Updating Just-War Theory

Note: This column was written and uploaded prior to the U.S. attack on Syria late last night. The questions it raises about further developing just war theory, however, remain current – now perhaps even more than earlier. – Robert Royal

Over the centuries, “just war theory” was proposed and developed by a series of great thinkers – Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas, Francisco de Vitoria, Francisco Suárez, Hugo Grotius, and others.

In the past, what they had in common, aside from the intention of combating the incessant plague of wars, was a standard vision of what wars were like: namely, some nation with a formidable military force threatened another nation(s). The latter would have to deliberate whether their military resources were adequate, or whether non-military means might remove the threat; or whether, as a last resort, military action would protect them or make things worse.

The principles “just-war” theorists emphasized include: the urgency of the threat, whether negotiation might still be feasible, identification of the proper authority to declare and initiate war in various forms of government, whether the consequences of war might be worse than surrender, and also ethical considerations regarding lethal weaponry, treatment of war prisoners, the harm of noncombatants, etc.

A vision of massed armies, sometimes with allies, facing down and conquering other armies on the battlefield, was common to all these theorists – even in World War I and World War II, with the addition of powerful infantry and explosives, air power, submarines, and other products of modern engineering.

But the scenario began to change sharply during and after WWII – nuclear arsenals, guerilla warfare, tremendously lethal chemical and biological agents – in short, the possibility of mayhem in quantities and intensities never previously conceived. If Julius Caesar or Ghengis Khan had had the atomic bomb, they might have hesitated using it to conquer territories they planned to occupy.

Just this week, after discussing abandonment of Syria “very soon,” President Trump threatened to launch missiles against Syria, because of the deadly chemical gas attack on civilians in the rebel-held town of Douma. Russia’s foreign minister claims that a “foreign intelligence agency” staged this attack, and a member of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry points to evidence that rebels trying to oust Syrian president Bashar al-Assad were responsible.

It is indeed strange that Assad, who has been winning the war against rebels, would invite international retaliation at this time. But the United States along with allies Britain and France are all but convinced that Assad ordered the attack, and that that there must be a response both to punish Syria and deter future attacks of a similar nature.

But it’s precisely here that the kinds of “prudential judgments” (which were never very easy even in simpler times) have become quite complicated. An initial question in just-war theory would be: is there any clear threat to our country? There is obviously no direct threat to the U.S. from Syria. But in fact an attack on Syria, allied with Russia, could trigger a new cold war, or worse.

President Trump launched a successful missile attack on Syria in April, 2017, and is apparently confident that this could be repeated without enraging the Russian Bear. But such acts of brinkmanship not only challenge Constitutional war-making powers, but “throw away the script” on justifying wars. And deposing Assad, instead of improving the situation, could pave the way for a takeover by Isis or Islamist rebels, certainly no improvement over Assad.

And such complexities are not limited to the Middle East. Traditional just war theory seems impotent in dealing with several contemporary realities and is desperately in need of further development if it is to continue to provide guidance to nations and their leaders. For example, here are some situations needing careful analysis:

  • Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), in which two nuclear powers in a war could easily annihilate each other – or even bring about a “doomsday” state of affairs if other nuclear powers entered the combat – still prevails. Is there any contemporary crisis so dire that would justify a nuclear power to make a preemptive nuclear strike on a rival?
  • Thousands of terrorist “cells” sprouting up throughout the world. Could any conventional army, navy or air force be effective against these?
  • Widespread use of “human shields” – missile launchers set up in hospitals, explosive caches stored in schools, terrorists setting up shop in cities surrounded by innocent noncombatants, and refusing to allow any noncombatant to exit from the city. What could justify destroying a hospital occupied by terrorists manning artillery?
  • Possible accidents as “the wrong button is pushed,” and war begins willy-nilly. The recent incident in Hawaii reminds us that similar incidents, which could have sealed the fate of the world, have happened in the past.
  • Insane and/or suicidal leaders of nuclear-armed states, who don’t care about mutual annihilation. MAD is based on the supposition that world leaders are rational actors and not misanthropic and suicidal.
  • Jihadists under the influence of religious beliefs bent on converting the world, by force, if necessary.

In an ideal world, we might seek:

  • Universal nuclear disarmament and absolute prohibition of proliferation – although this is difficult to imagine after what happened to Muammar Gaddafi who obligingly disarmed in 2003.
  • Fail-safe international intelligence systems capable of foiling electronically transmitted plans for attack.
  • Refusal of any further building of mosques unless reciprocity in building of churches prevails in the Middle East. The prevailing lack of reciprocity has facilitated importation of violent religious operatives under the cover of uni-directional “religious freedom.”

But several more practical and less idealistic strategies might be: 

  • “Surgical” bombing of nuclear reactors in “rogue states,” as Israel did to Iraq in 1981 and to Syria in 2007– which would require incredibly accurate intelligence resources.
  • Identification and destruction of all chemical and biological arsenals, as well as dismantling arsenals capable of producing a high-altitude nuclear explosion, causing an “electro-magnetic pulse,” which would disable electrical resources throughout nations.
  • A nuclear “Marshall Plan” offering aid in transforming dangerous nuclear facilities to peaceful nuclear power plants – thus advancing the Biblical prophecy about “swords” being transformed into plowshares (Is. 2:4).
  • Taking a cue from the targeted assassination of Osama bin Laden and other terrorists, the assassination of the most demonic leaders, who both enslave their populations and threaten destruction of the United States.

According to the famous Doomsday Clock published by the Atomic Scientists, mankind is now at “two minutes before midnight.” So those of us who dream of world peace feel a certain urgency. If this is not a starkly exaggerated urgency, it may be time to think “outside the box.”

Recent diplomatic developments indicate that an unprecedented meeting between President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un may take place in May. The president has insisted that denuclearization is a precondition for such a meeting, and Kim seems to accept that precondition, saying, “The ‘issue of denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved’ if the U.S. and South Korea respond ‘with goodwill’.”

After so many failed diplomatic efforts at removing one of the most serious threats to world peace, can we attach any realistic hope to such a meeting?

Kim is not in the vulnerable position that Gaddafi was in disarming. He has China at his back and South Korea open to reunification. Turning “swords into plowshares” in that area is not completely unimaginable – although certainly “outside the box.”

But actually, the most “impractical” strategy for world peace would probably be the most effective: I am thinking of the battle of Lepanto in 1571 in which a small Christian fleet defeated a Turkish Armada, as well as the nationwide Rosary crusade in Austria in 1955, leading to the withdrawal of Soviet armies. In other words, a worldwide Rosary Crusade. But I know, I know – this is too far “outside the box.”


*Image: Mourning man in Douma Syria [Photo by Mohammed Hassan/UPI]

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.