The Concept of Just War

The following essay by Col. Tom Snodgrass outlining the history behind the concept of ‘Just War’, and its relevance to the Great Jihad, was originally published in a slightly different form at Right Side News.

Battle of the Somme 1916

Christian Just War v. Islamic Jihad
by Col. Tom Snodgrass (Ret.)

In the World War II Pacific Theater, our Japanese enemy’s disregard for any human or Judeo-Christian standard of morality made the application of normally acceptable jus in bello criteria absolutely impossible and therefore inapplicable. Are we in a similar situation fighting against Islamic jihad?

Opposing morality codes

The jus ad bellum [Latin for “right to wage war”] criteria are (1) ‘just cause’ in terms of self-defense and protection of innocents; (2) ‘right intention’ to bring justice and peace; (3) ‘proper authority’ and ‘public declaration’ meaning that the declaration of war is executed only by heads of state within a legal framework; (4) ‘last resort’ after other options have been seriously considered, although not necessarily tried; (5) ‘probability of success’ to block violence which is going to be futile; and (6) ‘macro proportionality’ which weighs expected universal good to accrue from its prosecuting the war against the expected universal evils that will result.

The jus in bello [acceptable justifications to use various methods of warfare] criteria are (1) ‘micro proportionality’ that weighs the use of a particular weapon or tactic to determine that it is proportional to the threat; and (2) ‘discrimination between combatants and non-combatants.’ — Christian Just War: jus ad bellum and jus in bello criteria

“The way of the warrior is resolute acceptance of death.” — Bushido: Japanese (Tokugawa) Way of the Warriors

“Do not live in shame as a prisoner. Die, and leave no ignominious crime behind you.” — The Japanese Military Field Service Code issued by General Tojo in 1941

War in human history

The world civilization historians Will and Ariel Durant in their 1968 book, The Lessons of History, wrote: “In the last 3,421 years of recorded history only 268 have seen no war.” Looking at the 44 years since 1968, it is safe to say that the 268 number still stands. Since only about eight percent of recorded human history has been war-free by the Durant count, it is not surprising that mankind has attempted, with very limited success, to regulate the frequency of war and its conduct. What is surprising however are the huge numbers of people in Western Civilization who continually attempt to deny the reality of war. Whether or not war is an integral component to human existence, war’s frequency attests to its unavoidability in human history when politico-religious entities reach irreconcilable impasse. The reality of war in human history is well characterized by a quote attributed to Leon Trotsky: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

Since war is an undeniable reality in human life, and war in the guise of Islamic jihad [according to Islamic Shari’a law, “jihad means to war against non-Muslims”] is currently erupting in every corner of the globe, this essay will analyze whether a viable moral approach to the war against Islamic jihad exists from a military man’s point of view. In order to do so, the morality of war-making in historical context will be examined, and then that historical framework will be used to examine the conflict between the U.S. and the those who carry out jihad to install Shari’a in Dar al-Harb [the “Land of War” or the territory where the Islamic Shari’a is not the dominant politico-legal system — or put simply, “the West”].

The three dominant positions concerning morality in warfare

One of mankind’s first recorded discussions concerning morality in warfare is found in Thucydides’ passage in his master work, the Peloponnesian Wars (431-404 B.C.), wherein Athenian commanders, who possessed overwhelming force, approached their adversary before commencing the battle with a surrender ultimatum stating that they would hear no protestations about justice, rather the weaker adversary must consider the incontestable facts of the situation and surrender. In other words, ‘the strong do as they will, and the weak do as they must.’ Obviously these ancients dismissed the concept of restraint in war as irrelevant. To their way of thinking, after the war has been won, humans can then return to a moral political order that is structured on restraint and civility in daily affairs. In other words, these men understood intuitively that war against one’s enemy required a different code of conduct than was applicable within a political order made up of one’s fellow citizens. Within this context, war simply cannot fit into a moral framework of restraint. Such thinking might be termed the ‘Reality School.’

Directly opposed to the ‘Reality School’ is what we might designate the ‘Pacifism School.’ The thinking in this school declares the taking of human life to be wrong under any circumstances. Pacifism’s codification goes back to the same general time in human history during which the Greeks were developing the ‘Reality School,’ but it occurred in a different part of the ancient world. By about 500 B.C., the philosophy of Jainism had taken root in India espousing the doctrine that all killing of life, human and nonhuman, was simply unacceptable. Obviously pacifism never acquired a dominant stature, even in India, for the reasons one might suppose about its practicability in a primitive, winner-take-all environment.

Interestingly there seems to have been no philosophical concept of pacifism in Ancient Greece, except as limiting violence between individual, fellow citizens. But pacifism took off in the Mediterranean world with the advent of Christianity in the first century A.D. The pre-Constantine Church quite literally practiced Christ’s admonitions to “love your enemies” and to “turn the other cheek.” The church fathers, Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 A.D.), wrote in opposition to such unqualified pacifism, attempting to develop Christian interpretations which would condone violence to counter injustice in specified circumstances. Nevertheless, pacifism continued to flourish in Christian sects like the Quakers, Mennonites, and Amish.

