Justice and the War

Justice and the War

Mini Teaser: When is war just?  In the American tradition, the justice or injustice of war has turned primarily upon the circumstances immediately attending the initiation of force.

by Author(s): Robert W. Tucker

When is war just?  In the American tradition, the justice or injustice of war has turned primarily upon the circumstances immediately attending the initiation of force.  The just war is the war waged in self defense or in collective defense against an armed attack.  Conversely, the unjust war is the war initiated in circumstances other than those of self or collective defense against armed aggression.  The American view of just war has thus been characterized by a singular preoccupation with the overt act of resorting to force.  It has proceeded from the conviction that whatever a state's grievances, aggressive war is an unjust--and illegal--means for settling those grievances.  This conviction was given full expression in the Gulf War.

The restriction of just war to the war of self or collective defense against armed aggression corresponds to the twentieth-century reconstruction of the Christian doctrine of bellum justum.  In the classic version of the doctrine, the just war was a war of execution, an act of vindicative justice, taken to punish a state for a wrong done and unamended.  But the rights in defense of which states might resort to war, in the absence of satisfactory alternative means of redress, were not restricted to that of self defense.

In the twentieth-century reconstruction, however, war is no longer a means generally permitted to states for the redress of rights that have been violated.  Still less is war considered a legitimate means for changing the status quo.  Armed force remains a means permitted to states only as a measure of defense against unjust attack.  This restriction of just war rests in the main on the presumption--indeed, conviction--that war no longer serves as an apt and proportionate means for resolving international conflicts.  International law has followed a similar course.  The bellum legale, as the bellum justum, is now substantially limited to one of defense, individual or collective, against armed attack.

This far-reaching change in the right of recourse to war has not gone without dissent.   Even so, the international consensus on limiting the just cause of war to that of self or collective defense against aggression is clear.  That consensus was reaffirmed in the course of the crisis that led to war in the Persian Gulf.  A war of collective defense undertaken in response to a textbook act of aggression, the justice of its cause was apparent.

That a war is undertaken in a just cause does not thereby ensure that it must be a just war.  In the American view, there is a strong disposition to assume a necessary relationship not only between the justice of resorting to war and the purposes sought in war, but between the causes and purposes of war and the manner of waging war as well.  Moral indifference to the manner of employing force is the result of moral certainty respecting the causes of, and purposes sought in, war.  Just war doctrine teaches otherwise.  It emphasizes that even a defensive war is not of necessity a just war.  The requirements laid down by just war doctrine that the conduct of war must conform to the principles of discrimination and proportionality apply to those waging a defensive war.  The justice of war's cause does not excuse the injustice of war's conduct.  If the latter is sufficiently grave, it may morally taint a war undertaken with just cause.  Even a defensive war, then, may become an unjust war if it is marked by the deliberate attack on noncombatants or if the good secured by such war is clearly outweighed by the evil attendant upon its conduct.

If these considerations hold for a war that is clearly defensive in both cause and purpose, they are all the more relevant for a war the purposes of which go well beyond those of defense, conventionally defined.  A war that is clearly defensive in cause may be much less so in purpose.  Indeed, the same purposes and anticipations that inform a preventive war may also inform a war presumably fought in self defense.  A war the purpose of which is essentially defensive is one that leaves the power and position of the enemy substantially unchanged.  Purpose is limited to repelling the aggressor, not to destroying him.  But it may be argued that merely to repel the aggression that gave rise to self defense, rather than to remove the source of aggression, is insufficient for even strictly defensive purposes given the circumstances that continue to characterize international society.

Within civil society the state presumably assures that an aggressor once repelled will be removed.  In international society, the same assurance cannot be given to states.  An equally severe restriction of measures taken in self defense may well prove unreasonable in that it may defeat the essential purpose for which such measures are considered justified in the first place.  This familiar argument has evident merit.  Yet its acceptance carries an equally evident risk, for it is in effect a license to expand the purposes of a war begun in defense to a point where it may become very difficult to set meaningful limits on the exercise of self or collective defense.  As these purposes expand, so will the interpretation belligerents give the criterion of proportionality that serves to justify the acts taken in their name.

Essay Types: Essay