Just War Theory is the basis on which nations seek to legally and morally justify going to war. Not all nations concern themselves with such justifications (e.g. Nazi Germany.) The United States does explicitly recognize Just War Theory as criteria for engaging in war. Thus, the criteria of Just War Theory are a primary basis for discussion and debate about US war actions.

The history of Just War Theory begins in the works of some important philosophers. Augustine (354-430) provides a foundation for Just War Theory in Western literature. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) codified Augustine's reflections into the distinct criteria that remain the basis of Just War Theory as it is used today. The need by a civil society to provide sound justification for going to war is one of the many practical influences that Philosophy has on our lives.

There are two traditional categories of requirements for just wars.

BulletJUS AD BELLUM The conditions required for justly going to war; the right to go to war.

  1. JUST AUTHORITY: The first condition in Just War Theory is Just Authority, also known as Competent Authority. A just war must be initiated by a political authority within a political system that allows distinctions of justice. Dictatorships (i.e. Hitler's Regime) or a deceptive military actions (i.e. the 1968 US bombing of Cambodia) are typically considered as violations of this criterion. The importance of this condition is key. Plainly, we cannot have a genuine process of judging a just war within a system that represses the process of genuine justice. A just war must be initiated by a political authority within a political system that allows distinctions of justice.
  2. JUST CAUSE: This is the central condition for many discussions over the justification of a war. If a Just Cause cannot be shown, many people will reject the call to war. Now, almost all nations and leaders who wage war claim to do so on the basis of a Just Cause. Iraq, for instance, explicitly claimed to have a Just Cause in its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. It is not enough to simply claim to have a Just Cause. We must be able to show that some wrong has been committed by one nation for which war is the proper redress by another. Unprovoked aggression, such as an invasion, fits clearly within the criteria of a Just Cause. Few would deny a nation the right to defend itself against unprovoked attack. The defense of an ally against an aggressor is also generally considered a clear Just Cause.
  3. JUST INTENTION: The Just Intention (or Right Intention) condition in Just War Theory sets a limit to the extent of the war. Even given a Just Authority and a Just cause, it is possible for a warring state to go beyond the bounds of its justification. In the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq, the coalition forces led by the US stopped short of invading and occupying Baghdad. In answer to the criticisms of this action, US military leaders pointed out that the Just Cause and sole objective of the war was to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. Having achieved that objective, the limit of the justification for prosecution of the war had been reached and a ceasefire was negotiated. Calls to occupy Iraq, assassinate Saddam Hussein, or use nuclear weapons clearly exceeded the authority of the US and UN action. A just war is limited to the pursuit of the avowed just cause. A just war is limited to the pursuit and securing of the Just Cause.
  4. LAST RESORT: War is morally permissible only when no other means to achieving the Just Cause is possible. This means that the nation considering war has exhausted all potential solutions, including political and diplomatic. This condition seems to mitigate against the national pride that sometimes leads to war as the resort of choice. A nation may have to compromise and negotiate to win solution short of war. But at least, the condition of last resort requires that political and diplomatic approaches to a solution have been fully attempted.

bulletJUS IN BELLO The conditions required for the just conduct of war; the right conduct in war. The criteria provide standards of conduct for nations, armies, and individual soldiers at war. Some people have the idea that in war, anything goes; "all's fair in love and war." But this is never the case in any war. Armies maintain some standards of lawful vs. criminal behavior. Armies have police, prisons, and courts. It is true that some armies show no legal or moral restraint when it comes to the treatment of the enemy (some are hostile to their own populations), but those are militaries that act contrary to the Just War criteria and usually in violation the international rule of law. Such stares or individuals are often held accountable by domestic or international law. There are, however, many cases where war crimes are not prosecuted or redressed. Just War Theory is a philosophical idea and can be used as the basis of a legal process. We are using the criteria to judge cases of war acts. Here are three of the key criteria for just (or justifiable) behavior in war:

  1. PROPORTIONALITY. The proportionality of the use of force in a war. The degree of allowable force used in the war must be measured against the force required to correct the Just cause and limited by Just Intention (see Jus Ad Bellum).
  2. DISCRIMINATION. The combatants discriminate between combatants and noncombatants. Innocent, nonmilitary people should never be made the target of attacks.
  3. RESPONSIBILITY. A country is not responsible for unexpected side effects of its military activity as long as the following three conditions are met:
    (a) The action must carry the intention to produce good consequences.
    (b) The bad effects were not intended.
    (c) The good of the war must outweigh the damage done by it.

How these criteria are are to be interpreted and fulfilled is an issue of ongoing discussion among philosophers, politicians, and military planners. In order for a civil society to maintain itself such that the commission of unjust wars is preventable, there must be and critical discussion by the citizens.

Jon Dorbolo © 2001