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Rationalizing War

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Publicly justifying war goes back to at least 100 BC, and it continues to be a hot topic in military theory, philosophy, theology, ethics, politics, and related fields. Basically the belief is that in order to go to war, certain criteria must first be met, else the war may be considered an act of terrorism.

In Just War theory, or Bellum iustum, the principle of discrimination states acts of war should be targeted not at civilians, but rather at those who actually inflict damage or who pose an imminent threat.

For example, bombing civilian areas of a city in response to an act of war would not be considered an ethical act of defense.

However, as with anything ethical, things can get tricky and definitions can become fuzzy.

What if bombing civilians is the only available avenue to conquering a greater evil? Is it then acceptable to let the principle of discrimination get a little fuzzy at the edges?

This is what James Sterba tries to address in his essay "Terrorism and International Justice," and what Shannon French argues in her essay "Murderers, Not Warriors."

Just War Theory criteria:

  • Establishing jus ad bellum, the right to go to war
  • Establishing jus in bello, right conduct within war

Murderers, Not Warriors

Shannon French's angle on the principle of discrimination is focused on asymmetrical conflict. She poses the question whether, in an unfair battle, the underdog may not be justified in its use of nondiscriminatory acts as a last resort to survival, thus combating the superior power's unfair advantage. This could be termed "leveling the playing field." However, if one side plays unfairly, the other side is not expected to play fairly in response.

If Just War's principle of discrimination is thus broken, any captured combatants automatically forfeit the usual rights reserved for "just" combatants. For example, Al Qaeda prisoners being held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay forfeit their rights when they attacked U.S. non-combatants, thus breaking one of the principles of just warfare.

Ideally, minimizing civilian casualties should be a major concern for both sides of an asymmetrical battle. French concludes by saying that, no matter what the angle, the distinctions we draw between warriors and murderers must be drawn consistently, even if that means that we ourselves become terrorists by definition.

Jus ad bellum

  • Just cause
  • Comparative justice
  • Competent authority
  • Right intention
  • Probability of success
  • Last resort
  • Proportionality

Jus in bello

  • Distinction
  • Proportionality
  • Military necessity
  • Fair treatment of prisoners
  • No malum in se (rape, murder)

Terrorism And International Justice

James Sterba's angle on the principle of discrimination is focused more on certain historical examples, such as the British bombing of Dresden during World War II.

The bombing of Dresden was seen by the English as the only means available to avert a Nazi victory, therefore making it a necessary act. However, once the Russians began turning the tides by inflicting enormous casualties on the Germans, the British bombings ceased to be ethical or just, though they continued throughout the war. Sterba then uses this reasoning to cross over to the more recent attacks made by the Palestinians against Israel.

Israel has been illegally occupying Palestine for forty-odd years, and controls all of the resources necessary to Palestinian life. Sterba says the Palestinian argument is a just one. America supports Israel's military with $4 billion annually in foreign aid. This suggests an unfair advantage, and much like Shannon French's stance on asymmetrical warfare, James Sterba suggests that Palestine's use of suicide bombers as an act of last resort constitutes just cause.

He goes on to say that if the United States wishes not to be a target of terrorist attacks, it should not support acts of Israeli terrorism against Palestine. This support forces Palestine to react to the resultant disadvantage by whatever means it can.

What Do You Think?

It appears that the Just War theory and its underlying principles are a basis by which to gauge just cause and just war. However, these principles may at times be adjusted to satisfy the conundrum of asymmetrical advantages and disadvantages in warfare.

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An unfair fight may force one side to play dirty. This may be considered ethical if the cause is one of survival, and all other options have failed.

What do you think? Is there such a thing as a "just" war? Can ethics really be applied to war and killing, or do these acts negate any justifications given to them?

About the Authors

Shannon E. French is the Inamori Professor of Ethics, Director of the Inamori International Center for Ethics and Excellence, and a tenured member of the Philosophy Department at Case Western Reserve University. Prior to starting at CWRU in July 2008, she taught for eleven years as an Associate Professor of Philosophy with tenure in the Ethics Section of the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. She also served as Associate Chair of that department. Dr. French received her B.A. (Philosophy, Classical Studies, and History) from Trinity University (San Antonio, Texas) in 1990 and her Ph.D. in Philosophy from Brown University (Providence, Rhode Island) in 1997. Dr. French’s main area of research is military ethics. Her first book, The Code of the Warrior: Exploring Warrior Values, Past and Present, features a foreword by Senator John McCain.

James P. Sterba is currently Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He has published 24 books, and over 150 articles. He is past president of the American Philosophical Association, Central Division, the North American Society for Social Philosophy, past president of Concerned Philosophers for Peace, and past president of the International Association for Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy, American Section. He has been visiting professor of philosophy at the University of Rochester and at the University of Lativa in the then Soviet Union on a Fulbright Award. He has also been visiting distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of San Francisco, the University of California at Irvine, and Santa Clara University.

Further Reading



© 2011 Kate P


SanXuary on June 22, 2015:

It does not take much to start war. We have Ukraine starting a second cold war and the Chinese are building a dock they will never be able to defend. In reality its all about money and an internet that can not protect all that fake money.

Kate P (author) from The North Woods, USA on January 07, 2012:

Thanks for the comments and insights. As for the Al Queda detainees, it doesn't matter that they were civilians, as attacking the US is the crucial matter there.

Thank you. :)

Theresa Ast from Atlanta, Georgia on December 23, 2011:

Very interesting Hub. I appreciate the information you provided about the two authors.

Larry Fields from Northern California on December 15, 2011:

Great hub! Voted up and more.

Deforest from USA on December 15, 2011:

A "just" cause or war appears to me to be more the resultant of an action. In that logic, it is a defensive move to an imposed action. It responds to the natural survival instinct. On the shoulder of the attacker reposes the responsibility of the aggression, of the crime.

As for the "Al Qaeda" detainees, they were civilians not warriors or soldiers if you will.

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