The Just War Syndrome

An analysis of "Just War" principles

(revised and expanded)

The 'Just War' Syndrome

Christians are naturally suspicious when world leaders try to sell 'just wars' to the gullible public. Yet clever politicians often satisfy 'the letter' of Christian objections without satisfying their true spirit. Because of naïve arguments or fuzzy sentiments, Politicians can have their war and silence Christians too. A vulnerable example is the recent set of principles offered by the Anglican primate, criteria meant to disqualify an 'unjust war'.

We want to make clear that we are in harmony with the primate's intent and stance. Our goal here is to re-forge the "just war" principles in a more rigorous and powerful form. The critical reflection that the primate has called for encourages us to lay bare the loopholes and sharpen their current form.

"just war" Principles

1. A just war can only be waged as a last resort.

2. A war is just only if a legitimate authority wages it.

3. A just war can only be waged to redress a wrong suffered.

4. A war is just only if it is fought with a reasonable chance of success. Deaths and injuries incurred in a hopeless cause are not morally justifiable.

5. A war is just only if its goal is to re-establish peace. Moreover, the peace established must be an improvement over the circumstances that would have prevailed without war.

6. A war is just only if the violence used is proportional to the harm suffered.

7. The weapons used must discriminate between combatants and non-combatants. Non-combatants are never permissible targets of war. Their deaths are justified only if they are unavoidable victims of a deliberate attack on a military target.

At first glance they give us a warm feeling, in agreement with our probably vague unease over 'war' generally. And we might uncritically adopt them as our own, leaving the details to others more qualified. The primate's interpretation of their intent and effect is reassuring, and we need not question his integrity:

'It is abundantly clear that the (Iraq war) fails to satisfy these conditions. …"just war" principles…provide more than enough reason to oppose this war. …these principles impose (constraints) upon the use of military force, (and) that is what they are meant to do. The decision to invade should require (the invaders) to open their intention to public critical reflection, and "just war" principles provide a time-tested middle ground…"

Context: The explanation makes plain that the principles are meant to be used by ordinary citizens, to evaluate proposed invasions of one country by another. A pre-war scenario is presumed, whereby citizens may judge and help decide whether to invade or not. The title, ' "just war" Principles', indicates that the criteria are meant to weigh an invasion on moral or ethical grounds.


To be effective, such criteria must be meaningful and self-consistent, and able to categorize wars. Interpretation must be unambiguous and application practical. Each criterion must also be publicly verifiable in its result. Finally, what is true of each criterion must be true for the whole list.

The expression 'only if' is meant to make each individual criterion necessary for "just war" status. Each principle presents a necessary, but not sufficient condition alone, for "just"-ness. The accompanying explanation marks the list as tentative, but sufficient to eliminate many "unjust" wars, even if it is not complete enough to properly sanction a truly "just" war. The list might be better titled, "un-just war" criteria to prevent blurring this important distinction.

This of course raises the question of the focus, interdependence, and necessity of the individual principles, and the function of the list as a whole. Are the principles coherent, independent, and consistent with each other? Could they overlap, or override one another? Are they all moral principles? Are they of equal importance? Would a shorter list work as well, and be accepted by more people? Do people really understand the list?

First Glance:

Principle (1.) addresses when a just war can be fought. (2.) asks who can fight a just war. (3.) and (6.) are best taken together, and are intended to give minimal circumstances for a war and constraints on the use of force.

(4.) proposes a pragmatic rationale for a moral judgement. (5.) asks why a just war might be fought, and (7.) attempts to constrain how a just war can be fought.

The list has the surface appearance of completeness. Yet it is easy to see why the list utterly fails to convince the pro-invasion side. Every invader takes for granted their authority to invade in the right circumstances, so (2.) is mute. (6.) & (7.) really don't address the question of whether or not to have a war, and so will be put on hold and ignored. (3.) is a blank permission form, providing no real guide as to actual grounds for an attack.

