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The Call to Arms: Christianity and the Just War Tradition - The Relevance of the Tradition Today
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The Relevance of the Tradition Today

The society that Ramsey originally addressed in The Just War had abandoned the long-standing tradition of the just war theory. They wrongly believed that the only way to prevent war was to threaten total war. By casting off the rules that restrain the conduct of war, the world was in constant fear of nuclear annihilation.

The doctrine of mass deterrence did not create the peace that it had promised. The Vietnam War is but one example of how hostilities have continued even in the nuclear age. Fortunately, the frightening possibility of an all-out nuclear war never materialized. But the fact that we spent 40 years on the brink of such a war should serve as a warning. Without restraints to keep warfare barely civilized, conflict will devolve to mere barbarism.

With the end of the Cold War came a refocus on the just conduct of war. While it was the technology of nuclear arms that first led to questioning the relevance of the just war theory, it was technology that led us back. The use of smart bombs and precision-guided munitions (PGMs) in the First Gulf War demonstrated how a just war could be fought in the modern era. The days of carpeting bombing and the resulting civilian casualties were over; we could now take out military targets with accurate precision. A munitions depot could now be destroyed with a single bomb while leaving the surrounding buildings undamaged. The just conduct of war was now more practical than ever before.

But now a new threat has emerged. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 and our subsequent military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq have once again called into question the relevance of the just war tradition. Al-Qaeda is not a nation; yet it declared war on the United States through its reprehensible attack on the World Trade Center. The insurgents our troops are facing in the Middle East owe allegiance not to a particular flag but to an Islamic fundamentalist ideology. The just war tradition and its subsequent codification in the Geneva Conventions and Laws of Armed Conflict (LOAC) were meant to guide conflict between nation-states with clearly identifiable military forces. It is this kind of warfare that our smart bombs and PGMs were designed for. But how does one conduct a just war when the enemy is not a nation but a group of religious extremists who do not conform to the traditional definitions of combatants? How does one fight an enemy that disguises itself as non-combatants in order to get close enough to kill our soldiers, and still maintain the principle of distinction?

We are faced today with the same dilemma that Ramsey addressed more than 40 years ago. Have the “previous norms for the ‘just’ war,” as the editor of Worldview contends, “been rendered obsolete”?32 Our current enemy blatantly defies the tenets of just war conduct and the LOAC. They dress as non-combatants in order to get close to our soldiers; they attack non-military targets to induce terror; they hide in hospitals and mosques, knowing it is illegal for our military to target these structures; they do not discriminate between combatant status, readily beheading civilians for the purposes of propaganda and using women and children as suicide bombers. We are facing an unscrupulous enemy that knows no moral limits. Do we in turn then lift the restrictions on our conduct as well? When a mob encroaches, do we indiscriminately fire into the crowd since we cannot distinguish between those that are hostile and those that are not? When we discover that Al-Qaeda operatives are hiding in a city but cannot narrow down their exact location, do we directly target civilian centers rather than risk the possibility that they might escape?

The answer, of course, is no. Adherence to the LOAC is not only mandated by the Uniform Code of Military Justice, it is the moral choice. We must still respect the immunity of non-combatants even though our enemy does not. While it may be a just action for a Christian to forcefully resist an enemy military force, he cannot in the process directly intend the harm of innocents. Just as Ramsey argued against the immorality of targeting cities for nuclear obliteration, it would be immoral for us to target civilian areas indiscriminately in an effort to kill an enemy that may or may not be hiding there. The ends do not justify the means.

We as a nation cannot abandon the principles of distinction and proportionality in order to achieve our objectives in the Middle East. No matter how evil our enemy, we must continue to abide by the rules of just conduct. Now more than ever, it is important that we hold ourselves to the higher standard even when our enemy will not. This is how we turn the other cheek: by not fighting for revenge, but by treating POWs humanely, by respecting the non-combatant status of those we are there to protect even when it may put us in harms way. We will never win the war on terror unless we demonstrate the love of God to those we are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is for love of neighbor that we fight; it is also for love of neighbor that we must eventually make peace.

Patrick J. Reimnitz is a major in the United States Air Force and is currently stationed at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, where he serves as a program manager and Chief, Developmental Threats Section. He received his M.A. in Theological Studies from Loyola Marymount University (LMU) in 2012.

Prior to his current assignment, Major Reimnitz served as an Air Force ROTC instructor at Detachment 040 at LMU, where he taught Leadership Studies for three years. He wrote this paper to help his students reconcile their moral beliefs with military service. It was selected as the best graduate-level paper in the Huffington Ecumenical Institute's 2011 War and Peace Symposium.


1. Paul Ramsey, The Just War: Force and Political Responsibility (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1968), 181.

2. James Turner Johnson, Just War Tradition and the Restraint of War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), xxii-xxiii.

3. Ibid., xxii.

4. Ibid., xxiii.

5. Ramsey, The Just War, 161.

6. Ibid., 161.

7. Ibid., 147.

8. Ibid., 154.

9. Ibid., 164.

10. Ibid., 164.

11. Ibid., 146.

12. Johnson, Just War Tradition, xxvi.

13. Ramsey, The Just War, 143.

14. Eberhard Schokenhoff, "The Universal Claim of Biblical Ethics," in idemNatural Law & Human Dignity: Universal Ethics in an Historical World, trans. Brian McNeil (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 268.

15. Heinz Schürmann, “How Normative are the Values and Precepts of the New Testament?” in Principles of Christian Morality, by Josef Ratzinger, Heinz Schürmann and Hans Urs von Balthasar (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1975), 25.

16. Schockenhoff, Natural Law & Human Dignity, 272.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid., 275.

19. Ramsey, The Just War, 142-143.

20. Ibid., 142.

21. Ibid., 143.

22. Ibid., 143.

23. Ibid., 145.

24. Ibid., 146.

25. Ibid.

26. Josef Fuchs, “The Absoluteness of Behavioral Moral Norms,” in Introduction to Christian Ethics, ed. Ronald Hamel and Kenneth R. Himes (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), 503.

27. Ibid.

28. Ramsey, The Just War, 150.

29. Ibid.

30. Ibid., 152.

31. Ibid., 145.

32. “The Pacifist Question,” worldview, Vol. III, No. 7-8 (July-August 1960), 1.


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Last Updated on Monday, 23 July 2012 11:36