Monday 9 September 2019

‘Just War’ Theory: Its Endurance Through the Ages

The Illustrious Hugo Grotius of the Law of Warre and Peace: 
With Annotations, III Parts, and Memorials of the Author’s Life and Death.
Book with title page engraving, printed in London, England, by T. Warren for William Lee in 1654.

Posted by Keith Tidman

To some people, the term ‘just war’ may have the distinct ring of an oxymoron, the more so to advocates of pacifism. After all, as the contention goes, how can the lethal violence and destruction unleashed in war ever be just? Yet, not all of the world’s contentiousness, neither historically nor today, lends itself to nonmilitary remedies. So, coming to grips with the realpolitik of humankind inevitability waging successive wars over several millennia, philosophers, dating back to ancient Greece and Rome — like Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero — have thought about when and how war might be justified.

Building on such early luminary thinkers, the thirteenth-century philosopher and theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas, in his influential text, Summa Theologica, advanced the principles of ‘just war’ to a whole other level. Aquinas’s foundational work led to the tradition of just-war principles, broken down into jus ad bellum (the right to resort to war to begin with) and jus in bello (the right way to fight once war is underway). Centuries later came a new doctrinal category, jus post bellum (the right way to act after war has ended).

The rules that govern going to war, jus ad bellum, include the following:
• just authority, meaning that only legitimate national rulers may declare war;

• just cause, meaning that a nation may wage war only for such purposes as self-defence, defence of other nations, and intervention against the gravest inhumanity;

• right intentions, meaning the warring state stays focused on the just cause and doesn’t veer toward illegitimate causes, such as material and economic gain, hegemonic expansionism, regime change, ideological-cultural-religious dissimilarities, or unbridled militarism;

• proportionality, meaning that as best can be determined, the anticipated goods outweigh the anticipated evil that war will cause;

• a high probability of success, meaning that the war’s aim is seen as highly achievable; 

• last resort, meaning that viable, peaceful, diplomatic solutions have been explored — not just between potentially warring parties, but also with the intercession of supranational institutions, as fit — leaving no alternative to war in order to achieve the just cause.

The rules that govern the actual fighting of war, jus in bello, include the following: 
• discrimination, meaning to target only combatants and military objectives, and not civilians or fighters who have surrendered, been captured, or are injured; 

• proportionality, meaning that injury to lives and property must be in line with the military advantage to be gained; 

• responsibility, meaning that all participants in war are accountable for their behaviour; 
• necessity, meaning that the least-harmful military means, such as choice of weapons, tactics, and amount of force applied, must be resorted to.

The rules that govern behaviour following war’s end, jus post bellum, typically include the following: 
• proportionality, meaning the terms to end war and transition to peace should be reasonable and even-handed; 

• discrimination, meaning that the victor should treat the defeated party fairly and not unduly punitively; 

• restorative, meaning promoting stability, mapping infrastructural redevelopment, and guiding institutional, social, security, and legal order; 

• accountability, meaning that determination of culpability and retribution for wrongful actions (including atrocities) during hostilities are reasonable and measured.
Since the time of the early philosophers like Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, and the ascribed ‘father of international law’ Hugo Grotius (The Law of War and Peace, frontispiece above), the principles tied to ‘just war’, and its basis in moral reciprocity, have shifted. One change has entailed the increasing secularisation of ‘just war’ from largely religious roots.

Meanwhile, the failure of the seventeenth-century Peace of Westphalia — which ended Europe’s devastating Thirty Years’ War and Eighty Years’ War, declaring that states would henceforth honour other nations’ sovereignty — has been particularly dreadful. As well intentioned as the treaty was, it failed to head off repeated militarily bloody incursions into others’ territory over the last three and a half centuries. Furthermore, the modern means of war have necessitated revisiting the principles of just wars — despite the theoretical rectitude of wars’ aims.

One factor is the extraordinary versatility, furtiveness, and lethality of modern means of war — and remarkably accelerating transformation. None of these ‘modern means’ were, of course, even imaginable as just-war doctrine was being developed over the centuries. The bristling technology is familiar: from precision (‘smart’) munitions to nuclear weapons, drones, cyber weapons, long-range missiles, stealthy designs, space-based systems, biological/chemical munitions, global power projection by sea and air, hypervelocity munitions, increasingly sophisticated, lethal, and hard-to-defeat AI weapons, and autonomous weapons (increasingly taking human controllers out of the picture). In their respective ways, these devices are intended to exacerbate the ‘friction and fog’ and lethality of war for the opponent, as well as to lessen exposure of one’s own combatants to threats. 

Weapons of a different ilk, like economic sanctions, are meant to coerce opponents into complying with demands and complying with certain behaviours, even if civilians are among the more direly affected. Tactics, too, range widely, from proxies to asymmetric conflicts, special-forces operations, terrorism (intrinsically episodic), psychological operations, targeted killings of individuals, and mercenary insertion.

