Moral accountability is absolutely vital for individuals and societies. For a person, a community, or a nation to flourish, it must open itself to moral examination, to questions of right and wrong.

War is no exception.

In a democratic republic such as ours, not only our military and political leaders but also the general public must participate actively and intelligently in debates about whether or not the nation should to go to war, how to conduct war once it has begun, and how to handle the aftermath of war.

Moreover, the sustenance of a healthy national debate is premised upon the cultivation of an informed public. Given the need for an informed public and the potential for military conflict in the near future (e.g. a recent poll shows half of Americans favoring military action against North Korea), it is incumbent on Christians to give serious attention to the just war tradition.

The just war tradition helps us to avoid the pitfalls of crusaderism, on the one hand, and pacifism, on the other. It helps us to avoid the sort of mindless patriotism that supports any war our political or military leaders wish to wage. And it helps us to avoid the naïve passivism that would have permitted Hitler to extinguish the Jews and conquer Europe without so much as lifting a gun in resistance.

In light of the need educate ourselves morally on matters of war and peace, therefore, this post offers a summary of the just war tradition’s jus ad bellum (criteria that must be met before going to war) principles, following closely the framework provided by Daniel Heimbach, the Christian ethicist, former Naval officer, and former White House staffer who advised Bush 41 during the Gulf War.

  1. Just Cause: A war is only just if it corrects a specific act of injustice. For example, just cause may include reasons such as the protection of innocent human life, the restoration of human rights, or the restoration of a just international order.
  2. Competent Authority: A war is only just if the decision to go to war was made by the political leader or civil body ultimately responsible for maintaining order and providing security.
  3. Comparative Justice: A war is only just if the nation clearly has justice on its side. In cases of divided justice, a nation must judge that the moral merit on its side is clearly greater than the moral merit on their opponent.
  4. Right Intention: A war is only just if its purpose is to restore a previous state of peace. In other words, a just war is one which pursues a just and humane order. A war is not just if its purpose is to humiliate, punish, glorify one’s nation, or enlarge one’s territory.
  5. Last Resort: A war is just only if all realistic nonviolent options have been considered and exhausted. After all, if a nation has right intent (principle #4), its ultimate goal is to restore a previously existing state of civil peace and order. And if that can be achieved without going to war, all the better. It is important to note that the criterion of last resort does not state that a nation must delay war perpetually or exhaust all unrealistic nonviolent options.
  6. Probability of Success: A just war is one in which the nation has a realistic chance of victory. This criterion restrains, for example, egotistic rulers who wage war without any care for the wholesale slaughter of citizen warriors.
  7. Proportionality of Projected Results: A just war is one in which the good a nation expects to achieve upon winning must be greater than estimates of what it will cost to achieve it (e.g. loss of life and property). This criterion restrains nations from gong to war when the victory would cost more than non-engagement would have cost.
  8. Right Spirit: A just war is one which should be waged with regret rather than with glee or hatred. Using lethal force against enemy soldiers is regrettable even when morally justified. This criterion reflects the fact that war is sometimes necessary and, even when so, it is always a tragic necessity.

Readers should note that, while the just war tradition has developed over the years and shows a remarkable amount of consensus among its proponents, there is some disagreement about the definition and application of just war principles. Nonetheless, the criteria hang together. If any one criterion is ignored, the whole case for a just war collapses.

Future posts will deal with justice during and after warfare, and will critique just war’s competitors, crusaderism and pacifism.


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