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Ethics of War: Justified and Unjustified War
When countries launch hostile military actions against other nations to the point where war occurs, the belligerents will inevitably have fundamentally opposing views concerning the legitimacy of the conflict and each opposing side will offer its poignant justification for its respective moral, legal and political positions regarding the conflict. In many cases, all belligerents in a war may have equally compelling just causes, and these causes can change from just to unjust even as the war is being fought. Indeed, scarcity of resources is frequently at the heart of many wars, but virtually all wars throughout history have also been justified on the basis of both sound and spurious rationales, the veracity of which depends on who is asking and who is being asked, questions that quickly become heated when religious reasons are included in the mix. To get at the heart of the matter, this paper provides a review of the relevant peer-reviewed and scholarly literature concerning justified and unjustified war, including their respective definitions,
Review and Analysis
Although many people today believe that the concepts of "just war" and "unjust war" are of recent origin, these concepts are in reality truly ancient (Reichberg 468). In this regard, Alexandrov points out that, "Even in ancient societies, war was a legal institution. Concepts of 'just war' and 'unjust war' did not originate in modern times, but in ancient Greece and ancient Rome" (605). As Helen of Troy's face proved, a thousand ships could be launched for just causes that involved various violations of personal space (injury or tort), physical space (invasion of territories), and violations of contracts (refusal to satisfy claims). For instance, according to Alexandrov, "In Roman times, 'just wars' were legitimized by violation of the rights of the victim state, infliction of injuries, or refusal to satisfy claims. The emphasis was on responding to attack, invasion, or other violations of territory" (605). By the first century BCE, though, the scope of "just war" had expanded to include the concepts of self-defense and the punishment of transgressors (Alexandrov 605).
When confronted with the questions as to whether a war is just or not, it is important to note that the moral realities of war are grouped into two segments. According to Walzer, "War is always judged twice, first with reference to the reasons states have for fighting, secondly with reference to the means they adopt" (21). This paper is concerned with the reasons states have for fighting, but equally important in the Age of Information is the manner in which a war is prosecuted. For example, Walzer notes that, "The first kind of judgment is adjectival in character: we say that a particular war is just or unjust. The second is adverbial: we say that the war is being fought justly or unjustly" (21). These moral realities are also expressed in legal terms as well, with the various reasons states have for waging war being designated jus ad bellum (the justice of war) which is distinguished from the second kind of judgment, jus in bello (justice in war) (Walzer 21). According to Walzer, "These grammatical distinctions point to deep issues. Jus ad bellum requires us to make judgments about aggression and self-defense; jus in bello about the observance or violation of the customary and positive rules of engagement" (21).
Just as business practices can be legal but unethical, just wars can be prosecuted in an unjust fashion and unjust wars to be prosecuted according to strict international guidelines (Walzer 21). These paradoxical aspects of any war being "just" have caused many observers to question whether it is possible to justify the otherwise-unjustifiable by resorting to legal niceties while innocent people are dying. In this regard, Walzer points out that, "Though our views of particular wars often conform to its terms, [they are] nevertheless puzzling. It is a crime to commit aggression, but aggressive war is a rule-governed activity. It is right to resist aggression, but the resistance is subject to moral (and legal) restraint" (21). Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that these issues have shaped contemporary thinking concerning what is a just war and what is not, and how and why it should be fought. Indeed, Walzer emphasizes that, "The dualism of jus ad bellum and jus in bello is at the heart of all that is most problematic in the moral reality of war" (21).
Although theorists do not agree on many aspects of just and unjust war conceptualizations, there is a general consensus that in the 21st century, international law regards a just war as "above all a war of self-defense" (Nardin 57). The process by which wars are considered just is well established, and while it may vary from conflict to conflict, there are some age-old protocols required to invoke the approval of the international community. For instance, McMahan advises that, "The usual practice is to offer a simple characterization of the requirement of just cause -- for example, that it is the requirement that there be a good or compelling reason to go to war" (p. 2). Just as Nardin points out the only legitimate reason for starting an offensive war has historically been defensive reasons, McMahan adds that, "Until quite recently, contemporary just war theory and international law have recognized only one just cause for war: self- or other-defense against aggression" (2). Other issues that most just war theorists agree upon include:
1. A just cause is necessary for the satisfaction of any of the other conditions of a just war;
2. There can be various just causes for war other than defense against aggression; and,
3. Both sides in a war can have a just cause (McMahan 2)
In a modern geopolitical system that is characterized by international agreements and treaties that are even more convoluted that those in place prior to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, triggering World War I, states engaging in war against others today may appear to enjoy the luxury of doing so without respect to whether a just cause exists, because one just may come along at any time during the pendency of the conflict that will legitimize it. In this regard, McMahan emphasizes that, "It is possible that a war can begin without a just cause but become just when a just cause arises during the course of the fighting and takes over as the goal of the war" (3). In these types of eventualities, it is clear that the unjust war has not actually ended and a brand-new war that has a just cause has been declared. According to McMahan, "One and the same war may cease to be unjust and become just -- just as a war that begins with a just cause may continue after that cause has been achieved or has simply disappeared on its own" (3). Therefore, states cannot initiate a war without a just cause in the expectation that one will emerge. In this regard, McMahon concludes that, "A just cause is, indeed, always required for engaging in war. Just cause specifies the ends for which it is permissible to engage in war, or that it is permissible to pursue by means of war" (3).
Over the past several centuries, war has therefore been justified by moralists and just war theorists on other grounds as well, including the innate duty, obligation and right to defend the rights of others, even if doing so inevitably involves politically motivated selectivity in the targets. For instance, Nardin advises that, "Rulers, these moralists argued, have a right and sometimes a duty to enforce certain laws beyond their realms" (57). In the post-September 11, 2001 environment, it is not surprising that the United States has seized this argument in support of its global war on terrorism (Nardin 58). Nevertheless, discrimination in the application of military force and the proportionality of the response remain salient jus in bello criteria today (Sprague 44). The right to war (jus ad bellum) criteria are intended "to serve as an ethical and conceptual framework for practical reasoning regarding the use of force among states" (Elshtain 92).
These are important issues for countries such as Syria that are experiencing the fallout of the Arab Spring uprisings in their own backyards, because there is a concomitant issue of jus post bellum (justice after war) that must be taken into account. For instance, the genocide to date has been sufficiently horrendous to cause the American president to call on the U.S. Congress for authorization for some time of limited intervention. According to Dagi, "So far it is estimated that around 50,000 people have been killed in Syria, 600,000 have fled to neighboring countries, mainly Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, and millions are internally displaced. Syria is a country in shambles" (Dagi 5). Clearly, this war-torn country will require substantive assistance from the international community in order to rebuild to any resemblance of its former self, and the full extent of the devastation remains to be…[continue]
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