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Just War in the 21st Century
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Just War in the 21st Century
Old Testament and War
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Christianity, the West and Just War in the Twenty-First Century

by Peter Lee, Ph.D., King’s College London, Lecturer in Air Power Studies at Royal Air Force College Cranwell in Lincolnshire, United Kingdom

This treatise was first published in Air Power Review, Volume 13, Number 3, Autumn/Winter 2010, pp. 65-84. This version contains several paragraphs that have been expanded from the originally published version. Air Power Review is a publication of the Royal Air Force College, Cranwell, Linconshire, United Kingdom. Reprinted with permission. The website address for Air Power Review is:

The past two decades have witnessed a number of military interventions by US, UK and other allied forces in theatres as diverse as Kuwait, the Balkan region of Europe, Iraq and Afghanistan. At different times over this period President Bill Clinton, President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair have made recourse to the vocabulary of just war in a bid to convince their respective peoples to support the deployment of military hardware and personnel in pursuit of political ends. Just war is characterised by a number of criteria that have been codified and embedded in Western war discourse over many centuries and are understood and spoken of beyond the abodes of the powerful and the planning rooms of the armed forces: just cause, right intention, last resort, legitimate authority, proportionality, discrimination of combatants and so on. This article explores early Christian influences on the just war tradition before discussing how the ongoing relevance of secularised versions of these ancient ideas is influencing why and how war is fought in the twenty-first century.

On 12 August 1880, in a speech at Columbus, Ohio, General William Tecumseh Sherman captured the essence of humankind’s fascination with war: “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but boys, it is all hell.” No poet or philosopher – either before or since – has encapsulated in so few words what it means when people or states seek political solutions through the use of military force. We honour the heroes, avert our gaze from the hideously wounded and maimed, and speak, often too glibly, of the sacrifices made on the field of battle. I have never experienced war first-hand: the gut-wrenching, heart-pounding cocktail of fear and exhilaration, tragedy and triumph that leaves its indelible mark on those who have found themselves in the firing line. I have, however, glimpsed the hell that war brings. In 2003 I was a military chaplain and glimpsed that hell in the eyes of a widow as she received the news of her fallen husband, and in the eyes of her children as they struggled to comprehend that daddy would never be coming home. I heard echoes of hell in the wavering voice of a young soldier who refused to believe that his new wife might still love him, having left half an arm in the sands of Iraq. I smelt the rancid stench of hell in the weeping bandages of the wounded whose eyes had been searching for the enemy one moment, only to re-open in the bed of a military hospital in another country.

A number of these soldiers professed some form of religious belief, Christian or otherwise; some were implacably opposed to any notions of God or religion; while others appeared not to care much either way. What united almost everyone I spoke to was a desire to understand whether Prime Minister Tony Blair had been right in sending them to war and whether they had conducted themselves properly or let down their comrades. When discussing the justification of the 2003 Iraq invasion or the conduct of individuals involved, the soldiers with whom I dealt, who had little or no philosophical schooling, instinctively resorted to ideas that have been associated with just war for many centuries. They asked questions and made statements like: Did we go in for a good reason? I still think we went for the oil! We should have waited. I don’t know why we’re here – it doesn’t make sense. My CO said we had to go in and that’s good enough for me! In these and other comments ancient just war criteria were the subject of debate once more, criteria that include just cause, right intention, last resort, legitimate authority, proportionality and discrimination of combatants. Not once did the notion of religious war surface, yet the terms in which war was discussed has ancient roots in Christian thought.

This article will provide an overview of some early Christian ideas on just war and their subsequent codification, before going on to consider the ongoing relevance of these ancient concepts, for Christians and non-Christians, in examining why and how war is fought in the twenty-first century. The types of war fought by UK and allied military forces over the past two decades, and the reasons for fighting them, have been different to many of those wars fought in the twentieth century: the two World Wars, the Falklands War and even the Gulf War against Iraq in 1991. Struggle for national survival and defence of sovereign territory has been replaced recently by counter-insurgency wars far from home in Afghanistan and Iraq. These campaigns have been promoted by the British government as a means of improving the security of the UK, whilst at the same time threats from international terrorist organisations against the UK have increased—with those threatening the UK blaming British military involvement in Muslim lands as a primary motivation.

In order to assess the place of just war in today’s rapidly changing global security context, the remainder of this article will take the following shape. The first section will look at the place of war and soldiering in the Bible, drawing attention to some practices that might still be relevant today and other practices of war – particularly from the Old Testament – that should not only be abandoned but opposed. The second section will consider some ideas of the great theologians Augustine and Aquinas concerning the Christian and war, showing how aspects of the just war tradition came to be codified in a way that is still recognisable in its secular form today. The final section will address the relevance of these ancient just war ideas in the current national and global security environment by analysing Prime Minister Blair’s justification of military intervention and the challenges facing those engaged in battle in Afghanistan. Not only will key ideas from both the Bible and great Christian thinkers of the past be applied to contemporary challenges, the limitations of some of these ideas will also be pointed out, based on differences between past and present in the secularisation of just war and the way that the international political system is structured.

Last Updated on Thursday, 17 February 2011 14:46