Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Basic Principles of the Just War Tradition

Regular readers of this blog know that I have been asked to argue the biblical case for gospel nonviolence or “Christian pacifism.” I have done this many times in other places, so one thing I am doing is going back to my files rather than attempt to recreate the wheel. However, before I get started, I find it necessary to remind many of the principles of Just War Theory. Despite the fact that this has been the semi-official ethic of Western civilization regarding war and peace for about 1600 years, and despite the fact that the majority of Western Christians since Augustine have considered themselves adherents of JWT, there seems to be a woeful ignorance about the basics of this tradition, even among the seminary trained. Further, it seems that few pastors of non-pacifist churches discuss these principles with parishioners, leaving them without the information and without forming them in the moral virtues it would take to make this a serious moral force in the world.

I consider gospel nonviolence to be a calling for Christians, not necessarily for nation-states. My criticisms of particular wars or lost opportunities for peace are usually rooted in the common Just War vocabulary that forms the basis of much international law, relevant portions of the U.S. military’s Uniform Code of Military Justice, etc.–in short, the moral standards claimed by the mainstream Western world. So, it looks like this pacifist will have to give some remedial Just War instruction–even if only to avoid misunderstanding.

The principles below were hammered out over time. They were forged by major influential moral thinkers (e.g., St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Hugo Grotius, etc.) with an assumption that nations will make war. This ethic attempts to tame war and have it fought more morally than otherwise–sometimes to great success, but not at other periods of history. The overarching premise is a moral presumption against war: War is a terrible evil. It should be morally very difficult to justify going to war and the conduct of the war must be fought within very tight guidelines. General Sherman famously remarked that “War is hell,” but, if so, the major premise of JWT is that there must rules even in hell.

As the Just War Tradition has developed, it has been distilled into seven (7) principles: five (5) that judge whether a decision to go to war is morally justifiable (ius ad bellum) and two (2) to guide just conduct in waging the war (ius in bello). There is also a corollary that we will discuss at the end of this review.

IS THIS WAR MORALLY JUSTIFIED? Ius ad bellum Principles:

  1. Legitimate Authority: According to JWT, not just anyone can decide to go to war. The decision must be made by a legally recognized authority. In ancient times, this was the emperor or king. In the U.S., the constitutional right and duty to declare war is given to Congress alone (Art. I), even though the president is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and has the authority to negotiate peace. The purpose of the Constitutional Framers was to make it more difficult for the nation to go to war. A major legal question of the current Iraq war/occupation is whether or not this requirement was met by the Congressional resolution that authorized Pres. Bush to use all necessary force to disarm Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction (never found). Some say “yes,” but others believe that a formal declaration of war must be issued by Congress, that the Constitution does not allow this “passing of the buck” to the Executive Branch. Many Just War thinkers insist on a formal Declaration of War, not just to fulfill a legal requirement for the U.S., but because this has historically served as a last opportunity to sue for peace before the battle begins. Since the creation of the United Nations and the signing of its Charter, it has also usually been contended that, unless attacked or under immediate threat of attack, member nations have surrendered the right to declare war unilaterally. The legal authority in all cases except immediate attack or threat is then the UN Security Council. Member nations may not unilaterally presume to enforce Security Counsel resolutions by force.

  2. Just Cause: A war may not be fought for national pride or to expand territory, etc., but only for a just cause, such as resistance to aggression by means of attack or threat of attack. In extreme cases, such as attempts at genocide, a war may be justifiable to prevent an incredible violation of human rights, such as when North Vietnam invaded Cambodia to stop the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. Because war is so horrible, however, the bar is very high for justifications to invade a sovereign nation for any other reason than to resist aggression. This is the only principle with which most Americans and American Christians seem familiar (although they too easily think that the national cause must always be authomatically just–an idea that is anathema to this tradition). When asked whether war X or Y is just, they will point to the presence or absence of a Just Cause–and forget about the other principles.

  3. Just Intent: The aims of the war must be just and limited: to restore peace and justice, not vengeance. The classic example where this was violated was WWI. The desire of the Allies (especially France) to punish and humiliate Germany was unjust and sowed the seeds for the rise of Naziism. Over the years, Just War theorists have been very conservative at this point–generally disapproving of overly grand war aims such as militarily spreading democracy throughout theMiddle Eeast. International law reflects such conservatism. (Note: This also puts severe restraints upon an occupying power–it may not profit economically by the war, but must protect and restore the health of the occupied country.)

  4. Last Resort: All other means to resolve the dispute must have been tried and shown to fail, before one may justifiably unleash the dogs of war. I will have more to say about this in a future post on the practices of the developing ethic of “just peacemaking.”

