Just War Theory: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
Just War Theory
We watch the shells fall on Ukraine, often in real time. Mass graves are prepared for civilian casualties and then filled with the innocent victims of the war. Hospitals are bombed. Tower blocks of apartments are targeted by artillery. Threats of nuclear war, once unthinkable, are now voiced. Even the use of chemical and biological weapons is raised. Make no doubt about it, this is war in the twenty-first century.
The first three hundred years of the Church maintained an almost universal pacifist consensus among believers. In the Constantinian and post-Constantinian era, however, the Church struggled with the role of the military in a nominally Christian state and the justification for the state ordered violence that we know as war. Through the course of centuries, Christian thinkers struggled to define what, if anything, constituted a “just war”. Ultimately, they formulated two categories which sought to codify the intent of a state in going to war and the conduct of the warring parties.
The first category of intent is usually referred to as the ‘jus ad bellum’, that is, what are the issues of justice, or justification, that are involved as the decision to go to war is reached? There are numerous lists that have been developed over the past thousand years, most listing six to ten criteria. Those who draw up such lists generally build upon the reflections of Augustine (who drew upon Plato), Aquinas and the School of Salamanca. In 1993, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral letter in which they enumerated the following list, which I find helpful as a consolidation of the broader Christian tradition. They listed the following criteria to encompass the contemplation of a ‘just war’:
Just Cause—force may be used only to correct a grave, public evil, i.e., aggression or massive violation of the basic rights of whole populations;
Comparative Justice—while there may be rights and wrongs on all sides of a conflict, to override the presumption against the use of force the injustice suffered by one party must significantly outweigh that suffered by the other;
Legitimate Authority—only duly constituted public authorities may use deadly force or wage war;
Right Intention—force may be used only in a truly just cause and solely for that purpose;
Probability of Success—arms may not be used in a futile cause or in a case where disproportionate measures are required to achieve success;
Proportionality—the overall destruction expected from the use of force must be outweighed by the good to be achieved;
Last Resort—force may be used only after all peaceful alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted.
The second category is referred to as the ‘jus in bello’ criteria. These criteria specify the minimum moral requirements for acting justly in the conduct of war. These are:
Noncombatant Immunity—civilians may not be the object of direct attack and military personnel must take due care to avoid and minimize indirect harm to civilians;
Proportionality—in the conduct of hostilities, efforts must be made to attain military objectives with no more force than is militarily necessary and to avoid disproportionate collateral damage to civilian life and property;
Right Intention—even in the midst of conflict, the aim of political and military leaders must be peace with justice, so that acts of vengeance and indiscriminate violence, whether by individuals, military units or governments, are forbidden.
Now, I understand the theory, but my question is can a just war theory be applied to modern warfare? Looking at the history of warfare in the modern era, I must say, I have my doubts.
In the present conflict, there is very obviously an aggressor in the form of the Russian Federation. This aggressor, however, appears to be unbound both in the intent of the war and in their conduct on the ground. Moreover, despite Putin’s alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church and the Patriarch of Moscow, the Russian conduct of the war has shown itself to be not merely immoral but, in a very real sense, amoral; that is, lacking any moral perspective whatsoever. In facing such a malignant evil, talk of a just war theory seems to fade into insignificance.
Perhaps I’m looking for answers that are not there…