“Soldiers also asked [John], ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’” – Luke 3.14
“what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.” – Luke 13:31-32
The concept of “Just War” has been elaborated by several Christian thinkers since the Patristic period. In becoming the established religion of the Roman Empire, Christianity had to deal with the moral issues about running an empire; was the problem of war amongst these.
Can a war be determined as “Just”? And if so, what are the characteristics of a just war?
Augustine was the first theologian to engage with this subject directly. Indeed, a possible definition for just war can be found in at least three of his writings. Here are two examples,
‘The natural order of men, which is conformable to peace, requires that the authority and counsel for undertaking war be in the power of rulers.’ (Contra Faustum)
‘Those wars are generallly defined as just which avenge some wrong, when a nation or a state is to be punished for having failed to make amends for the wrong done, or to restore what has been taken unjustly.’ (Super Josue)
Thomas Aquinas directly quotes the previous affirmations in the Summa Theologica (Qu.40 Art.1). However, Aquinas does not merely reiterate the ethics proposed by Augustine. He elaborates more clearly three conditions under which war can be defined as “Just”. It’s worth remembering that these conditions are not mutually exclusive, but all the three have to be met in order to have a just war.
First, private individuals cannot declare war. To declare war – like ‘the responsibility for public affairs’ [‘cura reipublicæ’] – is a prerogative of ruler – ‘pricipi’ – because to them it is chiefly entrusted the welfare of nations. Thus, for example, in the United Kingdom the declaration of war is a royal prerogative.
Secondly, there has to be a “just cause” for military intervention. That is, according to Aquinas, those who are attacked have to ‘merit such treatment’ [‘impugnationem mereantur’].
Thirdly, There has to be “right intention” when engaging into a conflict. Thus, a just war should be either aimed to ‘achieving some good’ or ‘avoiding some evil’.
Aquinas here uses the expression ‘ut bonum promoveatur’, somewhat different to the ‘achieving some good’ of the English translation. It seems rather more in line with Thomas’ thought about the “Good” and “Goodness” although a definite article is not present.
Aquinas’ concept of just war does not envisage the development foreign policy with which we are familiar now. Hence, for his understanding, just war can only be waged as the last resort of a nation – or perhaps a strategic alliance – to a real and immediate threat to the welfare of the population. Declaring war ought to be understood as part of the “duty of care” of rulers in protecting their subjects, rather than a tool to secure expansionistic aims or other ends.
The later medieval tradition developed two more concepts about just war. Once again, both of these are not mutually exclusive.
jus ad bellum – what makes it right to go to war, and
jus in bello – what is right to do in war.
On the one hand, jus ad bellum envisages – like in the cases of Augustine and Aquinas – that a just war can only be declared by a legitimate authority or ruler moved by a just cause. On the other hand jus in bello prescribes both that (a) the military intervention should be proportionate to the end aimed at and (b) that ‘the innocents’ of non-combatant should be spared from the conflict.
Both jus ad bellum and jus in bello summarise the Christian ethics of just war proposed by Augustine and Aquinas, but more importantly they are the cornerstone of Western understanding of just war, and war in general.
A problem about this interpretation of war is presented by the USA intervention in Japan at the end of WWII with the employment of nuclear devices. Although the allied response to the Tokyo-Rome-Berlin axis is commonly understood as a just war par excellence, the event of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are amongst the darkest pages of World history. This military intervention prompted the surrender of the Japanese Empire – thus promoting a swifter end to the World conflict, seen a “good” – however, the scale of the intervention is necessarily condemned by the jus in bellum, both because of its non-proportional character and because of the extremely heavy casualties amongst “the innocents”.
At the end of WWII, the international community had to engage more deeply about the ethics of war, because of the immensely destructive power of ever more efficient weapons and because of the creation of international political bodies.
Thus Sir Winston Churchill writes in 1948 that
‘...those whose inclination is to bow their heads, to seek patiently and faithfully for peaceful compromise, are not always wrong. On the contrary, in the majority of instances they may be right, not only morally but from a practical standpoint. How many wars have been averted by patience and persisting good will! Religion and virtue alike lend their sanctions to meekness and humility, not only between men but between nations. [...] But the safety of the State, the lives and freedom of their own fellow countrymen, to whom [the Ministers] owe their position, make it right and imperative in the last resort, or when a final and definite conviction has been reached, that the use of force should not be excluded. If the circumstances are such as to warrant it, force may be used. And if this be so, it should be used under the conditions which are most favourable. [...] These are tormenting dilemmas upon which mankind has throughout its history been so frequently impaled.’
Churchill seems to concisely sum up the Christian ethical teachings on the subject even though he understand the tasks entrusted to the Ministers of the Crown with an understanding similar to Machiavelli’s Prince. Indeed, the “duty of care” for those in position of authority compels the ruler to use force as a ‘last resort’, to wage war in the defence of their ‘fellow countrymen’ in a way that is proportional.
However is more recent years several individuals – from Church, political sphere and academia – have voiced their doubts about the ethics of war.
For example, on one hand Richard Norman (University of Kent) raises the question whether or not any war could be defined “just” in the post-WWII world: the “duty of care” does not seem paramount anymore and the clauses envisages by jus in bello seems to be constantly overlooked or difficult to achieve. One the other hand, Archbishop Robert Runcie preached these words on the occasion of the Thanksgiving Service for the UK victory in the Falklands,: ‘War is a sign of human failure and everything we do and say here today is in that context’. Other Christian leaders such as Rowan Williams, Benedict XV and John Paul II have repeatedly advocated similar ideas.