Will It Be a ‘Just War’ or Just a War?

Jean Bethke Elshtain is a professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago. Her new book, "Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World," will be published in March by Basic Books.

President Bush has said that if it comes to war in Iraq, America will fight in a “just cause” and by “just means.”

This is no mere rhetorical flourish. The president’s use of the language of justice links the Iraq crisis to a venerable tradition of ethical restraint and justification known as “just war.”

Determining what constitutes a just war originated with such great fathers of the Christian church as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, who sought to come to grips with the responsibilities of governments in a fallen world. Stretching the boundary of moral concern beyond family, tribe and territory, they created specific injunctions about the use of force aimed at limiting both the occasions for war and the means by which it was carried out.

Since then, many of these injunctions have been encoded in international agreements and conventions stipulating what is and is not acceptable in fighting between nations.

The just-war tradition insists that a war must be openly and legally fought; it must be a response to a specific instance of unjust aggression or to the certain threat of such aggression; it must be a last resort, meaning that all other avenues have been considered; and there must be a strong probability of success.


In St. Augustine’s 5th century masterwork “The City of God,” he also argues that a war may be just if it is designed to protect the innocent -- those in no position to defend themselves -- from certain harm. This obligation extends beyond one’s own nation to encompass the innocent in other countries who may require protection if they are being brutalized, murdered, terrorized or threatened by overwhelming or despotic force.

These considerations figure centrally in debates about prevention of genocide, for example, or in cases of “humanitarian rescue.” They also lie at the heart of our current travail over whether a war against the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq is justified.

Once it is established that there is “just cause” for force, it is equally important that “just means” be used. The two central rules governing the means of war are proportionality (never use more force than is minimally necessary) and discrimination, which prohibits the intentional targeting of civilians.

Since World War II -- and during it, although the debate then was muted -- just-war thinkers agonized over the strategic bombing of German cities as well as the use of atomic weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

President Truman made the decision at the end of a long and brutal war that he would save lives by using the atomic bomb, because the alternative was an invasion of the Japanese mainland -- which he was told could cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of American combatants and Japanese civilians.

It was an understandable decision, but the burden of just-war thinking -- now as then -- is that use of nuclear weapons against civilian targets is illegitimate. I know of no just-war thinker who believes it was right to kill several hundred thousand Japanese civilians to end the war and thus possibly spare more lives. The known carnage clearly outweighed the hypothetical good.

The debate about saturation bombing of German cities is more controversial. Some just-war thinkers, especially those whose orientation is secular rather than religious, argue that the unusual evil of the Nazi regime justified such bombing. They claim that the “just means” rule can, with moral regret, be temporarily overridden if one confronts what political philosopher Michael Walzer calls a “supreme emergency.” Even here, however, such scholars argue that more cities were bombed -- and for longer -- than was warranted.

That the United States takes pains to discriminate carefully between noncombatants and combatants is attested to by the fact that our opponents, including Hussein in the Gulf War of 1991, often forcibly relocate their civilians into harm’s way in an attempt to forestall U.S. attack. If the United States had no compunction in this regard, why bother?

I believe a strong case can be made within the just-war tradition for the use of force to suppress the wrongdoing of the Hussein regime. But whatever one’s position on the wisdom of going to war to destroy Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, the fact that America’s political and military leaders take seriously the question of just cause, and that they build in restraints on the means they use, is a credit to the continuing relevance of the just-war tradition, even in our violent world.