Just War Theory: Still Relevant?

A nuclear North Korea is putting additional strains on just war theory, already under great strains for more than a half-century owing to modern weaponry.

As an Air Force ROTC cadet in the 1950s at Loyola University, Los Angeles, I studied analyses of the logistics and effects of atomic and hydrogen bombs – how many people would be killed in population centers, who would or could avoid lethal exposure, etc., all very detailed and prosaic.

Many people then built bomb shelters in their backyards, and advertisers touted the advantages of their shelter “brands,” special amenities, how to avoid intrusions, etc.

After graduation, I taught in a public school, before going to graduate school. Those over 60 may still remember the government-devised “duck and cover” drills that we teachers inflicted on our students in preparation for a nuclear attack – crouching down under desks – even in classrooms with windows!

In the 1960s, after the failed “Bay of Pigs” invasion of Cuba and President Kennedy’s close encounter with Soviet missiles, we learned that strategists had devised a new defense against nuclear attack, called “MAD” i.e., “mutually assured destruction.” During the “Cold” War with the Soviets, who were presumably non-suicidal, MAD gave us some assurances – barring possible accidents or failures of communication, although there were a few hair-raisers.

People stopped building bomb shelters in their backyards.

Some of the more rational nations, including Russia and China, joined the non-proliferation treaty (NPT), along with our allies, France and the United Kingdom.

But sighs of relief stopped, as nations that had not agreed to the NPT began to build their own nuclear arsenals – Pakistan, India (which originally signed but withdrew from NPT), and Israel (which still officially denies it has any nuclear weaponry).

After Iraq and Libya eventually gave up their attempts to join the “nuclear club,” Iran took up the torch, and seems to be making consistent progress.

And now North Korea. Does MAD make sense in this new context? Can we trust that Kim Jong-un, with all his threats, is not suicidal?

Or can we trust that Pakistan’s “Command and Control” system will not get into the hands of Islamic Jihadists who sing the praises of death? Can we be confident that India and Israel, in the interests of self-defense, might not indirectly set off a world conflagration?

Apocalypse by Albert Goodwin, 1903 [private collection]

Not to mention Iran, whose leaders over and over again have threatened to annihilate Israel.

I taught in the Marquette University Philosophy Department for thirty-five years, and occasionally offered special courses (my colleagues called them “plums,” since we were allowed to lecture on special interests, and often attracted highly motivated students who didn’t need to be convinced to study or participate in discussions). A number of times, I gave courses on the Philosophy of Peace, which examined classic texts from my anthology, Philosophical Perspectives on Peace, as well as analysis and interpretation of the evolution of just war theory from Augustine to the present.

By coincidence, one of my courses began on the very day that the Persian Gulf War was breaking out with its “shock and awe.” So I altered my syllabus a bit and began with an introduction to just war theory, leading up to a few days discussion of whether the ongoing war effort was in accord with that theory.

Was the “coalition” that was engaging in this war the type of “legitimate sovereign” that JWT requires for declaration of war? Were the grievances of Saddam Hussein against Kuwait legitimate? Was this attack really a “last resort”? Could we have any certainty that the results of the war would not be more evil than the situation prior to the war?

The possibilities of wars initiated now in compliance with JWT are even more limited than in 1991. There are, of course, regional conflicts, in Africa or Asia or the Middle East, in which JWT might be invoked by tribes or sects or ethnic groups to justify defensive wars.

But can this be done without inciting a civil war or exacerbating international tensions to the extreme? Can legitimate leaders start any limited war now, for defense, or return of possessions, or for any other reason, without the risk of sparking a global conflict? Perhaps so, but it is clear that JWT, in view of nuclear armaments and proliferation, is now of much more limited use for major conflict resolutions.

The best case for ethical justification of wars now might consist of humanitarian interventions. Shouldn’t the United Nations have intervened to prevent the Hutus and Tutsis from the massive carnage that took place in Rwanda? Shouldn’t we have intervened in the genocide that took place in Sudan? Wouldn’t military force to prevent the abduction of Christian girls by Boko Haram in Africa be justified?

But none of these incidents were direct threats to the well being of America or most of our allies. So they do not fit easily into the parameters of JWT.

The assassination of Osama bin Laden and other leaders of Jihad during the Obama administration raises the question about assassination as a legitimate means to curtail genocide. Were not the numerous assassination attempts against Hitler, by those who understood his intentions, ethically justified?

If some highly placed leader in North Korea could assassinate Kim Jong-un (attempts have been made), and survive to found a somewhat rational government – would that be ethical, although certainly not in accord with JWT?

Consider the alternatives: a pre-emptive attack on North Korea that would certainly lead to the death of many in South Korea, by some estimates at least 500,000; or the perpetual threat of a nuclear attack on America (a single Electro-Magnetic Pulse explosion could knock out every device that runs on electricity in the entire nation and lead to widespread chaos).

Scenarios like these illustrate how distant we are from the classic categories of just war theory, and how much we need fresh thought to deal with the unprecedented situations created by modern technology and current international affairs.

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.