It is sometimes said that all is fair in love and war. And, while that is an amusing little apothegm, it is wrong on both counts. In love and war, as in every aspect of life, God’s moral law holds sway.

Leaving matters of love aside for the moment, this article will deal with God’s moral law in relation to warfare. In a recent post, I enumerated eight principles for deciding whether to go to war. In this post, I will address the just war principles for how to engage in a just war once a nation in the midst of war.

Even in warfare, there are some things that are always wrong. It is wrong to shoot babies even as they are held in their mother’s arms, as took place in My Lai, Vietnam, during the Vietnam War. It is wrong to engage in the genocide, even if one’s superiors order it, as many Nazi soldiers did during World War II.

Examples abound. But the point is that we cannot suspend the moral law during warfare. And, given that American Christians are citizens of a democratic republic in which matters of war and peace can and should be debated, it behooves us to remind ourselves of the moral principles that pertain directly to warfare.

Toward that end, this post will draw upon the historic “just war” tradition to enumerate 7 principles that must be followed while fighting a war. Specifically, it will follow closely the principles articulated by Daniel Heimbach, who is a Christian ethicist, Vietnam veteran, and noted war adviser to President Bush 41.

  1. Proportionality in the Use of Force: In a justly-waged war, a military does not use more force than necessary to achieve legitimate military goals.
  2. Discrimination:  A just war is one in which soldiers distinguish between combatants and non-combatants, refusing to target noncombatants’ lives or property.
  3. Avoidance of Evil Means: In a justly-waged war, the nation’s military bans rape, pillage, and sexual abuse. It determines not to desecrate holy sites, mutilate the dead, destroy the crops, or target the civilians of the opposing nation.
  4. Good Faith: A just war is one in which the military treats enemy soldiers as fellow human beings who, like one’s own army, are following orders and risking their lives for something they value. Thus, a just military campaign treats POWS with human dignity.
  5. Probability of Success: In a justly-waged campaign, a military commander refuses to continue fighting once it becomes clear that victory cannot be had and that a prolonged campaign would bring worse consequences than a cessation of war.
  6. Proportionality of Projected Results:  A just war is one in which a military commander refuses to continue fighting, even though he could win the war, if a prolonged campaign would cost more than winning is worth.
  7. Right Spirit: In a justly-waged campaign, soldiers engage in the morally justified killing of enemy combatants but do so with a spirit of regret rather than of glee. Even a killing is a tragic necessity rather than a delight.

At some point in the future, I will write a series of posts providing the biblical justification and historical Christian proponents of these criteria.


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