Is War Ever Just?

After church one Sunday, a member challenged my general condemnation of war. “War is sometimes justified,” he said. “because sometimes an act of violence is the lesser of two evils. Are you being fair when you always paint war as bad?”

It is a fair question and deserves a response. I agree that one act of violence may sometimes be necessary to prevent another. If an insane killer is breaking into an orphanage with a flame thrower, it may be necessary to commit one act of violence to prevent a greater violence. So, I concede that “just war” theory sounds good in principle.

”Just war theory” is the struggle to clarify rules of engagement when war seems necessary. The theory says things like “a war must be defensive”, “war must be confined to the combatants”, “war must not be more destructive than the evil it seeks to correct”, etc.

As I say, the theory works in principle, but it was designed for combat using rifles and canons. Our weapons are now so destructive that they punish unborn generations with radiation and pollution. Such horrifying consequences makes the idea of proportionate response impossible to measure.

“Just war” theory was designed for a day when armies met in open fields away from population centers. Modern war is often fought in cities which means more civilians die in a modern war than combatants.

A modern war is like a gun fight in a submarine. Modern warfare may label itself as being between two armies but, in truth, war anywhere in the world now affects us all. Modern war risks human survival in a clear and present way that eclipses most of the threats we use as excuses for going to war. When the vocabulary of just war theory was crafted there was no way of imagining a war that would injure the entire species, now it is very difficult to imagine a war that wouldn’t.

Discussing the topic of just war is also made more difficult by the fact that we live in a nation that has renounced the Geneva conventions and flaunts any effort by the world courts to hold all nations to the same standard. Theoretically, we could wage a just war, but what does that discussion mean in a nation that refuses to measure itself by universal standards and deems any effort at self criticism as a lack of patriotism?

I think some people want to hear me say that, if our nation were attacked, we would have a right to defend ourselves. I do believe that. But invoking that principle also means if we attack another nation unjustly, they have a right to kill our troops with the same methods we have used against them.

Talk of “just war” makes me uncomfortable because I do love our troops and, to me, supporting our troops includes caring what happens to the actual human being beneath the uniform. We have made a practice of plunging our troops, many of whom are teenagers, into immoral and illegal undeclared wars. Even the victors of modern warfare are permanently wounded, emotionally if not physically. To send our youth into that maelstrom makes most other forms of child abuse seem mild in comparison.

If “just war” theory was ever applicable, those days are now gone. Our alternatives are a world confederacy where every nation binds itself to international law based on universal human rights, or a splintered world of narcissistic police states plunging ever deeper into a spiral of escalating fear and violence. If we do not choose the former, we will inherit the later.