Just war rules and claims of a just war share a common word with completely different meanings.
Placing the word “just” before the word “war” doesn’t make war morally just, contrary to the feelings of pro-war American Christians.
Some American Christians think that their nation’s cause is always a just one, always morally right. Therefore, wars are always just. Such thinking misunderstands the rules of just war.
The confusion between the two uses of just allows some theocratic Christians to manipulate their followers into supporting misguided military adventures. These Christians play a slippery game of conflating the two completely different concepts for purely political purposes.
Just war is a time-honored way to evaluate whether the use of military force has a moral justification to it. Just war offers a series of speed bumps to slow down a nation’s rush to war, a deadly slippery slope for the United States with its toxic blend of national self-righteousness and the military-industrial complex.
Just war argues that some wars are just, if they pass all rigorous rules. Passing one rule is not enough. Failing one rule is enough to keep a war from being certified as just.
Here are the rules of just war:
First is just cause. Stopping genocide is a just cause for war. Had the U.S. used its military to intervene in Rwanda to halt the genocide there, the U.S. would have used force morally. Invading a country years after genocide or mass murders have occurred hardly qualifies as a just cause. Ensuring access to oil is an unjust cause.
Second is just authority. Going to war requires in our system of government the approval of Congress. The president cannot unilaterally go to war. Just authority ensures that the citizenry understand the reasons for war and grant their assent to war. Of course, just authority is based on the assumption that the governing authorities are truthful with the public about the dangers.
Third is last resort. For a war to be morally just, the nation must first seek to resolve the conflict without military force. A nation must negotiate exhaustively before resorting to war.
Fourth is just intent. Revenge, economic gain and racial supremacy are wrongful reasons for war. The intent of war must be to restore peace, not avenge a father’s honor.
Fifth is probability of success. A just war must have a high chance to achieve its stated purpose. One of the stated purposes for the war against Iraq was to establish democracy, a noble but unrealistic goal given the cultural realities and the lack of historical examples of authentic democracies in the Middle East.
Sixth is proportionality of cost. That means the war accomplishes more good than harm. After four years of war with no end in sight and civil war cited by most objective observers, the costs of continued occupation creates more harm than good. Promising progress and pleading for more time and troops will not make the cost proportional to the destruction issued.
Seventh is a clear announcement. Reasons for war and reconciliation must be spelled out clearly. The other side must know beyond a shadow of doubt why an attack is likely.
Eighth is just means. As the argument for war must consider just rules, the fighting of war must follow just rules. Targeting non-combatant civilians is immoral. If non-combatant civilians are killed unintentionally, that is morally tolerable. That is what is called the double effect. Fighting a war in urban areas in the midst of a civil war makes the just conduct of war very difficult, if not impossible.
The Iraq war did not pass just war rules before it was launched. Given all the ideological, economic, theological and psychological forces that pushed and pulled our nation into war, the Christian community should have been the one institution to slam on the brakes. Indeed many Christians tried. Catholic and Methodist bishops, many denominational leaders and a host of Christian organizations opposed the war. Other Christian leaders remained silent. Not surprisingly, the Christian right blessed the war. They were wrong to do so. Those who were silent were also wrong.
The Iraq war does not pass just war rules now. Continuing it is morally wrong. The Christian community needs to speak with simplicity, clarity and repetitiveness about the moral necessity to end the war.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.
Robert M. Parham (1953 – 2017) was the founder and executive director of Baptist Center for Ethics from 1991 to 2017. He served as executive editor of EthicsDaily.com, BCE’s website, from its launch in 2002 until 2017.