• Jason Capp

Just War Theory and the US

Just War Theory is the basis with which many nations seek to legally and morally justify the use of war. The United States recognizes Just War Theory as criteria before engaging another country in war. But why is this often neglected in conversation before war times?

Just War Theory has had roots in many nations for centuries. Historically, philosophers like Augustine built a foundation for Just War Theory around 400AD, and Thomas Aquinas in the 12th century took Augustine's teachings and created a list of distinct criteria that remain the basis for Just War Theory to this very day.


The need for a society to provide proper and sound justification for going to war is one of the reasons why philosophy and discussion are so important in our lives. There needs to be rationality among heightened tensions so that poor decisions or regrettable actions will not be made. This is why Just War Theory is necessary.


Traditionally, there are two categories in Just War Theory. One is JUS AD BELLUM, the right to go to war, and JUS IN BELLO, the right conduct in war.

JUS AD BELLUM - The Right to Go to War


These are the conditions required to justly go to war. All four conditions are dependent of each other.


1. JUST AUTHORITY: The first condition in Just War Theory is Just Authority, also known as Competent Authority. A just war must be initiated by a political authority within a political system that allows distinctions of justice. Dictatorships or deceptive military actions are typically considered violations of this. The importance of Just Authority is key. To put it simply, we cannot have a genuine process of judging a just war within a system that represses the process of genuine justice.


2. JUST CAUSE: This is the central condition for the majority of discussions regarding the justification of a war. If a Just Cause cannot be provided, most people will reject the notion completely. We must be able to show that some wrong has been committed by one nation for which war is the answer. Unprovoked aggression, such as an invasion, fits clearly within the criteria of a Just Cause. Few would deny a nation the right to defend itself against unprovoked attack. The defending of an ally against an attacker is also generally considered a Just Cause.


3. JUST INTENTION: The Just Intention condition in Just War Theory sets a limit to the extent of the war. Even given a Just Authority and a Just Cause, it is possible for a warring state to go beyond the bounds of its justification. A just war is limited to the pursuit of the avowed Just Cause which is the reason for Just Intention. A just war is limited to the pursuit and securing of the Just Cause.


4. LAST RESORT: War is morally permissible only when no other means to achieving the Just Cause is possible. This means that the nation considering war has exhausted all potential solutions, including political and diplomatic. This condition seems to mitigate against national pride that sometimes leads to war as the resort of choice. At the very least, the condition of Last Resort requires that political and diplomatic approaches to a solution have been fully attempted and exhausted.

JUS IN BELLO - The Right Conduct in War


This criteria provides standards of conduct for nations, militaries, and soldiers participating in war. Some people have the idea that in war, anything goes or there are no rules. But this is never the case in any war.


Armies maintain standards of lawful and criminal behavior. Armies have police, prisons, and courts. It is true that some armies show no legal or moral restraint when it comes to the treatment of the enemy, but those are militaries that act contrary to the Just War Theory and are often in violation of the international rule of law. Sadly, there are many cases where war crimes are not prosecuted or held accountable. Just War Theory is a philosophical idea that is used in the US as the basis for a legal process. Here are three of the key criteria for just behavior in war:


1. PROPORTIONALITY: The proportionality of the use of force in a war. The degree of allowable force used in the war must be measured against the force required to correct the Just Cause and limited by the Just Intention.


2. DISCRIMINATION: The combatants discriminate between opposing combatants and noncombatants. Innocent civilians and nonmilitary personnel should never be made the target of attacks.


3. RESPONSIBILITY: A country is not responsible for unexpected side effects of its military action as long as the following three conditions are met:

- The action must carry the intention to produce good consequences.

- The bad effects were not intentional.

- The good of the war itself must outweigh the damage done by the war.

Just War Theory and the US


In the United States of America, the Just War Theory has not only been adopted and practiced, but it is also supposed to be required criteria for going to war and how to behave within war.


However, there have been many notable moments in recent US history that proves Just War Theory was not applied during certain decisions and actions.


President George W. Bush, for example, launched a war on terror in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. That war invaded countries that were not directly responsible for the attack, and to this day, that same war has killed over 250,000 civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. There were 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians who were massacred by US troops in Haditha in 2005. There was also the time in Afghanistan in 2007 where US marines tore down 6 miles worth of highway, killing teenage girls in a field, motorists still in their cars, and old people just walking across the road. There were also 51 different CIA drone strikes between 2004 and 2009, authorized by Bush himself, that killed over 100 Pakistani children. And I am barely scratching the surface.


President Obama and President Trump have also ordered drone strikes during their presidencies that have killed many innocent bystanders, and the current discussion is about Trump's drone strike that killed Iran's top general, Qasem Soleimani.


Soleimani was a bad man that had done some horrible things, but was that attack on him just? This is the discussion the US needs to be having right now, because there are a lot of terrible people out there doing ungodly things. Why kill him? And why now? Was there Just Authority, Just Cause, and Just Intention? We need to ask these questions, because some actions by US leaders over the past couple decades have been quite unjust.


Were all political and diplomatic options attempted? Ultimately, was the killing of Soleimani the resort of choice? Or a genuine last resort? Based on Just War Theory, what do you think?

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