Just War Theory

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Just war theory concerns whether or not it is possible for a nation-state to go to war in a morally justifiable way, and, if so, what this might entail. It stands opposed to two other prevailing attitudes concerning the ethics of war: realism and pacifism, both of which maintain that war cannot be morally justified. Realism holds that there is no way to apply moral categories, good or bad, to war, as it is motivated by essentially selfish desires for power and security. Pacifists, by contrast, believe that war can be morally evaluated, and that it will always be found to be unjustified.

A notable strain of Jewish pacifism originated among German and German-descended thinkers of the early twentieth century. As an ideal, pacifism was shared by a wide array of intellectuals who did not necessarily have much else in common either politically or ethically: from social activists like Lillian Wald and Uri Avnery all the way to Ernst Bloch, a humanist Marxist, or Gustav Landauer, an anarchist and accomplished English-German translator. Especially important in this context, however, is philosopher and theologian Martin Buber, who developed a pacifist form of Zionism that sought to create a binational homeland for Jews and Palestinians alike. Though steadfast in this attitude, Buber also maintained that the extraordinary hatred and violence encountered by German Jews in the early twentieth century represented a practical limit to the forms of nonviolent resistance famously promoted by Mahatma Gandhi. This tradition of pacifism has taken a new shape in the recent work of Jewish scholars Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, both of whom led antiwar movements, often controversially, against U.S. military involvement in Vietnam and Iraq, respectively. Additionally, a number of Jewish organizations are still in existence with outstanding commitments to antiwar and/or pacifist policies. These include the Jewish Peace Fellowship, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations, and the Workmen’s Circle.

The origins of modern Jewish pacifism are somewhat difficult to locate, as texts like the Torah and Talmud actually focus much less attention on preventing war than they do on establishing the rules that govern proper military action. In fact, they arbitrate all kinds of military matters from whether war may be fought on the Sabbath to what types of plants may be cut down during a military campaign. As such, these texts are foundational components of the Jewish contribution to just war theory. This theory is typically divided into two parts: jus ad bellum, the rules governing justifiable reasons for entering a war, and jus in bello, the rules for proper conduct within a war.

Besides those already mentioned, the origins of jus ad bellum can be traced back to the ancient writings of Aristotle and Cicero, along with the religious philosophies of St. Augustine, Moses Maimonides, and Thomas Aquinas. Augustine was the first Christian theologian to try to reconcile the faith’s divine commandments with the demands of earthly reality by clarifying that, since the state was authorized by God to protect peace and punish aggression, killing on behalf of the state was not in itself a wrongdoing. In fact, the state’s failure to intervene in such circumstances should be understood as a sin. Thomas Aquinas formalized Augustine’s position in the second part of his Summa Theologica, where he established three criteria a war must meet to be just: (1) it must be authorized by the sovereign; (2) it must have a just cause, namely “that those who are attacked…deserve it on account of some fault”; (3) and the attackers should have a righteous intention, that is, “they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil.”

Moses Maimonides, writing out of the Jewish tradition, actually developed a more hawkish outlook on the just war than those of his Christian counterparts. His Mishneh Torah iincludes a section titled “The Laws of Kings and Their Wars” that identifies two kinds of morally justifiable war. The first of these is war by divine “commandment,” which the sovereign can prosecute without legislative approval whenever an imminent threat is posed to the state. The second type of just war Maimonides specifies he calls “optional war,” which, with the approval of the legislature, can be fought to enlarge a state’s borders, greatness, or reputation. This type of war is still understood as defensive, since it serves to protect the state’s welfare in the future.

More contemporary theories of jus ad bellum have been put forward both by individual scholars like Jewish political scientist Michael Walzer and by larger institutions like the Catholic Church and the United Nations. In Just and Unjust War, Walzer attempts to revitalize medieval ideas of just war theory within a secular context, contending that military action can only be morally justified in the defense of the basic human rights to life and to liberty. Cognizant of its status as heir to this older war theory, the modern Catholic Church has also made efforts to establish its contemporary position on the issue. In an open letter on nuclear proliferation from 1983, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (today the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) argue that just wars will always be fought in self-defense, without intentionally killing civilians, and without causing more harm than good. Perhaps most significantly of all, however, Article 51 of the UN Charter explicitly affirms the modern consensus that wars fought defensively are justified, citing “the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations.”

Drawing on all of these and other sources, the contemporary theory of just war stipulates six conditions military engagement must meet in order to be considered morally justified: (1) its cause must be justifiable (typically self-defense or the containment of aggressive activity); (2) there must be no ulterior intention besides this cause; (3) the action must be authorized by an “appropriate authority” and publicly declared; (4) all other plausible peaceful alternatives must already have been exhausted; (5) military action must be shown to reasonably result in a resolution of the conflict; (6) and the universal benefits of military action for all involved must outweigh all foreseeable universal costs.

The other half of just war theoryjus in bello, is an extraordinarily broad topic with far less consensus about what is and is not morally acceptable. Rules governing proper conduct during wartime originally developed throughout the ancient world, appearing in texts as diverse as the Judeo-Christian Bible and the Hindu Mahabharata. Perhaps the most notable contemporary contributions to jus in bello are the four Geneva Conventions, drafted between 1864 and 1949 and currently recognized, either wholly or in part, by 194 countries globally. The first two treaties were written in order to establish the protections guaranteed to soldiers who were sick or injured in action, whether on land or at sea. The third treaty addresses the fair treatment of prisoners of war, and the last concerns the protections guaranteed to civilians during wartime.

Though these and similar documents have helped to standardize a number of issues in this area, as the nature of war itself changes, these regulations risk eventual obsolescence. The increasing use of unmanned predator drones and terrorist combatants’ lack of national affiliation, for example, pose new problems for determining whether an individual should be protected as a prisoner of war, a civilian, or neither. Contemporary just war theory seeks to resolve some part of these disagreements by insisting that proper military conduct meet seven specific criteria: (1) all international laws on weapons prohibitions (specifically chemical and biological weapons) will be obeyed; (2) combatants will take due caution in discriminating between combatant and civilian populations; (3) the force used by combatants will not be more harmful than it is beneficial (typically excluding weapons of mass destruction); (4) the rights of prisoners of war will be respected according to the Geneva Conventions; (5) weapons and strategies held to be mala in se (“evil in themselves”) will be strictly excluded, such as mass rape, genocide, poison, etc.; (6) a violation of jus in bello by one side of a conflict will not be answered by a violation on the other side; (7) and all parties to the conflict will strive to respect the human rights of their own peoples during wartime.

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