Is War ever Just?

In his novel, The Things They Carried, novelist Tim O’brien, writing about the Vietnam War, says: “A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.” Paul Tibbetts, commander of the Enola Gay, which dropped the A-Bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, was asked repeatedly if he regretted the bombing. He claimed that he never lost a night’s sleep, that there was no reason to, as the bombing was part of war, and war is neither moral nor immoral—it is amoral, that is, morality does not exist in wartime.

If war is amoral, then anything goes. Immorality in war at least implies there is an opposite condition, morality, that countering evil is good. Amorality means simply that there are no rules, no standards, no leniency, no forgiveness—just outright brutal, instinctual conflict. Perhaps Tibbetts believed that it is absurd even to contemplate morality or immorality, because during the face of battle the soldiers themselves are so overwhelmed, so scared, so brutalized, that an amoral response is the only option.

The polar opposite of Tibbett’s point of view is the doctrine of Just War, which brings morality to bear on war, and is considered and practiced by the religions of the Judeo-Christian heritage, including Islam. The Jews, as their ideas are presented in the Old Testament, believed that war is just, that is holy, since it is sanctioned by God, or Yahweh. Indeed to fulfill His divine will, Yahweh called upon and directed the Hebrews in a a series of wars to conquer the land of Canaan and defend their conquest. When the Hebrews came to the city of Jericho, led by their commander, Moses’s successor Joshua, Yahweh helped them to destroy the walls of the city; He commanded them to destroy all life in the city, humans as well as livestock. The book of Deuteronomy counseled the Hebrews that when they made war against the Hittites, Amorites, and Canaanites that “of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, though shalt save alive nothing that breatheth.” (Deuteronomy, 20: 16)

In contrast, Islamic Jihad, holy war, differs according to which branch of Islam, Sunni or Shi’ite, is interpreting the Qur’an, the holy scripture of Islam. For Sunni’s, Allah approves holy war only for defensive, rather than offensive, purposes: to defend a religious shrine, religious freedom, and mosques. War cannot be initiated; it is only a response to aggression. Noncombatants cannot be killed, and prisoners must be treated fairly. Admittedly, there are some passages in the Qur’an that imply offensive jihad, and some Sunni’s countenance the practice; but by and large it is against Sunni teachings. The Shi’ites, on the other hand, believe that jihad is a pillar of Islam that every male must practice. As the Qu’ran says, Sura 9:5: “Slay the idolaters wherever you find them.” Holy war is the means of building the world order of peace and justice as required by Allah. Jihad can be aggressive, not just for defensive purposes. But the jihadist cannot impose his beliefs on his enemy.

Notwithstanding the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, Christianity has also developed a concept of just war. For Christians, war is just only when it is unavoidable, and war is the only way to achieve justice. The nine tenets of just war, as outlined by Roman Catholicism, are:

  1. Just war is based on just cause, for defense, to protect against invasion.
  2. Just war must be waged by competent authority such as authorized government.
  3. Just war must be comparatively more just than the alternative, the enemy’s ways and point of view.
  4. Just war must be made through right intention.
  5. Just war must be the last resort.
  6. Just war must be waged only if there is a probability of success.
  7. Just war must be proportional: more good must arise from it than evil.
  8. Just war must be fought with more morality than immorality.
  9. Just war must be discriminating: some places and peoples should not be attacked.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew, 5: 38-9) Such were the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. But could he have seriously meant this? How can his teaching of nonresistance to evil and turning the other cheek be reconciled with the concept of just war? Jesus was talking of personal sin in this sermon. He was counseling against sin. If a person strikes another, which is a sin, to strike back, even in self-defense, is a sin as well. Do not allow the sinner to cause you to sin as well. So turn the other cheek, and avoid sin. But can a nation do this? When the British tried to take the ammunition that the Americans were hiding at Concord, Massachusetts, in April, 1775, would it have been better for the Americans to have allowed them into the town, to turn the other cheek, hence to avoid war? When South Carolina fired upon Fort Sumter in April, 1861, would it have been better for Lincoln to have denounced the act, but not to have called up 70,000 northern militia to respond in war? When the Germans provoked the United States in 1917 by barbarous acts at sea and by the Zimmerman Telegram, would it have been better for Wilson to have denounced the former and ignored the latter, not to have been drawn into a barbaric and evil war? When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, was there any way the Americans could have turned the other cheek? When Iraq refused to allow United Nations weapons inspectors into its country, and seemed to be building WMD’s, in 2002 and 2003, would it have been better to react patiently, rather than invade the country, a decision that was later regretted? When should a country turn the other cheek and not seek vengeance? Is it even possible for a country, much less a person, to turn the other cheek and not to return violence with violence? As Jesus knew, as long as the response is violence, in anger and vengeance, rather than passivity, turning the other cheek, refusing to sin, war will continue to haunt humankind, forever.