(5.) cannot be tested without actually carrying out the invasion. Worse, for whom should the circumstances have improved? Invaders don't attack in order to help their enemies, but to remove a threat or punish them. Thus invaders will interpret (5.) in their own favor. (1.) is just a slippery slope open to argument.

All that is really left to constrain an invader is (4.)

That the question of 'success' (4.) should be the only remaining ('moral'?) constraint holding back an invader, is frightening and appalling. This principle by itself becomes just a thinly disguised 'might is right' sentiment.

Once a war is started, (3.) & (6.) act as a 'tit for tat' stratagem. That is, starting the war is 'just' because we have power to win, and carrying on a war is 'just' in the sense that 'an eye for an eye' is 'just'. (!)

Clearly the 'principles for a "just war" do need rethinking. The primate himself notes this when he says, ' "just war" principles fall short of the commitment of many Anglicans to a more comprehensive stance.' (ibid. pg. 3)

As we noted above, since these criteria really disqualify given wars and scenarios as unjust, they operate better as negative criteria. We will rephrase them as we go. Reordering helps give a better treatment of 'authority'.

New Version:

Authority Paragraph:

a) Since wars are engaged in by nations (countries), all wars must have approval of the United Nations as the only acceptable legitimate authority. Nations that act as aggressors and invaders should be policed, punished, and sanctioned by that body.

b) The sovereignty of any nation must be limited in principle to the physical defense of its own borders and contents.

The 'Unjust War' Criteria:

1. All wars and attacks that attempt to assert or expand a nation's sovereignty beyond its internationally recognized limits are unjust.

2. All wars and attacks started prematurely, without exhausting all other reasonable avenues for solution, are unjust.

3. All wars and attacks engaged in for the purpose of imposing or destroying religious or cultural lifestyles, institutions, or forms of self-government in a foreign jurisdiction are unjust.

4. All wars and attacks executed preemptively, though there is no need of defense against immanent attack, are unjust.

5. All wars and attacks engaged in without the primary objective of achieving, maximizing or defending peace and quality of life for all those affected, are unjust.

6. All wars and attacks carried out with excessive force, violence, or practices outlawed by the Geneva Convention, are unjust.

7. All wars and attacks carried out without regard to the absolute right of safety and quality of life for all non-combatants, innocent bystanders and hostages, are unjust.

8. All wars and attacks meant to collectively punish a religious, ethnic, or political group for the acts of a minority of extremists, are unjust.


1. The anti-imperialism clause 2. The anti-triggerhappy clause

3. The anti-religious war / anti-political war clause

4. The anti-aggressor clause 5. The peacemaker clause

6. The anti-sadist clause 7. The anti-sociopath clause

8. The anti-ethnic cleansing clause

Our list of course, is also tentative, but hopefully more useful in evaluating the proposed invasion of Iraq.

An Explanation of Changes:

The careful reader will notice a fair bit of change to our original list. For instance, the 'last resort' phrase in (1.) was dropped in favor of something more tangible in (2.) above, and that in principle could be monitored by a UN body. The vague 'legitimate authority' (2.) has been fleshed out by the Authority Paragraph above, naming the only intelligent option. (3.) has simply been dropped as too vague. (4.) was found to be absurd for reasons we will discuss below. The similarly ambiguous 'improvement over the circumstances' in (5.) has been given explicit expression in the new (5.) The new (6.) is also improved. The old (7.) had too many loopholes benefiting military strategists.

Why a new 8. ?

It is impossible to speak about war, without noting that war is by its very nature unjust. The reason is simple:

War is simply the use of extreme force in the crudest form, and on the largest scale imaginable. It is also absolutely the least controllable, least predictable and most inaccurate political act possible. Its consequences always result in the greatest multiplication of tragedy and injustice for the largest number of innocent people that one could achieve, even on purpose.

As a result, war is the worst possible choice as an instrument of justice, since it inevitably multiplies injustice on a massive scale, without any reasonable hope of undoing, compensating, or effectively deterring the original injustice!

