Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

New Wine in Old Wineskins-Twenty-First Century Ethical Challenges for the Just War Tradition

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

New Wine in Old Wineskins-Twenty-First Century Ethical Challenges for the Just War Tradition

Article excerpt


How much flexibility is there in the just war tradition to accommodate new challenges? In an era of globalization, multiculturalism, and pluralist ethics, what are some of the challenges for the continuing relevance of the just war tradition? Will it continue to have credibility and influence in the twenty-first century, or will it become an example of trying to make something that is dated conform to an environment for which it is not suited ending in disappointment and disaster? (1) This essay argues that the just war tradition remains viable for present and future considerations of war.

The just war tradition is firmly and historically rooted in Christian thought and theology, western political thought and ethics as derived from ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and law, and the history of warfare in the West. It arose, not in a vacuum, but in the midst of the violence and values of western civilization as a fluid concept that has flowed throughout western history for more than fifteen hundred years with many tributaries of thought and practice.

When looking at the relationship of the tradition to present and future warfare, it is helpful to remember that the history of European and American warfare and the history of the just war tradition are not identical, nor even necessarily complementary. The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the wars of religion during the sixteenth century, and wars associated with colonial expansion are only a few of the many violent episodes in European history that often failed to uphold the values and goals of the just war tradition. (2) It is indeed, an historical tradition, but the values that underlie it are ones that affect all people of all ages. Thus, James Turner Johnson, one of the most prominent of contemporary just war proponents and thinkers, argues:

   The just war idea is not free-floating, to be given whatever
   content one may think appropriate in whatever context.
   Understanding its meaning means engagement with the tradition out
   of which it comes and entering into dialog with the classical
   statement of the just war idea within that tradition.... Just war
   tradition has to do with defining the possible good use of force,
   not finding exceptional cases when it is possible to use something
   inherently evil (force) for the purposes of good. (3)

Thinking about warfare within the just war tradition means wrestling with ideas and values that are upheld because they are considered greater than any individual, nation, or era. Therefore, every generation of diplomats, strategists, ethicists, business leaders, and military professionals must wrestle with the tradition and its applicability to contemporary technology and circumstances. Because the tradition is grounded in moral, legal, religious, political, and ethical values--values that transcend any given era or society--its viability as a framework for reducing conflict continues. (4)

Just a War or Just War?

The just war tradition has three important functions. First, it seeks to limit the outbreak and devastation of war. Second, the just war tradition offers a common moral framework and language for discussing issues of war in the public arena. It provides a starting point for discussion of some of the most critical ideas and activities that a nation can promulgate and in which it and participate. Third and finally, the just war tradition gives moral guidance to individuals in developing their conscience, responsibilities, and response. It provides a framework for individual and collective ethical evaluation.

Throughout its long history proponents of the just war tradition continuously have addressed new developments in technology, tactics, political theory and international law in attempts to give ethical guidance for warfare--one of the greatest traumas humans experience and inflict on one another. Because issues of war and peace are literally issues of life and death, the tragedy of war must neither be forgotten nor minimized. …

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