  5. Reasonable Chance of Success: A war must not be initiated or continued if there is no reasonable chance of success. This is counter-intuitive to the American penchant for admiring underdogs who “go down fighting.” But it is based on the concept that it is unjust to ask citizens and soldiers to go through the horrors of war–no matter how just the cause–if it appears that said war is likely to end without achieving the aims of the war or, even worse, in a crushing defeat.

All 5 of the principles of ius ad bellum must be met before JWT believes it morally justifiable to go to war. One can have a clearly just cause and just intent, but if one has not met the other requirements, especially last resort, then going to war is unjust.

ARE WE WAGING THIS WAR JUSTLY? ius in bello Principles or Just Means:

  1. The Principle of Discrimination: Those waging the war must (a) honor noncombatant or civilian immunity. Thus, noncombatants may not be directly targetted. As modern war has grown more destructive, this rule has tightened to say that those waging war must take extra care to minimize civilian deaths–even at greater risk to one’s own soldiers. Any tactic or weapon that makes discrimination between combatant and noncombtant impossible or difficult, is thereby forbidden. (The classic examples here are nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, but this judgment has also been made about landmines, bombing civilian cities or infrastructure, etc.) Noncombatant immunity also means that prisoners captured in war must be treated humanely. They are like chess pieces removed from the board–they may be interrogated, but not tortured or treated inhumanely. (b) Military forces limit themselves to military targets, refraining from looting, massacres, rapes and other atrocities, and all forms of wanton violence. Most war crimes trials result from violations of these principles of discrimination–and “the other side started it” is never a justifiable excuse.

  2. The Principle of Proportionality. [This principle is also used in judging “reasonable chance of success” in the decision of whether or not to go to war.] Wars are violent. People are killed and both property and the land are destroyed. This principle says that war’s violence and destruction must be restrained by the norm of proportionality: The war’s harm must not exceeed the good accomplished. This applies both to the war as a whole, and to particular tactics or weapons. There can be no “destroying the village to save the village” nonsense.

Selective Conscientious Objection: The corollary of the Just War tradition is that people, including those already in the military, will refuse to serve in an unjust war–no matter the cost to themselves, even prison. Recent examples include the Israeli refuseniks who have resisted serving in the occupied territories of Palestine and several military members in the current Iraq war, such as Lt. Ehren Watada. (Thanks to “Marty on the Homefront” for posting that video of Lt. Watada’s speech at the annual meeting of Veterans for Peace.)

The churches which claim to embrace JWT are failing their members by not teaching them these principles and not preparing those of their members who choose military service for the possibility of needing to become a conscientious objector to a particular war. On the battlefield, soldiers may have to refuse an order which violates discrimination or proportionality–even at risk of field court martial and summary execution. This is extraordinarily difficult. Even though the Uniform Code of Military Justice explains to recruits the difference between “lawful” and “unlawful” orders, the ethos is (in some senses must be) one in which it is extraordinarily difficult to question orders. The same is true of all other armies of other nations. So, churches that fail to form in their members the moral character that would make such integrity and bravery possible are not really preparing them to be soldiers in the Just War tradition, but to be uncritical nationalists and militarists instead.

At its best, JWT is a high and difficult moral code. But there are limits to it that even non-pacifists have noted. In future posts, I will discuss those limits and the practices of “just peacemaking.” I will also, with that out of the way, make the case for Christian pacifism/gospel nonviolence.


August 18, 2006 - Posted by | just war theory


  1. I find it interesting that the people who seem to know the most about Just War Theory are pacifists…

    As a former soldier can you tell me, is JWT covered in military training?

    (seems like it might be counterproductive (from their point of view)…wouldn’t want soldiers deciding, “Hey! This war violates JWT, I’ve gotta opt out!”)

    Comment by Dan Trabue | August 18, 2006

  2. It is (or was when I was there 2 decades back) covered during basic training, but in a quick and superficial manner. It is covered more in depth in officer training.

    In my opinion, today’s soldiers, especially reservists who are often in college, are far more aware than previously. Check out so much of what Marty on the Homefront gathers from serving troops, plus Iraq Veterans Against the War, etc. What prevents a more massive resistance than in the latter half of Vietnam, I think, is the nature of the all-volunteer military. I hear far more about “but I signed a contract,” than about the right and duty of selective CO.

    So, our culture is so capitalist that the morality of contract fulfillment trumps any duties of citizenship or duties to conscience and one’s God, etc.

