can any war be just?




NOTE The Peace Pledge Union being a non-sectarian organisation comprising of atheists, agnostics and adherents of a variety of religions, has no collective view on religion.


CAN WAR ever be just? Can there be rules about war so that fair play is possible? Has there ever been a war with a just cause?

Those who think so belong to what is called the Just War tradition. Many believed that the 1939-45 War against Nazi Germany was a just war. Recently, the Gulf War was also portrayed as justified, especially by most of the tabloid press in Britain. The main reason for this was that it stopped Saddam Hussein taking over Kuwait. This was seen by many to be a just cause, one of the rules of a Just War. Other rules of the Just War tradition include not killing unarmed people - for example women, children, the old, civilians and soldiers who have surrendered.





In Europe the Just War tradition goes back to Cicero, a Roman thinker. He lived in the century before the birth of Jesus over 2,000 years ago. Cicero suggested three simple rules:
1. There must be a just cause (eg. to stop an invasion).
2. There must be a formal declaration of war by the king or emperor (to give the other side a chance to put things right).
3. War must be conducted justly (eg. unarmed civilians should not be attacked).

Christians for the first three centuries after the death of Jesus were pacifists. They rejected the Just War tradition. They felt they should follow the teaching and example of Jesus. Thus they believed in loving their enemies even if this meant persecution. However, in the year 311CE (Common Era) the Roman Emperor Constantine made being a Christian legal for the first time in the empire. As Christianity began to be more favoured there were significant changes developing within Christianity. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (died 397CE) borrowed Cicero’s idea of Just War and made it part of Christian thinking. One of Ambrose’s students was Augustine (died 430CE) who developed the idea of Just War thinking further. One of the additional rules which he added to the above was that a Just War must respect conscientious objectors. In Augustine’s time this meant the religious professionals. From Augustine onwards Just War thinking became more important than the earlier pacifist teaching of the church. Meanwhile, by 416CE only Christians could be soldiers in the Roman empire.

In about 1140CE a monk called Gratian took Augustine’s thinking and Roman Law and introduced the idea of Just War to modern international law. There have been many important thinkers about Just War since then, including Aquinas in the 13th century, Vitoria in the 16th century and so on down to the 20th century. The Reformation began in 1517 and most Protestants from that time have favoured Just War teaching. The Lutherans in Germany and the Church of England made the Just War position part of their creeds. The Anabaptists and later the Quakers were unusual in being pacifists.

1. World War I

‘I was at the front for thirteen months, and by the end of that time the sharpest perception had become dulled, the greatest words mean. The war had become an everyday affair; life in the line a matter of routine; instead of heroes there were only victims; conscripts instead of volunteers; life had become hell, death a bagatelle; we were all of us cogs in a great machine which sometimes rolled forward, nobody knew where, sometimes backwards, nobody knew why. We lost our enthusiasm, our courage, the very sense of our identity; there was no rhyme or reason in all this slaughtering and devastation; pain itself had lost its meaning; the earth was a barren waste. We used to hack away the rings of unexploded shells out of sheer perversity; only the other day one had blown up two men - but what did that matter?’

2. World War II

‘I was called up as a reserve on 1st September 1939. War was declared two days later and I was a soldier for 7 years during World War II. I was at Dunkirk and later went to North Africa and was in Italy when the war ended. There were many times I was terrified but the biggest question I am left with is this. I was brought up a devout Roman Catholic. During the war I went to the Catholic army chaplain and asked if it was right for me to fight in this war. He said a clear yes - the British had a just cause against Hitler. That I could also accept. But to this day I want to know whether German Catholic soldiers were told by German priests that they were fighting in an unjust war?’

Modern Just War Rules

The development of modern industrial and technological societies has meant significant social, political and economic change on a global scale. Consequently, there are many lists of rules for a Just War today, including for example:

1. war must be undertaken by a lawful authority
2. war must have a just cause
3. war must be a last resort after all peaceful means of settlement have failed
4. more good than evil is likely to result
5. the war must have a reasonable chance of success for justice
6. there must be right intention (eg to establish justice, not take revenge)
7. the war must be selective
8. the war must use methods which are moral and respect international agreements (this includes not targeting unarmed civilians and others declared as ‘innocent’).

Arguments For

1. A Just War tries to reduce the harm done in war by making clear what is right and wrong. Some politicians and some soldiers will behave more justly as a result.
2. A war may be said to be just when waging it prevents something worse happening. For example, defensive intent is necessary and sufficient in the face of a threatened invasion which could result in the loss of many innocent lives.
3. A Just War enables us to look at particular wars and ask is this right? It enables individuals to be selective conscientious objectors. This means an individual might have chosen to fight in World War II but not in Vietnam. Others who are not normally pacifists are nuclear pacifists on the grounds that nuclear weapons break Just War rules.

Arguments Against

1. Has there ever been a war with one side at least following fully the rules of a Just War? In World War II it was clear that Hitler was violating Just War rules particularly in the murder of 6 million Jews. However, the British bombed German cities like Dresden, which were of no military importance, in order to terrorise the civilian population. Similarly, the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed mostly civilians.
2. Who is the neutral referee reprimanding the side breaking the Just War rules? War is not a game. Just War rules are either completely ignored or only held by a few.
3. Where in times of war can an ordinary individual get accurate information on whether her/his country’s war is just or unjust? The real truth about a war is usually hidden by governments. Only later as history may the truth become clear.
4. Modern methods of warfare make it almost impossible to avoid harming civilians, thus breaching one of the Just War rules.
5. The Just War theory ignores the widespread belief that killing is wrong in any circumstances. Therefore nothing can justify going to war, which inevitably involves killing.
6. Nobody can tell in advance if a particular war will bring more good than evil, or that its methods will be ‘proportionate’ to its results.


We need to look carefully at the kinds of war being fought today, especially with the development of new and more sinister technological weaponry. We need to ask who decides on whether war is declared - and why? Ordinary people don’t get asked whether they think a war is just - they get told by a so-called ‘legitimate’ authority. The notion of ‘just’ implies a sense of justice. Can we have a full sense of justice where killing is involved? Conflict resolution means expanding justice through achieving a situation in which all parties can speak of their needs and values together. Gandhi maintained that nonviolent campaigns are an effort to find the truth of the situation through struggle. The truth of the situation entails the justice of the situation.

The Peace Pledge Union (PPU) argues that any killing, let alone on a mass scale, cannot justify any likely ‘good’ to be achieved. No ‘good’ can justify the deliberate death of another. No cause, not even a defensive one in which possessions, territory or life are threatened, can ever justify fighting and killing.

References and further reading

Ferguson J 1977 War and Peace in the World’s Religions London: Sheldon Press.
Gill R 1995 A Textbook of Christian Ethics 2nd Edition Edinburgh: T & T Clark.
Miall H 1992 The Peacemakers: Peaceful Settlement of Disputes since 1945 London: Macmillan.
* Toller E 1933 Eine Jugend in Deutschland: PPU.
Walzer Michael 1980 Just and Unjust Wars - a moral argument with historical illustrations 1980: Pelican
Yoder J.H. 1996 When War is Unjust 2nd Edition Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.




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