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Saint Augustine
The Moral Crisis of Just War: Beyond Deontology toward a Professional Military Ethic - The Crisis of Just War
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Article Index
The Moral Crisis of Just War: Beyond Deontology toward a Professional Military Ethic
The Crisis of Just War
The Crisis of the Deontological Vision of Just War
Beyond Values and Rules: Character, Virtue and a Professional Military Ethic
Just War, Character and Virtue
Character Amidst the Ruins: Virtue Across the Civilian-Miiltary Divide
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The Crisis of Just War


It is widely recognized that we have entered a new era of warfare. With horrible poignancy, on September 11, 2001 terrorism announced that it had come of age. No longer are wars waged between symmetrical powers - state versus state; now we are immersed in asymmetrical warfare, where states face non-state enemies who are palpably post-modern: trans-national, decentralized, more closely resembling a fog or that mythic beast with multiple and multiplying heads, the hydra, than the traditional more or less well-defined and (at least potentially) containable national enemy. Moreover, this hydra is one given particularly to living amongst and preying upon civilians. In other words, this is an enemy who does not respect the traditional western moral parameters of warfare.

The response to this new kind of enemy – originally a global war on terrorism, now global counterinsurgency - has been no less remarkable for the novel directions it has taken warfare.15 Consider, for example, the strategy of “shock and awe,”16 with its stated aim of inflicting the psychological equivalent of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the enemy population, of the policy of preventative war as outlined in the US National Security Strategy of 2002,17 the illegitimacy of neutrality as implied in President Bush’s address to a joint session of Congress on September 20th, 2001, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” the collapse of the international principle of national sovereignty and self-determination as the enemy is pursued across national boundaries around the globe (with cruise missiles, stealth missions, or the use of unmanned drones), or the softening of international conventions on war as enemy combatants (and in many cases, civilians) are stripped of the protections of the Geneva Conventions etc. and imprisoned under harsh conditions, often after being “disappeared” to clandestine locations inaccessible to the likes of the Red Cross. And these are only some of the characteristics of this new way of war. No doubt, much is happening about which we know nothing, given that this war involves not only more conventional, visible campaigns like those in Afghanistan and Iraq but also “ghost wars,” fought covertly in ways such that, as President Bush said, we will not know that they have begun or ended.

Accompanying this recognition is the suspicion that these developments have finally rendered the just war tradition obsolete, irrelevant, impossible.18 In these changed circumstances, the traditional criteria just do not seem to fit. Global counterinsurgency and the demands of waging it successfully defy such antiquated notions like legitimate authority, last resort, and the necessity of distinguishing between combatant and non-combatant.

Put more starkly, are we not now in a perpetual (color-coded) “supreme emergency,” to use Michael Walzer's well-known concept,19 one that does not permit us the luxury of the moral purity or “clean hands” that the just war tradition, in more amenable times, afforded? Or, to echo the logic some have used in defense of suspending key protections of the Bill of Rights, surely the just war tradition is not a “suicide pact,”20 rigidly binding us to a code of conduct in the face of a vicious enemy that does not share our moral vision of war? Or as the US administration's briefs suggest, does not the “military necessity” of crushing the evil of terrorism overrule the binding character of just war criteria?

The challenges presented to the just war tradition by the current situation are real. For example, as warfare shifts from the nation-state model to conflict with and between non-state actors, the criterion of legitimate authority, which has traditionally lodged the authority to wage war with heads of state, is called into question. Likewise, the current situation appears to many to render the criterion of “last resort” vacuous. After all, it is argued, when facing a purely evil, irrational, nihilistic enemy like a terrorist movement, war becomes the only possible means of response.21 In a similar manner, many proponents of the war against terror note the difficulty both with identifying what the successful end of such a war would look like and how to measure the probability of attaining that end. Consequently they have effectively replaced this criterion with what might be called a “sincere hope for success.”22 Lastly, the difficulties the current situation presents to the criterion of non-combatant immunity are obvious. The predominantly civilian context of this war has led some to suggest that the distinction between civilian and military may disappear altogether23 and that prohibitions on practices like torture are anachronistic. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, in this setting, even the long-standing principle of the “moral equality of soldiers,” whereby ordinary combatants are not considered criminal merely for prosecuting war, as well as the general immunity from criminal guilt afforded civilian populations, is being called into question.24

Although the challenges are real, the shadow of suspicion cast over the just war tradition by the current situation is itself not an entirely novel development. Indeed, it could be argued that the just war tradition has never been entirely at home in the modern world. The tradition was largely eclipsed with the rise of modern modes of war, and although the creation of international law as well as military manuals, like Leiber’s General Orders No. 100, attempted to reassert some moral restraint on war that was quickly becoming total, it was not until the latter half of the twentieth-century that the just war tradition was seriously re-engaged on a wide scale.25 Yet even as it was being re-engaged, its viability was questioned, particularly in light of nuclear realities.26

Furthermore, public perception and the heralds of “4th generation warfare” notwithstanding, the current asymmetrical context is not unprecedented.27 The just war tradition arose and came into its own before the advent of nation-states. Indeed, it was precisely the variegated threats posed by decentralized bodies of fighting men in the high middle ages - brigands, mercenaries, pirates, and even feudal lords themselves - that prompted the just war tradition to further limit the scope of justified violence by narrowing legitimate authority and enhancing non-combatant immunity.28

So, if the neither the question put to the tradition, nor the circumstances that currently prompt such a question are new, then why the generalized sense that the just war tradition is perilously close to eclipse? Certainly there is some truth in the claims of those who suggest that the crisis is brought on by certain crypto-pacifist distortions of the tradition that effectively make it impossible to satisfy the criteria. There are, for example, those who assert that any non-combatant casualties render a war unjust or that there can always be one more intervention before last resort. Likewise, there is certainly some truth in the claims of those who suggest that the mere invocation of the tradition's language is not a sign of the tradition's health but conversely a sign of its brokenness. After all, realists and their PR apparatus are not above cynically and pragmatically using (parts of) the tradition on behalf of agendas that do not in fact cohere with the tradition.

Yet, the distortions and manipulations of the just war tradition are not the root of the tradition’s current crisis of moral legitimacy. However these and similar misuses of the tradition contribute to the sense of crisis, they do not get to the heart of the matter. For the tradition's difficulties run deeper than its mere manipulation and abuse. Rather, the challenge currently confronting the just war tradition arises from the moral vision that underwrites the dominant contemporary approach to just war.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 10 July 2012 12:32