The only possible justification for war is then as a 'last resort', an extreme measure of self-preservation, Darwinian survival. But even this act can have no moral or ethical justification, unless what we are preserving has some greater moral value than the values of the opposing side. There has to be a convincing, achievable and exclusive value indisputably held by one and only one side in order to morally justify any war.

For instance, suppose there had been some substance to Hitler's claims about European Jews. Suppose some large number of them engaged in overpricing at pawn shops, using false weights, cheating at card games, or petty theft to such an extent that they actually ended up slightly wealthier than other Europeans.

It remains as shockingly ludicrous as it ever was before to think that the enslavement, torture, and murder of 6 million people, mostly innocent women, children and the poor, could possibly be an act of justice in response to the petty crimes of some unidentified villains. One could with equal 'justice' simply round up and shoot all the German police instead, for incompetence.

Yet this is precisely what war always is: grouping people into large ethnic masses, and killing them. The holocaust only happens to be a frighteningly efficient example of the inevitable purpose and result of war: ethnic cleansing, for economic (not moral) reasons.

This is why we needed to add number 8. to our list.

What was wrong with the old (3.)?

' 3. A just war can only be waged to redress a wrong suffered.'

On the surface, (3.) seems at least to disqualify spontaneous wars. In the real world of course, all wars begin for a reason, and everybody has some claim of injustice that can be turned into an excuse for war. Who gets to decide which 'wrongs' become legitimate reasons to declare war, or if any of the typical reasons used to start wars are really morally valid at all?

This fuzzy sentiment just plays into the hands of war proponents, because they only need present a 'legitimate' case of injustice or injury, and peacemakers get sidetracked from the real question, which is,

'Is war ever a just method, or even a good tool to redress a wrong?

Even if sometimes yes, is it "just" in this particular case?

What kind of wrong or degree of wrong justifies a war?'

What was wrong with the old (4.)?

'4. A war is just, only if fought with a reasonable chance of success.
Deaths/injuries incurred in a hopeless cause are not morally justifiable.'

(4.) is really insidious. The second half is meant to explain and justify the first. Why does it strike a chord? Simple economics seems to apply. Why waste even a nickel on a losing bet? How much more valuable is a life, - even someone else's? Surely there is a moral imperative to save them if it's within our power, from a useless and needless tragedy? Of course these are humane sentiments. They might even persuade a hostage-taker to surrender, rather than kill and die in a hail of bullets.

Yet the link is tenuous between the two parts. We've gone from a 'hopeless cause', usually a small scale but well defined affair, to a 'war', a massive project in which 'success' might be interpreted on many levels, even by parties on the same side. Rephrasing the 1st line may help.

'A war fought without a reasonable chance of success is unjust.'

The fact is, this is in the wrong list! Rarely is the aggressor or invader so weak as to have no real chance of success. This is absurd on a list of criteria primarily designed to constrain bullies and protect the weak and oppressed. Even applied well, this has about as much bite as a law against suicide! How do you punish a successful suicide, or the loser in a hopeless war?

Wars, like arguments, have two sides, and while both sides can be wrong, only one side can be right. Wars can't really be "just" or "unjust", only sides can. The confusion of sides here creates a ridiculous philosophical flaw. The principle as worded suggests that while winners may qualify as 'just', losers cannot. Good news for every schoolyard bully, but plainly bad moral analysis.

The irony is, not only is the only really moral rule in the original list applicable to the wrong party, it is patently absurd as well.

What was wrong with the old (5.)?

'5. A war is just only if its goal is to re-establish peace.

The peace established must be an improvement over what would have prevailed without war.'

