The "Just War" Theory: Application to United States and Israeli Militarism

By Maguire, Daniel C. | Social Justice, Summer-Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

The "Just War" Theory: Application to United States and Israeli Militarism


Maguire, Daniel C., Social Justice


THE HUMAN SPECIES HAS LONG BEEN ADDICTED TO WAR, FAVORING IT OVER GENTLER and more civilized modes of conflict resolution. In only eight percent of recorded history do we seem not to have been engaged in organized killing, and one wonders if, with further research, that eight percent gap might also reveal signs of bellicosity) Humanity seems laced to the stubborn conviction that war can pass the most elementary ethical test of doing more good than harm. Efforts to apply the norms of justice to war have been halting, resisted, but not without some fruit.

War is perhaps the most muddled zone in our human moralscape. When we talk about war, we wallow in misnomers. "Victory" is one of those. In truth you can no more win a war than you can win a hurricane. Both sides lose. One side loses less and spins that as victory. The term "war" itself is a misnomer and a euphemism. Long-tenured usage of the term and gilded myths of military glory have defanged and neutered the term. We now use it as a metaphor for the most humane activities, such as "the war on poverty," "the war on illiteracy," or the "war on cancer." We would not speak of raping poverty, illiteracy, or cancer because, rape, though all too common a crime, has not been linguistically purified.

What came to be called "the just war theory" (JWT) was an early effort to put the brakes of justice claims on the destruction called war. Ancient wars aimed at obliteration. When the Romans cried "Carthago delenda est," they meant to leave nothing but dust and ash where Carthage once stood. And so they did, and this action was defended by no less a sophisticated Roman than Marcus Tullius Cicero. This was the same lethal formula employed by the ancient Hebrews. Deuteronomy spells out the God-sanctioned manner of warring: "You shall put the inhabitants of that city to the sword; you shall lay the city under solemn ban together with everything in it. You shall gather all its goods into the square and burn both city and goods as a complete offering to the Lord your God; and it shall remain a mound of ruin, never to be rebuilt" (Deut. 13: 15-17).

Restraints on the total obliteration approach appeared in ancient Greece. For practical and some humane reasons, they saw that Athens, Sparta, and Thebes may fight, but that they were all Greeks, with a basically common language, and they would have to deal with each other after the hostilities. The Romans, brutal imperialists that they were, reached some comparable conclusions. They concluded that war should be authorized only by the state and that it had to be in some fashion formally declared and marked by some effort at good faith. (2)

These faint beginnings would be developed later into what would be known as "the just war theory" in the Christian West when Christianity lost its early pacifism and needed to find a blessing for the newly friendly sword of Constantine. (3) The "just war theory" has survived in various and often distorted forms into modern times, becoming today the most used and least understood part of the ethics of state-sponsored violence. President Barack Obama used and misused it in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. Fragmented use of the theory is employed to justify every manner of military adventure.

Applying the word "just" to war, which began with Aristotle, is part of the problem. To suggest that a war could be tout court "just" made it easier to overlook the atrocities that invariably accompany "the dogs of war." It shaded over the brutal complexities and yielded to the tyranny of "military necessity," the term used to say that almost any means are justified to achieve "victory." Inter arma leges silent. In the heat of battle, the rules of morality are stilled and silenced. Indeed, making rules for war is rather like making rules for an orgy; neither activity is patient of regulation.

Any Hope for "Just War" Theory?

Properly understood, "just war theory" is a peacemaker's friend. …

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