No Christian—and for that matter, no “soldier worth his salt” (as General Schwarzkopf put it)—will proclaim himself to be “pro-war.” We desire peace. And yet we disagree on how to achieve the peace we desire.

At one end of the spectrum, pacifists refuse to participate in wars of any kind, for any reason. At the other end of the spectrum, crusaders seek final peace by waging war on behalf of an ideal. In the middle of the two views are just war proponents. Unlike pacifists, they are willing to wage war, but unlike crusaders, they are not willing to do so to achieve ideological perfection.

The Signs of a Just War

Just war proponents provide certain criteria that must be met before going to war. A just war must be waged, for example, with just cause (defending against an unjust aggression), with right intention (to restore the tranquility disrupted by the unjust aggression), as a last resort (having exhausted all realistic nonviolent options), and in the right spirit (with regret rather than with glee, hatred, or a lust for power or glory).

Just war proponents also outline certain principles that must be followed while fighting a war. Among those principles are proportionality (no more force than necessary), discrimination (distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants), avoidance of evil means (such as rape and pillage), good faith (treating POWs with civility), probability of success (fighting only until there is not a hope of victory), and right spirit.

Ten Signs that a “Just War” is Really a Crusade

Proponents of just war sometimes lapse into a crusader mentality. I fear that many just war advocates—of both the conservative and liberal varieties—risk lapsing into such a mentality at the present moment. For that reason, I am providing a list of ten contrasting characteristics that help us distinguish between just wars and crusades. These characteristics come from a public paper delivered by Daniel Heimbach, a former White House staffer, ethicist, and just war theorist.

  1. Crusade treats war as an unconditional effort of good against evil, whereas just war teats war as a morally restrained effort to restore a just peace.
  2. Crusade treats war as a matter of religion and is led by some religious authority (or ideological authority that functions in the place of religion). In just war, war is treated as a responsibility of civil government and is fought under the conscience of the one who heads the civil order.
  3. Because crusade is fought for the sake of that which defines good and evil (God, the ideal), there is for crusade little place for moral restraint in war. Anything that serves God (or the ideal) is right by definition, so wars of crusade are “total” wars. By contrast, just war places moral limits on what can be done in war—force must be limited only to what is necessary and used only on military targets.
  4. Because there can be no compromise between good and evil and because war is “total,” crusade has little place for surrender, enemies because they personify evil deserve no mercy, those who give up need not be spared. By contrast just war spares those who surrender and protects the rights of those taken as prisoners of war.
  5. In crusade, the objective of war is to impose an ideal, whereas just war seeks a limited good–the restoration of recognized borders or a balance between conflicting rights.
  6. Crusade seeks to conquer or punish, whereas just war seeks only to rectify the injustice that warranted entering into conflict.
  7. Crusade opposes the whole social order and value system of an enemy, so there is no distinction between combatants and noncombatants. In just war it is important to distinguish between combatants and noncombatants.
  8. In crusade, soldiers go to war with zeal; war is a vocation for saints and soldiers fight a war of religious vision (or ideology) as well as a war of flesh and blood. In just war, soldiers regard the use of force as a tragic necessity and a last resort, and are not agents for religious or ideological transformation as such.
  9. Crusade requires no declaration of war, whereas just war must be declared by those responsible for the civil order.
  10. In crusade, the state of war tends to become permanent (because the ideal can never be perfectly realized), whereas in just war hostilities cease when the specific infraction of justice that led to war has been rectified.

Further Resources

Further resources for studying just war include:

  1. Walzer, Michael. Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, 3d ed. This book defends just war theory and provides commentary on a number of armed conflicts throughout history. Intermediate.
  2. Walzer, Michael. Arguing about War. This book deals with a number of hard issues (e.g. terrorism, humanitarian intervention) and analyzes several recent wars (e.g. Kosovo, Afghanistan). Intermediate.
  3. Richard S. Hess and Elmer A. Martens. War in the Bible and Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century. This book includes a number of helpful essays, including one by Daniel Heimbach, “Distinguishing Just War from Crusade: Is Regime Change a Just Cause for Just War?”




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