So, what does this inventory of weapons and tactics portend regarding just-war principles? The answer hinges on the warring parties: who’s using which weapons in which conflict and with which tactics and objectives. The idea behind precision munitions, for example, is to pinpoint combatant targets while minimising harm to civilians and civilian property.

Intentions aren’t foolproof, however, as demonstrated in any number of currently ongoing wars. Yet, one might argue that, on balance, the results are ‘better’ than in earlier conflicts in which, for example, blankets of inaccurate gravity (‘dumb’) bombs were dropped, and where indifference among combatants as to the effects on innocents — impinging on noncombatant immunity — had become the rule rather than the exception.

There are current ‘hot’ conflicts to which one might readily apply just-war theory. Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Syria, Ukraine, India/Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan, among sundry others, come to mind. (As well as brinkmanship, such as with Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela.) The nature of these conflicts ranges from international to civil to terrorist to hybrid. Their adherence to jus ad bellum and jus in bello narratives and prescriptions differ radically from one to another. These conflicts’ jus post bellum narratives — meaning the right way to act after war has ended — have still to reveal their final chapter in concrete treaties, as for example in the current negotiations between the Taliban and United States in Afghanistan, almost two decades into that wearyingly ongoing war. 

The reality is that the breach left by these sundry wars, either as they end abruptly or simply peter out in exhaustion, will be filled by another. As long as the realpolitik inevitability of war continues to haunt us, humanity needs Aquinas’s guidance.

Just-war doctrine, though developed in another age and necessarily having undergone evolutionary adaptation to parallel wars’ changes, remains enduringly relevant — not to anaesthetise the populace, let alone to entirely cleanse war ethically, but as a practical way to embed some measure of order in the otherwise unbridled messiness of war.


Thomas O. Scarborough said...

I hear confessions, in my line of work. Here is one, which I think I tell for the first time. A young man told me that he had been called up for the army, for a just war, supported by the USA. The penalty for anyone who said it was not just was six years in prison. He believed it was just.

His task was reconnaissance, and his squad was under orders to shoot on sight anyone who saw him or any member of his squad. He was passing by an African village on its outskirts, where a woman was stamping maize, with a baby tied to her back. She lifted her eyes, and saw him. With a single shot, he killed both mother and child.

Keith said...

Thank you, Thomas, for sharing this heart-rending confession. Sad, indeed.

It of course doesn’t take Aquinas or Grotius to condemn such tragic violations of ‘jus in bello’ principles. They occur everywhere, in all corners of the globe and in every conflict. One doesn’t have to cast a line farther back than the twenty-first and twentieth centuries for ample examples. War seems instinctual.

The incident the young man confessed to has been duplicated, at least in type anyway, by all armed groups — from armies to militias to insurgents. Some leaderships are more morally responsible than others in instituting codes of conduct among their combatants, and at holding fighters accountable by prosecuting and punishing bad actors.

At its core, the push-pull tension between war and humanitarianism is woefully fraught. On a personal level, your young confessor testifies to that.

Keith said...

As to the type of incident confessed to you, Thomas, I suggest we’re left to wonder how the hyper-ramped psychological stress that war places upon combatants influences the unreality of the moment, the expectation of unaccountability, the disassociation from the norms of civilian life, the dehumanising of targets, and the forfeiture of overall moral agency.

John Triplett said...

Keith, Thank you for this entreaty.
Most regrettably it is my belief that most if not all wars in the history of the world have been initiated and fought based upon 'jus ad bellum' bullet number three, "for material and economic gain, hegemonic expansion, regime change, ideological-cultural-religious dissimilarities or unbridled militarism".
Until a force/power greater than that of all earthly humanity with our maximumly developed "weaponry" confronts the world as a whole, there will be no possible enforcement of the rules of a 'just war'.
Given the near impossibility of the arrival of "a force from another world", we will have to await and depend upon AI developed machines to enforce 'just war' rules.

Keith said...

Thank you for your observations, John. Your points are well taken.

I agree that arguably many wars through the millennia have been inspired by the ‘illegitimate causes’ listed in the essay’s ‘intentions’ (third) bullet under ‘jus ad bellum’. No question, it was easier for me, in writing the essay, to flesh out the list of ‘illegitimate’ than ‘legitimate’ causes, which may not surprise. Perhaps those behaviours speak volumes about what motivates humankind. Reducible to metaphorical thumping on our shields with broadswords, spurred by a nasty urge to conquer, overthrow, expand, subjugate, covet.

