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A Reasonable Perspective of The Just War Theory

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Just War Theory analyzes all aspects of why and how war should be fought and conducted. Just War has been discussed in Europe as far back as Cicero, and there have been several other texts in other civilizations with similar discourses such as the Mahabharata in India, and an Islamic system of war and peace based off of the Quran. Just war theory is an attempt to have realistic expectations of human nature and the inevitability of conflict while still maintaining reasonable expectations for human interaction.

The term “just war” was first used by Cicero (106-43), who argued that there is no such thing as a good war unless it is fought in self defense, whether it be physical or honorable. At the time of Cicero, Rome made NATO- like alliances with other regions to the point that Rome was constantly at war. Cicero was very critical of Julius Caesar because Cicero believed his love of power destroyed the republic. This is the first we hear of war only being just if it is publically declared by a valid source. In this situation that source would be the Senate, as opposed to the soul will of a dictator like leader such as Julius Caesar. Cicero also states that war is only acceptable after monetary reparations have been demanded from the offending state. These two guidelines set the precedent for later theories.

St. Augustine (354-430 A.D) was alive at a time when Rome was in the process of falling and the world that had been established by Rome was quickly being taken over. This led Augustine to contemplate how the pagan Roman way to conduct war was not just, and how to partake in war without compromising an individual’s or state’s moral integrity. His theory was that war could be morally justified if it was intended for the creation of peace for both of the offensive and defensive parties. His contemplation led to the development of the terms “Jus Ad Bellum”, and “Jus in Bello”. These Latin terms refer to justified reasons for going to war and just ways to conduct yourself in war. Augustine started the discussion in order to incorporate a Christian approach into war. He argued that there were ethical reasons to engage in combat and that there were times when it was ethical for Christians to be soldiers as long as they conducted themselves in a manner that is intended to result in a positive outcome.

Centuries later, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 A.D) expanded upon Augustine’s theories by giving criteria for for Jus Ad Bellum and Jus in Bello. In a Europe surrounded by attacks from the Middle East and reeling from the 13th century crusades, Aquinas’ “Summa Theologica” provided reasoning for several matters regarding God and an individual’s relationship through action with God including very distinct criteria on how to morally engage in war.

While several philosophers continued the tradition of religious ethical speculation, it wasn’t until the book “Laws of War and Peace” by the philosopher Hugo Grotius (1583-1645 A.D) during the 30 years war, that these theories went from theoretical contexts into the legal realm.

Jus Ad Bellum, as mentioned, is the right to go to war. In order to justly go to war the decision must be made by a valid legal system with the ability to discuss and weigh the pros and cons of war. In the layout provided by Thomas Aquinas, there is specific criteria that must be met to define a Just War. There must be a wrong committed against the state to which war is an appropriate response, and it is important to not be the catalyst in starting a war until a wrong has been done to you by another. The intention of the war must only be to right the wrong committed against the state and nothing more. There must be a significant probability that you will win the war and thus are not letting your soldiers be killed with no chance of success. Lastly, war must be the absolute last resort after every other attempt to right the wrong has been thwarted. Enemy invasion, the stealing of land and resources, and disruption of trade are all traditional reasons that would deem war a necessary solution. Today we have laws regarding pre-emptive and preventive war that were not discussed until more recent history. Pre-emptive war is attacking first when it is clear that you will soon be attacked. Preventive war is attacking so as to prevent your adversary from gaining more power and thus threatening your status. An example of a preventative war act might be the Pearl Harbor attack during World War 2. Both of these war openings are technically illegal, although rarely have there been significant consequences for these actions. Making these tactics illegal is an attempt to stop wars from beginning in the first place, hopefully to stop wars from happening at all.

Jus in Bello describes the right conduct in war. Once in war the use of force must be proportional to the amount necessary to right the wrong committed. That is, there must not be an excessive use of unnecessary force. The military must consciously discriminate between combatants and noncombatants and civilians must be left alone. Lastly, the government is not responsible for unintended negative consequences of the war if the damage was unintentional, the intention was positive, and if the positive outcomes of the war outweigh the negative. Prior to modern day weaponry, the concept of proportionality consisted of not doing more to the opposing army then they have done to you or that is warranted based on the offense. Starting around World War 1 we start seeing biochemical warfare and the ability to carpet bomb entire regions. With this advancement in technology more specific rules were needed to prevent undue harm from the indiscriminate of these weapons. Biochemical warfare, carpet bombing, civilian intimidation through the use of rape and theft have all been declared international war crimes punishable by the war tribunal. However, as with the enforcement of preemptive/preventive war, it is rare that all crimes will be punished, if for no other reason than within a war there are so many it is hard to keep track of and gather all the details. For example, the U.N released this statement regarding a bombing of a Syrian University during war time: “The Secretary-General strongly condemns the appalling attack at Aleppo University yesterday, in which scores of people have been reported killed and wounded.” Strongly condemning an action is hardly the same as punishing it, but a worldwide governing body with the strength to enforce international law might be a solution with more sinister consequences.

While Grotius is known for the first form of laws of conduct, it wasn’t until the Hague Conventions of both 1899 and 1907 that multiple nations agreed upon a code of conduct regarding war with specific focus on weaponry and biochemical warfare. While the Hague Conventions discussed specific aspects of weaponry, it wasn’t until the Geneva Conventions of the Laws of War that proper and legal conduct during times of war was discussed in depth. Today we have international laws dictating exactly what constitutes a war crime and whether to support a state that is involved in war based upon their reasoning and manner of entrance into the war. Organizations such as the United Nations and NATO are tightly bound by these laws and have factions dedicated to the upkeep of, and response to negligence of these laws. The security council and war tribunal are both responsible for attending to such issues. Whether it be a discussion on whether or not the international community condones and will participate in a war, the demand of reparations from an offensive state, or the prosecution of war criminals by an international court, just war theory has evolved and continuously manifests itself into every aspect of modern day warfare.

When it comes to something as awful and complicated as war it is hard to obtain a reasonable and non inflammatory perspective. There are many critiques regarding just war theory such as the pacifistic leanings and strict rules regarding conduct are not realistic and do not take into account the complexities of human and state interactions. While this may be true, I believe we would be hard pressed to find any such suitable solution or doctrine that excuses complex dynamics while still maintaining any form of moral backbone.Real life situations are often reviewed and analyzed so as not to force a blind morality upon each action, and in fact I would say that because of this fear of rigidity there have been far more excused war crimes than ought to be according to the actual laws. In theory I am a supporter of a just war theory more in line with Augustine and Aquinas. I would like to say that all war is inherently evil and a symptom of greater social distress that will not be cured through various forms of machismo and power struggles. I acknowledge that we do not live in a world, nor have we ever, that allows for purely non violent communication. Having accepted this inevitable truth, I generally respect ways in which individuals and the international community work to make these conflicts adhere to some code of conduct rather than admitting utter defeat to the madness.

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A Reasonable Perspective of the Just War Theory. (2018, October 26). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 21, 2023, from
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