By Jonathan Soder, Faith Co-Editor
Two Fridays ago, April 13, President Donald Trump announced that the United States would launch an airstrike on Syria in response to a chemical attack the Syrian government carried out against its own people earlier in April. Since the U.S. involvement in Vietnam especially, many Americans question whether or not the U.S. should be involved in the wars it frequently finds itself participating in. This debate centralizes around what wars and tactics in war are just. So, what is “just war,” and how do theories about it inform contemporary conversations?
In order to determine the justness of particular wars, many theorists have sought to establish a standard for just war. The model which has been developed is known as “just war theory,” and it consists of three portions.
“From the just war (justum bellum) tradition, theorists distinguish between the rules that govern the justice of war (jus ad bellum) from those that govern just and fair conduct in war (jus In bello) and the responsibility and accountability of warring parties after the war (jus post bellum),” according to a page on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) website.
Many Americans share the same concern that the U.S. might be involved in wars it has no place in. The principles of jus ad bellum are a means to determine whether or not it is just to participate in a war on a case-by-case basis.
“There is a slight moral difference between initiating and entering a conflict,” Dr. Matthew Arbo, assistant professor of Biblical and theological studies said.
Arbo’s belief directly reflects the enumeration of principles laid out by just war theory to determine the justice of a nation participating in a war. These principles, according to IEP, include: “having just cause, [war] being a last resort, [war] being declared by a proper authority, possessing right intention, having a reasonable chance of success, and the end being proportional to the means used.”
Tied up in several of the six principles laid out above are considerations of social ramifications – both of the initiating country and the defending country. As a country engages in war, the effects are seen not only on the battlefield but also at home.
“Wars may incur serious negative consequences for society,” professor of sociology and intercultural studies Dr. Antonio Chiareli said.
“Wars can cause significant loss of life and crippling physical and psychological harm for soldiers, which will also extend to their families and communities who must mourn or care for them for an extended period of time.
Economic effects, which loop back to social effects, are also intrinsically considered by the principles of reasonable chance and pursuing an end proportional to the means.
“In addition, wars carry a high price tag, which has, in some cases, exceeded a billion dollars a day,” Chiareli said. “This heavy economic burden directly impacts society, in that it may lead to budget cuts on domestic spending, including social programs, which will negatively affect more vulnerable segments of the population, such as the poor and the elderly. In addition, a sense of anomie sets in, creating anxiety and for anyone who fears the uncertainties that come along with war and its outcomes.”
Part of theorists’ desire to develop a theory of just war is driven by observed cultural differences. Because different nations have different cultural values, some are predisposed to act in ways which other countries consider overly aggressive and brutal (e.g. guerilla warfare tactics). However, as has become apparent from the reality of anti-war protesters greeting returning troops with taunts and shouting, not even everyone in the same nation agrees on the justice of war.
“Sentiments within a population often do vary when it comes to war. They may involve variant philosophies and feelings about the idea of aggression or about violent and protracted military campaigns,” Chiareli said. “People may also share different war outcome expectations or have competing perceptions about the possible costs involved in war.”
Such differences lend themselves to reducing conversations to shouting matches, as with other contentious topics. However, Arbo said this precedence isn’t an excuse to avoid these conversations altogether.
“How to maintain civil discourse over highly contentious issues is a perennial problem, and probably irresolvable,” Arbo said. “That doesn’t of course mean the effort shouldn’t be made. We possess common language, after all. What is therefore needed is patience and precision.”
The just war theory attempts to use precision, as Arbo suggests, to equip nations with a standard that is usable to determine the justness of a war they may or may not enter. Ultimately, it implies that there are in fact situations when war is justifiable. These situations occur when, as laid out by several of the six principles, a nation has just cause to enter a war and they do so with proper intentions and via proper declaration. In this situation, there might be benefits to be reaped from war, not merely costs.
“On the other hand, wars can also serve a positive function for society, in that social cohesion and unity can result for a society that faces an external enemy and must therefore mobilize ideologically and materially to respond to such a threat,” Chiareli said. “Also, the mobilization of resources and labor can jumpstart a sluggish economy.”
Arbo said that a source of guidance, for Christians specifically, is the Bible.
“The Bible has a rather great deal to say about war,” Arbo said. “The word itself appears a few hundred times throughout the Bible. The word ‘peace’ appears twice as often. Deuteronomy 20 is often used as an early template for moral reasoning about war. Here (and elsewhere) the text suggests the inevitability of war. Its truth is of course empirically verifiable. The text does, however, distinguish between justifying individual (i.e. person-to-person) conflict and larger scale conflicts like war.”
At the end of it all, according to St. Augustine, who is often recognized as the father
of Western Christianity, there is only one goal which is both a benefit and a proper reason for war – peace.