But if, as the essay says, ‘self-defence, defence of other nations, and intervention against the gravest inhumanity’ are among ‘legitimate’ causes (second bullet under ‘jus ad bellum’), then history appears replete with those instances, too. Like, to cite just a few, colonised peoples throughout Africa emancipating themselves from a boot on the neck by overthrowing their European subjugators in bloody conflicts. Like nations defending themselves and their allies against the conquering ambitions of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Like coalition forces, from some three-dozen countries, liberating Kuwait from Iraq’s harsh invasion force. The examples, through generations of history, are innumerable, and perhaps night not be easy discountable in the overall calculus.

Keith said...

You’ve introduced, John, an intriguing angle on ‘just war’ principles, by pointing to AI as an eventual variable.

Where I might raise a question with you, in that regard, is in how much faith to have that ‘AI machines’ will pave the way for humankind to get it right — as you say, ‘to enforce just-war rules’. Many people have expounded on the supposed ‘existential threat’ posed by AI — voiced especially by informed luminaries like Stephen Hawkins, Nick Bostrom, and Max Tegemark. (An interesting separate topic, including AI self-optimisation, self-evolution, self-replication.) Although, however, I don’t subscribe to the notion of risky runaway AI, I do think that fully ‘enlightened AI’, to coin an expression, may similarly be a stretch.

I’d argue, instead, that we’re likely, irresistibly, to enlist AI systems to martial causes, as we already are doing to a degree. Stocking our arsenals with increasingly sophisticated AI weapons that offer even more lethality, stealth, precision, and ability to hold own forces less in harm’s way by standing them off even farther over the horizon. To those extents, ‘AI machines’ may prove less enlightened — and that, in the course of being ‘soldierly’, might even more egregiously violate ‘just war rules’.

John Triplett said...

Keith, if one accepts the legitimate self defence reasons (second bullet) to retaliate against illegitimately initiated injustice/s (third bullet), are not both parties in the resulting war waging an 'unjust war'? The old adage "an eye for a eye" is invoked rather than "turn the other cheek". Becomes a time immorium debate it seems. Thus the hope that diplomacy and reconciliations are able to lessen the initial chances for illegitimate causes.
Agree that the present uses of AI seem to portent your argument such that we should hope for a widening international debate and establishment of International Treaties to control the development of AI for competitive purposes. Expect it may go the way of nuclear weapons and their so-called "deterrent weaponry".

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

The trouble with Just War theory is the assumption that one is correctly informed by the state. Another assumption, one has superior forces. Another, one can control the course of the war. And another, it will remain a just war. Such are major assumptions, and none of them really secure.

Keith said...

You’ve introduced an interesting point, John, as to ‘turning the other cheek’.

The way I would attempt to parse the geostrategic and humanitarian conditions proposed by your question is this: The nation that has been attacked militarily has both a legal and moral right to defend itself. It does so in order to protect its territory, prevent the killing of its citizens — and ensure its very survival as a sovereign state. Those are ethically foundational rights. They are globally acknowledged precepts. They adhere to historical and contemporary international norms. And they vindicate defensive measures.

As such — with its sovereignty and survival, as well as its citizens’ welfare, at stake — the defending nation, I’d contend, is indeed fighting a ‘just war’. The pacifist Christian doctrine of ‘turning the other cheek’ — to remain passive challenged by evil — would have the practical consequence of submitting one’s nation to the mercy of foreign marauders. The latter likely would lead to bad endings. I suggest, therefore, it’s the invaders, not the defenders, who are solely responsible for fighting unjustly.

docmartincohen said...

I'm struck by Thomas' opening comment... so shocking and yet so plausible. It reminds me of the view of one of our ancient philosophers taht war represents the INVERSION of ethical values. Good, becomes bad, and bad becomes good. The idea of a 'just war' is thus a distraction.

Keith said...

Absolutely, Thomas. Let me add a few words.

As to not being ‘correctly informed by the state’, the state might itself not be well informed. That is, there’s ‘state deception’ — an informed state, but which lies to its citizens — and there’s ‘state ignorance’ — an ill-informed state unknowingly misinforming its citizens. Potentially calamitous either way.

Then, when it comes to ‘superior forces’, even if one has vastly more firepower and sophisticated arsenals, the hard-to-control-for nature of asymmetric warfare may still result in less-endowed forces playing to its strengths and wearing down the better-endowed opponent, coming away with a W in its column.

‘Not controlling the course of war’ is especially problematic, linked, I feel, to principles of chaos: governments’ and militaries’ unfamiliarity with those pesky initial conditions at war’s launch, as well as with the uncountable and unpredictable ways in which war may unfold. The combination, which can’t be gamed out, can make even shrewd plans derail.

Finally, as you say, there’s no certainty that circumstances, and a nation’s reactively recalculation of imperatives and shifting objectives, won’t lead a formerly just war to pervert into an unjust one. Finding one’s own side losing, for instance, is a great lubricant for that occurring.

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