    Another factor, far more longstanding than this contract development, is that, however much a soldier (sailor, marine, airman) learns in theory about the difference between lawful and unlawful orders, the military creates a culture of obedience (one of the themes of A Few Good Men, which I liked for different reasons than Joe Cathey). It is very difficult, even for bright, educated officers, to question orders. And this is understandable–it probably saves lives in combat. But it also makes atrocities, etc. more likely, as one “just following orders” comes to surrender one’s very conscience.

    That’s why I said that, to work, JWT needs to have people whose characters have been formed in virtues that don’t just include physical courage and obedience, but questioning, a commitment to truth, to justice, compassion, a willingness to suffer ostracism, etc. Churches or synagogues, etc. could form those virtues in folk–it wouldn’t be the nonviolent way of Jesus, but it would sure be a huge improvement over the job being done now. In my opinion.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 18, 2006

  3. ‘My friend, you would not tell with such high zest to children ardent for some desperate glory the old lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro Patria Mori.”
    –Wilfred Owen

    Thanks for posting this. Did you see the comment Marcguyver made when I posted Lt. Watada’s speech? I’m going to suggest he stop by here and read this.

    The little Methodist church that I have been attending the last couple of months is the closest I think I am going to find to a peace church in Houston. Each week the pastor prays that the nations leaders dig deep into their souls to find the way of peace, reconciliation and forgiveness. Last Sunday, after the children’s sermon, which was on peacemaking, the pastor asked the children what that was on the altar. One little boy jumped up and said “That’s a peace pole”. The children made the pole as a project in Sunday School.

    Comment by Marty | August 18, 2006

  4. Marty, I am excited that you have found a good church home. Methodists used to be far more peace oriented than most are today and there is a movement to revive this emphasis.

    FYI and for others in your area and network, I know of at least 3 other peace oriented churches in Houston: 1) Houston Mennonite Church, 1231 Wirt Road, Houston, TX. http://www.houstonmennonite.org

    2) Live Oak Friends Meeting (Unprogrammed or “Silent” Friends/Quaker tradition), 1318 West 26th Street, Houston, TX 7708, 713-862-6685

    3) Covenant Church (Alliance of Baptists/American Baptist affiliated)–advertises itself as ecumenical/liberal and has the Baptist Peace Fellowship as one of its missions. 4949 Caroline, Houston, TX 77004 713-668-8830

    I’ll check out the comment on your site.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 19, 2006

  5. Marty, ECAPC and BPFNA liat only MEMBER churches. But when I was outreach coordinator for ECAPC, it was often my job to connect people to peace-loving churches–or, as close as possible. So, I kept a wider list. I found Houston Mennonite by using the Mennonite Church USA’s “find a church” feature and did the same to find the Friends’ Meeting.

    When I didn’t see a BPFNA partner congregation for Houston, I ;ooked on the website of the Allianc of Baptists, found Covenant and saw that it supported BPFNA and many other peace & justice missions. I will definitely be trying to get them to become a BPFNA partner.

    But, if you like the Methodist church where you are, stay there. Start a chapter of Methodists United for Peace with Justice or something.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 19, 2006

  6. This Methodist church is an endorser of Decade of Non-Violence 2001-2010. A church member is a 2006 Board member as well and is a peace activist. I will talk to her and see if she has ever heard of ECAPC. She may not know about it. They observed the UMC Peace with Justice Sunday on June 11.

    Comment by Marty | August 19, 2006

  7. I find it interesting that the people who know most about the just war theory are pacifists too. Mind you, I thought “just war” was an oxymoron.

    Comment by steph | August 20, 2006

  8. Well, Steph, I no longer think there can be “just wars” or “justifiable wars.” That’s why I left the army as a conscientious objector in ’83.

    But sometimes it helps to remind people who claim a different moral tradition just what their claimed moral tradition entails. As oxymoronic as “just war” sounds to you, surely someone who understands and lives the full JWT ethic (e.g., a Lt. Watada) is better than all the millions who think “just war” only means “if my cause or my nation’s cause is just, then anything we do is okay.”

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 20, 2006

  9. I agree with you absolutely. I only meant that I was surprised and fascinated by your blog of the JWT because I am so ignorant of it. But I am extremely grateful for your writing on pacifism and was not intending any disrespect, sorry!!

    Comment by steph | August 20, 2006

  10. No offense taken, Steph. Lack of voice tone, etc. can make for miscommunication through blogs, but I did not “hear” any disrespect. Thanks for stopping by from one of the last places of sanity on the planet. ūüôā

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 20, 2006

  11. So…..while we are deciding whether or not our current “Global War on Terror” is allowed under JWT law, the terrorists are figuring out better ways to wipe us off the planet.

