A Just War?

Is there any such thing as a just war?  With the situation unfolding in the Middle East, particularly in regards to Libya, and what we’re already dealing with in Afghanistan and Iraq, this is a very relevant question.  If you ask Dr. Stanley Hauerwas, the answer would be an unequivocal no.  According to the good doctor, there are two questions people should ask themselves about their faith: 1) Are you a Christian?  And, 2) Do you believe war is ever justified?  If the answer to number 2 is yes, you should re-examine number 1.  Calling Stanley is a pacifist is like saying hemorrhoids are painful; it’s correct, but doesn’t even come close to conveying the real truth of the statement.  He is widely quoted on the subject of just war:

“As far as just war is concerned, I think it’s a terrific theory.  Unfortunately, it has no purchase in reality”

One thing about Stanley, he’s never ambiguous.  But, is he right?  Is just war incompatible with reality?  To answer that, we need to look at the theory behind the concept.  I’ll warn you, I’m making up my mind as I write this and I have no idea where it’s going.

The concept of just war goes back as far as Cicero and was espoused by St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas.  It’s been codified into international law and incorporated into the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  Just war theory can be broken into two major parts.  The first is jus ad bellum, Latin for “the right to wage war”, which carries the following requirements:

  • Just cause The reason for going to war must be just and not about recovering lost things or punishing someone for doing wrong.  Innocent live must be in danger and intervention must be to save that life.
  • Comparative justice Because there may be injustices on both sides, the injustice suffered by one party must significantly outweigh that suffered by the other.
  • Legitimate authority War can only be waged by duly constituted public authorities
  • Right intention Force may only be used in a just cause and only for that reason; i.e. correcting suffered wrongs and not regaining lost territory, etc.
  • Probably of success The cause must not be futile or require excessive measures to achieve success.
  •  Last resort War can only be waged when all other methods of dealing with the injustice have been exhausted.
  • Proportionality Benefits must be proportional to the expected evils or harms. 

Then, once these conditions have been met, we have Jus in bello which directs behavior during war:

  • Distinction All acts of war must be waged against enemy combatants and not against innocent civilians caught in situations they did not create.
  • Proportionality Actions cannot be undertaken that will knowingly incur civilian casualties that are clearly excessive in relation to percieved military gain.
  • Military necessity War should be conducted using the minimum amount of force necessary to get the job done.  Actions must be intended to help defeat the enemy and against military objectives and cause the absolute minimum of civilian casualties.


Looking at these criteria, the United States has never in it’s history conducted a just war.   It seems to me that the United States is all about “just war” (saving people from evil dictators and oppressive regimes)…, sometimes.  We busted into Iraq, overthrew the government, executed the leader and set up a new “democratic” government, i.e. one that’s amenable to what we want.  However, when oppressive regimes were eliminating entire portions of their populations in Rwanda and Darfur, we did nothing.  What’s the difference?  Three little letters, O…I…L.  The only reason we give a flying fuck about the Iraqis, the Kuwaitis or the Libyans is because their sitting on a shitload of oil.  I wish it were otherwise,  but we ignore the piss out of poor brown people all over the world unless they have something we want.  Nothing just about that.

So, having examined “just” war theory, I have to say Dr. Hauerwas is right.  It sounds pretty, but it has no basis in reality. Am I an avowed pacifist like the good doctor?  I don’t know.  But, considering almost everything Jesus said while here on earth condemned violence, I have a feeling pacifism is the path He wants us to take.  Besides, as my friend Hugh Hollowell said today, “Fighting to end violence is like screwing for virginity”.  Kinda makes sense when you put it like that.