About theamericanplutarch

Writer, thinker, historian.
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8 Responses to Is War ever Just?

  1. This is a tough one. I can see both sides of this issue amoral or Just War. If we argued for a Just War then World War II might be considered that. However, the Catholic Church also helped the Nazi’s in many ways so one may wonder about their claims of Just War here. Just War could also be used as a justification for atrocities on all sides. If the Nazi’s had won, and in 1942 they were in control of Europe, they could have justified the extermination of some 15 million people as inferior. I tend to side on the amoral claim. Weapons like the Atomic Bomb when viewed within this context can tend to lesson the human impact. That is very difficult even for those who are not affiliated with any particular religion. War has a terrible affect upon humans no matter what side they fall upon. And if we separate the warrior who inflicts the wounds from the actions of war, what is to stop war from breaking out for any particular reason? Due to the increased usage of drones could we not be facing war as a matter of fact existence in the near future? Though I am not a member of any particular religion, I do think that World War II was justified to prevent the likes of Hitler and Mussolini from controlling half the world. And at the time that was not necessarily out of the question. Indeed, it was not clear at the beginning of 1942 that the allies would win. So the question of morality or amorality is a big question. The last war with Iraq could be called a war of amorality. What moral reason would be found to invade a country that could only defend itself with sticks? There was no doubt about who would win, But one can argue that the peace was lost. As you can tell I am struggling with this particular aspect. But with your example of the Atomic Bomb let’s consider this. Given the plans for a home invasion of Japan that the War Department had develop3ed, the war would have taken another 2 years to end. And the battle for Okinawa had some real devastating affects upon the Japanese civilian population who had the misfortune of trusting the propaganda that was printed about the allies. The US and allied forces were going to face an armed civilian population that was ready to fight to the death Whole families committed suicide rather than surrender to the Americans. Cab we not argue that the Atomic bomb actually saved civilian and American lives by ending the war much sooner than projected?

  2. Darren Tafft says:

    I found this very interesting I just wish it had come up a month or so earlier as in my dissertation about the first opium war I wrote a chapter on the justification. I found it a fascinating area. What I would like to add or ask is would you agree that the justification of war by governments after the event is a new. As in my research there was no press reports after the signing of the Nanjing treaty saying this is why we went to war. As happens more and more in 20th century.

    • Darren, as the modern media became prolific in the 20th, and as, in the wake of World War I and World War II and their incredible devastation, citizens throughout the world, especially in the West, became concerned for the rights of noncombatants, governments had to figure out how to explain war, and make it consistent with Christian conceptions of morality.

  3. Renee says:

    This blog poses and interesting, and complicated question. I would like to say that yes there is such a thing as a just war, simply because of the current state of affairs in the Middle East, but that is over simplifying the complexities of a war. I believe that it was absolutely just for us to “hit back” in retaliation, because we were defending our country and the lives of Americans all over the world. The reason however, that we regret the Iraqi invasions is because we were trying to police the world, instead of defending our country. It is a very blurry line between just and unjust in regards to war, but we need to take the higher, or more “moral” course of action, and defend not attack.

  4. Tyson Poskochil says:

    I believe there is such a thing as just war, and it certainly depends on the circumstances. Certainly, World War II is a prime example of that, as the extermination of certain groups of people with intent to achieve a master race is unjust, immoral, and has no place in the world of human relations. One could certainly have argued for the same, initially, in Iraq, considering Hussein had a history of murdering thousands of Kurds, Shiites, and outspoken anti-Baath government citizens, and his sons were pretty bad dudes, too. Unfortunately, faulty intelligence and the vacuum of insurgency caused by the regime overthrow, one could argue, did more harm than good. The fight against ISIS and other international terrorist groups is also, in my opinion, a just war, as they should be sought out before they slaughter innocents, which is their primary goal, and for which they cannot be negotiated with. Like the Nazis, they seek out a master religion, and this is contrary to the freedoms to choose how to or even if to worship, as we value in the West and so many other places in the world. So just war does exist, except that you have to approach it very carefully to determine what you’re fighting for and why.

  5. Thanks for your interesting comments!

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