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Saint Augustine
The Call to Arms: Christianity and the Just War Tradition
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Article Index
The Call to Arms: Christianity and the Just War Tradition
Just War Theory
Rooted in Christian Love
Rooted in Christian Love (continued)
The Relevance of the Tradition Today
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By Major Patrick J. Reimnitz, U.S. Air Force, M.A., Chief of the Developmental Threats Section, Hill Air Force Base, Utah


Since war first showed its ugly face on the scene of history, humanity has dreamt of a world without conflict. Throughout history, many attempts have been made to end hostilities between nations: peace treaties, arranged marriages, the League of Nations, the United Nations. None, however, have succeeded.

Sadly, history has demonstrated time and again that war is an inevitable part of human existence. Efforts towards peace, though noble and necessary, have not been able to eliminate all conflict between nations. We live in a fallen world, and this reality predicates that conflict will arise. As long as our current system of nation-states exists, war will remain a certainty.

Along with that certainty comes the need for rules to govern its conduct. What defines a just cause to go to war? Are all wars just? Who can be targeted in a war? Are there moral limits to what a military force can do to the enemy?

The traditional answer to these questions has been a set of guidelines known as the just war theory. The just war theory, which has been shaped by such thinkers as Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas, lays down the conditions for when the use of force is justifiable in a conflict between nations. Additionally, it delineates how combat is to be conducted once a war has begun. Perhaps most importantly, it emphasizes the protection of non-combatants; those not directly participating in the conflict are not to be targeted for military actions.

The tenets of the just war theory have guided the conduct of war amongst western nations for centuries. However, with the advent of nuclear weapons in the mid-1900s came a change in warfare philosophy, one that made no moral distinction between combatant and non-combatant, between direct and indirect targeting. War, it was reasoned, could be avoided through the threat of mutual destruction by nuclear arms. No longer would it be necessary to conduct war in the traditional sense. Rather, by stockpiling these weapons of mass destruction, politicians hoped to create an atmosphere of mutual annihilation, one in which only the most irrational would risk war, with the consequence being nuclear retaliation.

But the threat of mutual annihilation is effective only if one actually intends to carry out that threat. In other words, in order to keep the Soviets in check through the fear of having their cities destroyed by nuclear weapons, the United States had to be willing to actually use those weapons against Russian cities. This is where the doctrine of deterrence breaks ways with the traditional understanding of the just war. By making whole cities viable military targets, deterrence did away with long-established distinctions; it was now possible to directly target civilian centers without regard to combatant status.

It is this prospect that Paul Ramsey, a noted moral theologian and scholar, addresses in his 1968 book, The Just War: Force and Political Responsibility. Ramsey believes that the doctrine of mass deterrence – that the threat of mutual destruction by nuclear weapons will deter war – is both irresponsible and immoral as it eliminates the traditional moral guidelines for just actions in combat. “The [nuclear] weapons in existence today have made the ‘unjust’ conduct of war … into the central war”1 by making cities and population centers, considered immune from direct attack under the just war theory, into the primary targets.

Faced with the prospect of a war without rules, without a moral economy to govern its conduct, Ramsey asks us to revisit the principles of the just war theory. In this essay, I will explore the need for a set of the rules to govern the conduct of a just war. I will demonstrate how the theory of justifiable war has its roots in Christian love, and how this moral economy at the same time justifies and limits war by distinguishing between legitimate and non-legitimate targets. Finally, I will explore how the just war theory still has relevance in today’s War on Terror.

Last Updated on Monday, 23 July 2012 11:36