something
Thomas Aquinas was acutely aware of).
Under current international law there are three basic conditions of legitimacy, and provided a state meets these conditions it has the right to be left in peace. The conditions are:
1. The state is recognised as legitimate by its own people.
2. The state avoids violating the sovereignty of other legitimate states.
3. The state makes every reasonable effort to satisfy the human rights of its citizens.
This latter point offers some contention, since not all
nations agree as to the nature and specifics of human rights. However, a
minimal case can be made by asserting that the state must uphold whatever human
rights are recognised by the society that it represents.
Just War theory is a longstanding tradition that dates back
The elements of jus ad bellum, the conditions for a
just war, are that the war must have a just
cause (often defined as recapturing something taken, or punishing
wrongdoing) and right intention
(solely for the just cause, not for material gain), it must be initiated by a legitimate authority (i.e. a legitimate
state, as defined above), there must be a
reasonable chance of success, and it must be a last resort – any and all peaceful alternatives can and must be
seriously attempted and utterly exhausted before war is allowable (these latter
two concerns echoing Sun Tzu).
The elements of jus in bello, the conditions for just warfare, are that violence be governed by the principle of distinction (i.e. directed towards enemy combatants, and never towards civilians), that any force used fit a principle of proportionality (that any violence employed be weighed next to both the motivations for the war, and the goals of the war) and adhere to a principle of minimum force, with the intent of limiting excessive and unnecessary death and destruction.
At this point, it is prudent to consider a few concrete
Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland was the crucible of World War II, and violated the principle of legitimate authority by not recognising Poland’s sovereignty (thus no action by the Third Reich could ever achieve just cause). Furthermore, Hitler’s goal was territorial expansion, which violates right intention, and no aspect of his war effort can be considered to have been a last resort. A trickier case of foreign occupation can be found in China’s control of Tibet; although this was not directly attained by war, there are severe questions as to the justifications China provided for the invasion of Tibet, which is couched in terms of a “failure to modernise” that does not appear to fit any of the conditions of legitimacy that currently apply under international law.
Examples that violate jus in bello can also be drawn from World War II, such as the British firebombing of Dresden in 1945, which violated the principle of distinction and of minimum force, causing the deaths of between 24,000 and 40,000 civilians. This is sometimes justified in terms of response to the Blitz – the Luftwaffe’s repeated bombing of London between 1940 and 1941 – which had caused some 43,000 civilian deaths. However, the fact that an enemy’s conduct is unjust does not provide justification for responding in kind under Just War theory. Similar considerations may be applied in respect of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and indeed, to the use of nuclear weapons in general – since such an attack necessarily violates the principle of distinction.
Many people consider the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan to
have just cause, namely to topple the Taliban regime which was not a legitimate
state under international law, and which had arguably contributed to an act of
war against the US in the form of horrific terrorist attacks against civilian
targets. However, it is not at all clear that this action was a last resort,
neither is it clear whether or not the principles of proportionality or minimum
force were met.
In the case of the following US invasion of Iraq two years later, there is neither just cause nor right intention (as Alan Greenspan has observed, part of the strategic motivation was an attempt to secure oil supply in the Middle East), and the action was not a last resort since weapon inspectors were still confirming the presence or otherwise of weapons of mass destruction that it is now clear did not exist. It fails equally under the conditions of just warfare, failing the principles of distinction (thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of Iraqi civilians have been killed), proportionality and minimum force. In regard of the principle of minimum force, if the view espoused by British Prime Minister Tony Blair is to be taken into consideration (that the goal was to remove weapons of mass destruction), why were surgical air strikes not used instead of an invasion?
In fact, it is very difficult to find an example of a state
that has adhered to Just War theory, with a few notable exceptions such as
Switzerland and Iceland. Since we have eliminated the realpolitik position, and the only remaining position is pacifism,
we can only conclude that there is a systemic irresponsibility in the
application of war endemic among the nations of the world we live in.
Finally, we have pacifism, or the belief that war (or more
generally violence) can never be morally justified. I have great sympathy with
this position, but in relative ethics pacifism has no way to justify itself in
absolute terms which renders it as a choice for individuals, rather than a universal
objection to war. Nonetheless, the existence of pacifists within the world –
whether religiously or nonreligiously motivated – provides a valuable
counterpoint to both Just War theory and the insidious realpolitik alternative. In the Kantian project of trying to find a
coherent balance between all people’s ends, pacifism is far easier to integrate
than political realism, which inherently denies both mutual respect and
One last thing should perhaps be said in respect of the relationship of war to modern times. A pre-emptive strike against another nation may be permissible under Just War theory, provided its various provisions can be met (which it was not, for instance, in the case of the 2003 invasion of Iraq), but such an attack is not permissible under current international law. The UN charter clearly states in Article 2:3 that “all members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means”, excepting only the case of an actual attack. Express permission to violate this article would be required for a legal military action; implying a justification from an ambiguous resolution is utterly insufficient under international law, and to defy international law is to give up the claim to legitimate authority.
Many citizens of the US consider the UN as a monstrous
bureaucracy (which it may well be) that places unacceptable limits on their
rights as a nation to defend themselves from perceived threats, but for the US
or its citizens to blatantly disrespect the United Nations is to heinously disrespect
US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who strived to uphold the worthy goal
of a peaceful coalition of nations, with the ultimate hope that the United
Nations he helped to found would be able to intervene in conflicts between
states and thus avoid war. Similarly, to violate the Universal
Declaration of Human rights is to disrespect his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, who
continued her husband’s work after his death, and was in part responsible for
drawing up of the UN’s original human rights declaration.
War, if it is to achieve even a thin veneer of respectability, must live up to the ethical standard first observed by Sun Tzu, and later incorporated into Just War theory: war must be a last resort. If and when it is not, war is unjust by every standard except vacuous and nihilistic belief systems such as political realism. Perhaps it is time for the people of the world to hold their governments accountable for unjust wars conducted in their name.
The opening image is entitled War, although I am uncertain of the name of the artist. I found it here, and as ever no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.