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.

It is with these general admonitions in mind that we may ask: Was the Gulf War a just war in the manner in which it was waged?  Was it an apt and proportionate means?  Did the good secured by the war clearly outweigh the evil attendant upon its conduct?

The manner in which the war was waged reflected, in the first instance, the vast disparity in the means available to the two sides.  This disparity meant that the element of reciprocity was largely absent from the conflict.  The expectation that like will be returned for like has always been the most important constraint on the conduct of war.  In the Gulf War, the side possessed of enormous technological advantage could act almost without fear of enemy reprisal.

The conduct of the war also reflected the conditions placed on the use of force by a public that would not tolerate another Vietnam.  A war in the Gulf, the president accordingly promised the nation, would not be "protracted"; the American government would not permit "our troops to have their hands tied behind their backs"; there would not be "any murky ending"; nor would American forces remain "a single day" longer than was necessary to achieve the objective the administration sought.  These commitments could be honored only by a war marked by the application of force on a massive scale, with the objective of utterly overwhelming the adversary and destroying his capabilities to commit further aggression.  Merely to drive Baghdad from Kuwait, though leaving its military power intact, would not remove the danger of future aggression.  Finally, these objectives had to be achieved at a modest price in American lives--if the price of victory was substantial casualties it was likely to prove too high for a nation that until the very eve of the war remained deeply divided over the wisdom of going to war.

The war that resulted from these conditioning circumstances was one waged with extraordinary ferocity.  The cost in human lives remains obscure, in part because neither the Iraqi nor the American government has an interest in determining and publicizing these costs and in part because civilian casualties will continue to mount for some time to come, if only because the human effects of the physical destruction visited on Iraq have yet to run their course.  When the full cost in lives is finally calculated, combatant and noncombatant deaths may well number several hundred thousand.  To this grim statistic must of course be added the vast destruction of industrial plants in Iraq, a destruction undertaken partly in the name of immediate military necessity and partly in pursuit of the larger objective of eliminating Baghdad as a regional power.

These and still other costs of the war may not be lightly passed over in considering its justice.  Political and military leaders may habitually employ a peculiar moral arithmetic in calculating the costs of war--one according to which the moral total of such costs largely depends on the identity of those whose lives are being counted--but moralists are expected to assess war's costs with a measure of impartiality.  Viewed from the perspective of Washington, the moral costs of the war against Iraq appear quite modest.  Viewed from a perspective that is less discriminating, a very different judgment may be reached.  Indeed, had the total casualties in the war been roughly the same but more equally shared, it is altogether likely that this nation's judgment, political and moral, would be very different from the prevailing judgment today.

These considerations notwithstanding, did the manner in which the Gulf War was waged satisfy the requirements of discrimination and of proportionality?  Of the two requirements, the principle forbidding the direct and intentional attack on the civilian population has generally been considered the more significant.  The distinction between those who may be made the object of attack and those who may not be so made is held in bellum justum to define the essential difference between war and murder--between the permitted and the forbidden taking of human life.  It is the deliberate killing of the innocent that is always to be avoided, even as a measure of reprisal in response to similar measures of an adversary.  Indiscriminate warfare, moreover, is almost by definition total war, and total war is very difficult to reconcile with the other general principle regulating war's conduct, that of proportionality.

Essay Types: Essay