Just War? Moral Soldiers?

By Calhoun, Laurie | Independent Review, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Just War? Moral Soldiers?


Calhoun, Laurie, Independent Review


Moral reasoning within the just war tradition is far more like a skilled musical conductor interpreting a symphonic score than it is like an engineer reading a blueprint. The conductor has notes and other instructions on his score. But the beauty (or dissonance) of the music he or she makes is a function, not simply of the notes, but of the application of the conductor's imagination, intelligence, and discipline.

George Weigel (1991, 2)

War is often romanticized. Military and veterans associations and their publications abound, and general readers devour books about the violent conflicts of the past. War may to some be a pastime, but it is a deadly one. The reality of war probably cannot be appreciated fully until one has suffered the loss of a loved one as a result of a bloody battle fought for nothing or, rather, nothing really worth dying for.

Still, when most soldiers enter mortal combat, they believe that their cause is just.(1) They have been told that their cause is just. "Just war theory" is used by leaders to galvanize soldiers to fight, kill, and die for what the leaders claim to be justice. History reveals, however, that appeals to justice are every bit as effective in galvanizing the masses when the leader in question is depraved, for example, in the case of Adolf Hitler, as when the leader comes later to be written into the annals of history as "great." When just war theory actually matters, but altogether fails to bring about what its name suggests, is not in the retrospective writing of history by the victors but in the moment of conflict, when soldiers are deployed to wreak havoc on the people of another nation in the name of what their leader has proclaimed a just cause. The theory matters, practically speaking, because nothing could be weightier than the annihilation of conscious human life, the inevitable consequence of any war.

Just War Theory and the Problem of Interpretation

The idea that some actions are unacceptable even during times of war has been espoused throughout history.(2) Basic tenets of the "just war tradition" were articulated systematically by the natural law philosopher Thomas Aquinas in his efforts to reconcile his devout Christianity with a basically Aristotelian philosophical outlook. The seventeenth-century thinker Hugo Grotius has been identified as the "father of international law" for his contributions to what have become widely accepted principles among the international community.(3)

Grotius conceived of international law as analogous to moral relationships between persons, and he articulated six jus ad bellum conditions that are accepted by many as limitations on a nation's legitimate recourse to war:

1. Just cause: The war must be waged with right/moral intention and must have an objective, not merely a subjective or selfish, aim.

2. Proportionality: The gravity of the situation must warrant the extreme measure of war.

3. Reasonable chance for success: Sending soldiers into suicidal missions for unobtainable objectives is unacceptable.

4. Public declaration of war: Those to be attacked must be given fair warning and the opportunity to avoid violent conflict through accession.

5. Declaration only by legitimate authority.

6. Last resort: All pacific alternatives must have been exhausted before opting for war.

Grotius also insisted on the logical independence of jus ad bellum from jus in bello conditions, which specify limits on the means that engaged soldiers may employ in battle.(4) That the initiation of violence by a state is legitimate does not imply, according to defenders of just war theory, that "everything is permitted" on the battlefield. Grotius focused on three aspects of jus in bello: legitimate targets (only combatants may be targeted), acceptable means/proportionality (means may not exceed what is warranted by the cause), and treatment of prisoners (combatants are through capture rendered noncombatants). …

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