    And when we all do finally decide to jump on board with all of you who live by JWT, and march in the streets by the tens of millions and cry for peace; the terrorists continue to find better ways to wipe us off the planet.

    But wait, once we finally get all of the Muslim Clerics, the angry Jihadists, and murdering roves of terrorist thugs to finally see the good of JWT, then we will finally…

    Hold on….that’ll never happen.

    Turn in all your firearms, burn all the U.S. Flags, and Impeach Bush. Instead of the 10 Commandments being posted, we need to post the JWT ‘by-laws’…..THIS WILL FINALLY BRING PEACE.
    Not defending yourself or others from murdering punks and cowards who don’t even value human life.

    While I may agree with many of the principles you outlined here, in what I must say was a very well written post, JWT will never stop the wolves from destroying innocent sheep. It would be great if we all believed in JWT, but the fact will always be, WE WON’T!
    The only way to stop forces hell bent on destroying humanity is to destroy them!! You can’t reason with this garbage; they’re hardened terrorists!

    Comment by Marcguyver | August 21, 2006

  12. Oh…and by the way.

    Who’s making sure the clowns who flew their planes into the towers are abiding by JWT??? Someone better get over there and start teaching this in their classrooms so the next generation understands this.

    Oh wait, that will never happen either.

    Comment by Marcguyver | August 21, 2006

  13. Marcguyver:

    1) There is no “war on terrorism.” It is a myth created by the Bush administration and aided and abetted by the media. Terrorism is a method. One cannot get rid of a method by means of war. War, by necessity, is waged against groups. At best a “war on terrorism” would be a metaphor for a global struggle, possibly with some military dimensions, to eliminate most of the groups which use terror methods–but, if one only or mainly used military force, one would just create more terrorists faster than one could kill them–as is happening.

    2)This government has never been interested in getting rid of terrorism–just terrorists angry at us. At Fort Benning, GA is the School of the Americas, re-named the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation because opponents of the SOA, like myself, kept calling it the School of Assassins. It has trained most of the great human rights abusers of Latin America. It is a training camp for rightwing state terrorists–paid for with U.S. tax dollars. We also ship much tax money to Pakistan, a terrorist state. Etc.

    3) No one is arguing whether or not a military response to 9/11 would have been justified. If we caught bin Laden in Afghanistan and then rebuilt that nation, instead of allowing the Taliban to come back as they have, we would have had very few critics. The invasion of Iraq, on the other hand, had zero to do with 9/11. There were no Iraqis among the hijackers. All the hijackers were Saudis, where the Wahabist distortion of Islam is from, except for 2 who were Pakistanis. Iraq was a secular dictatorship with little sympathy for bin Laden-style Islamic extremism. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It had been helpless for over a decade with starving children, 2 no-fly zones, and the most intrusive weapons inspection regime ever. ZERO of Iraq’s neihghbors feared attack.

    4) I have never burned the flag of any nation and would never be party to any who would.

    5) We aren’t wiping out terrorists, we are creating them. If this isn’t working, don’t you think it is time we start asking what will work?

    6) That section of the many groups which use terror methods who are inspired by twisted forms of Islam to want to attack the U.S. and other Western nations are not doing so because they hate humanity or “our freedoms.” They are responding (disgustingly, evilly, WRONGLY) to policies that they perceive to be oppressing their people. We MUST examine our policies if only to see what is motivating the hardened terrorists. We may decide that some of these policies are so wonderful that we need to keep them and simply live with the risks entailed by them. But we may find that some of our policies really ARE hurting people and we should change them. That’s NOT “rewarding terrorism.” It’s making it harder for terrorists to recruit.

    7) These aren’t MY principles. I am a pacifist; a former soldier who has rejected these principles for those of nonviolence and just peacemaking. These are the principles that our nation’s military claims to hold. Take them up with them.
    8) If our nation must become morally identical to those who attacked us on 9/11 in order to survive, then bin Laden has already won. If we become that which we hate, why SHOULD our civilization survive? If we have to give up freedom, democracy, the rule of law, concern for human rights–then what do we have left that make us worth saving?

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 21, 2006

  14. […] have previously spelled out the principles of just war theory here.¬†Tomorrow, I will revisit that post with more pointed application to the U.S./U.K. invasion of […]

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  15. […] like the Mail Lai massacre¬† were behind us and we would return to the strict adherence to Just War standards that I believed had been the usual U.S. military […]

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  16. […] Index of Posts on “Just War Theory” Basic Principles of Just War Theory […]

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  17. […] like the Mail Lai massacre¬† were behind us and we would return to the strict adherence to Just War standards that I believed had been the usual U.S. military […]

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