Obviously a war can have many hidden agendas, spread among secretive groups. Ignoring the difficulty of establishing 'motive(s)' in a war, this principle has even more basic problems. The 2nd line, if it is to have any moral weight or credibility, can only mean 'an improvement for all', including the enemy. Yet it is so ambiguous that invaders can construe it in their own interest. The 1st line similarly suffers the same flaw. It cannot mean merely that you can break the peace as long as you restore it again. It must have been intended to cover cases where the peace has already been broken. This of course is a special case, and not a useful general principle. A more sensible wording might then be:

'Any side in a war, not also seeking a way to restore peace, is unjust.'

This may have been the intent, and would cover things like the Palestinian situation. It is not useful for finding out when it is just to start a war, however.

What is wrong with the old (6.)?

'6. A war is just only if the violence used is proportional to the harm suffered.'

This is an attempt to bring the rule of excessive force to the war arena. This is hard enough to try to apply in ordinary peacekeeping operations, as any policeman will confirm. To attempt to apply it in the most extremely violent environment possible will appear ludicrous to any experienced soldier. Imagine trying to find the time to think about excessive force issues, when life hangs on split-second decisions, where snipers, surprise attacks, landmines, bombs, hand-to-hand, night-fighting and guerrilla warfare are the norm.

Again, while it is good to raise the moral issues affecting military operations, it has no direct bearing on the actual decision to go to war. Even worse, most combatants will just construe this as 'an eye for an eye', as the Middle East amply demonstrates.

What is wrong with the old (7.)?

'7. The weapons used must discriminate between combatants and non-combatants. Non-combatants are never permissible targets of war. Their deaths are justified only if they are unavoidable victims of a deliberate attack on a military target.'

Again, the lack of rigor is the flaw here, inviting the standard abuses: "The women and children began to fight back, thus becoming 'combatants', so we killed them." "Killing them was unavoidable, so it was okay." "We were aiming at a military target, so the hospital next door was an acceptable casualty." If you choose a big enough bomb, killing everyone in the city is unavoidable.


Can any war be 'just'?

As noted above,

'War is the worst possible choice as an instrument of justice, since it inevitably multiplies injustice on a massive scale, without any reasonable hope of undoing, compensating, or effectively deterring the original injustice!'

If we now apply the original (5.) in this straightforward sense,

'A war fought without a reasonable chance of success is unjust.', then:

All 'just' wars are by nature really unjust, since they cannot possibly achieve the justice for which they are proposed.

The only alternative solution to this dilemma is to interpret 'justice' so narrowly as to literally mean 'an eye for an eye'. In that case it may well be possible to have a reasonable chance of 'success'. While pleasing fundamentalists and the paramilitary, this is such a giant leap backward in terms of our understanding of fairness and justice, as to land us back in the stone age.


A modern analysis shows that the only 'just' war possible is one in which 'justice' has been crushed and pounded back into the primitive 'eye for an eye'. Wisely did Einstein quip, that 'world war IV will be fought with sticks and stones.' To this we may now add that it will clearly also be fought with similarly primitive sentiments and justifications.

Stone age Neanderthals will be wielding those sticks and stones, even if the stones are really sophisticated stealth bombers and missile guidance systems.

The identity of those Neanderthals is clear as we watch them continue to support sticks like landmines, and stones like carpet-bombing, which efficiently wage war upon the innocent, the poor, the undesirable, and the economically inconvenient.

'eye for an eye'?

As for 'an eye for an eye', many are under the wrong impression that this is some kind of general principle belonging to the Old Testament era. Some religious fundamentalists even suppose that it extends to the present.

Nothing could be further from the historical truth. Even taking the bible literally at face value cannot support this claim. In fact, the phrase appears only 3 times, and each time it is proposed as a special case in restricted circumstances.

1) For disobeying a court judgement, to avenge a miscarriage (Exodus 21:24)

2) For minor injuries in a personal dispute between neighbours (Leviticus 24:20)

3) For false testimony in court against another party (Deuteronomy 19:16-21)

Lest there be any doubt regarding biblical support, it is roundly condemned as a general principle by Jesus Himself in the Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 5:38)