Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Just-war criteria

We’re living in time of war, and many men take just-war criteria as their frame of reference. Even those who either oppose just-war theory or oppose our current strategy may reference just-war criteria, if only as a foil.

What are the criteria? And are they valid criteria?

1.Just cause

2.Just intent

3.Official authorization

4.Last resort

5.Probable success

6.Noncombatant immunity


Let’s evaluate the criteria:


i) The classic example would be a counteroffensive to repel an unprovoked attack or invasion.

a) But in the age of a potential first strike, that’s a bit unrealistic. If you’re crippled by a first strike, you will be in no position to defend yourself.

b) Also, if we were to intercept a battle plan, should we not act preemptively?

c) Should we wait until the enemy has massacred a certain percentage of the population and destroyed certain infrastructural assets before we return fire?

ii) What about a military alliance in which an ally is attacked?

iii) What about a war of liberation (crusade) or a war of restore the status quo ante?

iv) These can be logical extensions of the core principle.

At the same time, it’s easy for the inner logic of the core principle to become pragmatically overextended.

There’s always another enemy over the next hill. Entangling alliances can escalate a local conflict. And it’s not always possible to turn back the clock.


i) This criterion is related to (1). We shouldn’t wage imperialistic wars of aggression just to enrich ourselves, viz. colonialism.

ii) That said, while it’s better to do the right thing for the right reason, isn’t it preferable to do the right thing for the wrong reason rather than refrain from doing the right thing by second-guessing our motives?

iii) This criterion flirts with personification. A nation is a corporate entity or high-level abstraction, not a moral agent. A nation has no motives.

So to what political unit or governmental agency do we assign intent?


i) It’s unclear if this is meant to confer moral warrant on the enterprise, or if it’s merely meant to limit the frequency of warfare by limiting the number of players who can declare war.

It’s more a matter of process than principle.

ii) This criterion overlooks the possibility of civil wars against a tyrannical government. An oppressive military dictator is not highly motivated to legitimate his opponents.


The unstated assumption is that war should be the last resort because war is the worst resort.

But what if war is the best resort? What if procrastination only serves to strengthen the enemy, which will make the war more damaging if and when it finally comes?


This generally makes sense.

But what about cases of genocide or national survival where the citizenry has nothing to lose by fighting to the last drop of blood?


This is a humane distinction. But it’s also quite limited.

i) In every war, civilians are killed. We should avoid gratuitous killing, but there’s a difference between wanton carnage and killing to secure a strategic objective.

ii) Where the enemy uses the civilian population as a human shield by situating its assets in population centers, the enemy is to blame for collateral damage.

iii) It’s a bit idealist to automatically assume that noncombatants are by no means complicit in the war effort. They often allow themselves to be used as human shields. They often supply and support the combatants in various ways.


This criterion confuses retribution with military tactics. Retribution should be proportional. The punishment fits the crime.

But the point of fighting a war is to win the war, and—if possible—to win a decisive victory which will deter a replay of hostilities in the near future. This is practical, not punitive.

Proportional force is responsible for the so-called “cycle of violence.” What puts an end to the “cycle of violence” is the strategic application of overwhelming force to disarm the enemy.

No comments:

Post a Comment