While the doctrine of a specific pacifist group may vary according to its leadership and accepted group dogma, almost all varieties of pacifism are founded on the idea that war and violence are unjustifiable and that all international disputes should be settled by peaceful means.

After the carnage of World War I, pacifism gained many adherents during the 1930’s as the clouds of war gathered again over Europe, but the horror of Hitler’s Nazism appeared to fully discredit pacifism as a rational policy and way of life, at least in the minds of most reasonable people. While pacifism maintained some insignificant political influence following World War II, the unpopularity of the Vietnam War reinvigorated the ideology of the ‘Pacificism School’ to such a degree that it remains a significant meme in American politics today. American pacifism is carried forward by the anti-war movements extant and quite influential in the left wing of Democrat Party and to a lesser extent in the libertarian right wing of the Republican Party.

Since the adherents of the ‘Pacifism School’ have only a tenuous relationship with reality, pacifism, as governing dogma, remains an anathema to the majority of rational Americans. In today’s world, the pacifists are so obsessed with a fanatical, irrational, and perverse ‘righteousness,’ they fail to grasp that pacifism survives only when the pacifist lives in a nation that is peculiarly not pacifist and is, therefore, prepared to use the violence of war to fend off the nation’s (and the pacifist’s) enemies.

The third position regarding the morality of war is labeled the ‘Just War School,’ which stands in opposition to both the ‘Reality School’ and the ‘Pacifism School’ because it recognizes the necessity of protecting the pacifists from the realists. ‘Just War’ as an organized body of thought predated the Christian era when the Roman statesman Cicero (106-43 B.C) first formulated a just war theory, but it was far less sophisticated than later Christian doctrine. Cicero identified two bases for a justified war: (1) Defend yourself or your community from danger, and (2) Defend/avenge your or your community’s honor.

Obviously, Cicero’s two premises were inadequate from a Christian standpoint, so in the post-Constantine Roman Empire, as Christians began to occupy responsible authority positions in the Roman government, St. Augustine set about to construct a Christian ‘Just War’ theory from the proposition that nowhere in the gospels did Christ forbid his followers from defending one’s loved ones from life threatening attack. St. Augustine’s work was later expanded by the Catholic Church theologian Thomas Aquinas, the Protestant jurist Hugo Grotius (1583-1645 A.D.), and two Catholic jurists, Franciscus de Victoria (1480-1546 A.D.) and Francisco Suarez (1548-1617 A.D.), to name just some of the more notable. These men were the ground-breaking pioneers who contributed the main corpus of Western thought on ‘Just War.’ ‘Just War’ doctrine has been hotly debated since it was first introduced for the same reasons it is under intense debate today — is it adequate and/or applicable in war circumstances?

Christian ‘Just War’ defined

The generally accepted factors used to judge whether or not war is justifiable in the Christian tradition are divided into criteria for justified war (jus ad bellum) and criteria for determining whether the war is fought justly (jus in bello).

The jus ad bellum criteria are:

1.   just cause in terms of self-defense and protection of innocents;
2.   right intention to bring justice and peace;
3.   proper authority and public declaration meaning that the declaration of war is executed only by heads of state within a legal framework;
4.   last resort after other options have been seriously considered, although not necessarily tried;
5.   probability of success to block violence which is going to be futile; and
6.   macro proportionality that weighs expected universal good to accrue from prosecuting the war against the expected universal evils that will result.

The jus in bello criteria are:

1.   micro proportionality that weighs the use of a particular weapon or tactic to determine that it is proportional to the threat; and
2.   discrimination between combatants and non-combatants.

According to Christian ‘Just War’ theory, failure to meet the standard in any of the individual jus ad bellum criteria means the entire jus ad bellum justification is invalid. However, a second stipulation is that jus ad bellum and jus in bello are separate and distinct sets of criteria. Consequently, failure to meet the standard in either of the jus in bello criteria (i.e., how the war is fought) does not nullify the jus ad bellum justification for the war itself.

Is Christian Just War adequate and/or applicable?

Looking at the historical long view, ‘Just War’ has often provided a set of mutually agreed upon rules of combat, generally between similar enemies acting within a Judeo-Christian tradition and with a European heritage. It has been argued by war theorists of the largely utopian persuasion that ‘Just War’ theory should be universal in application, but the utter impracticality of imposing artificial moral standards in a “kill or be killed” scenario became strikingly evident in the Pacific Theater during World War II, where the Japanese refused to be bound by international protocols because their battlefield behavior was dictated by the Japanese Shinto religion and its Bushido warrior code.

Such ‘Just War’ considerations as right intention, last resort, probability of success, macro proportionality, micro proportionality, and discrimination were totally irrelevant to the Japanese in their conduct of the war. For example, the probability of success criteria was in direct conflict with the suicide instructions in the Bushido code — “The way of the warrior is acceptance of death” — and with General Tojo’s instructions to die rather than surrender — “Do not live in shame as a prisoner. Die, and leave no ignominious crime behind you.” Similarly, the ‘Just War’ criteria, which demands discrimination between combatants and non-combatants, was absent as a matter of fact and dogma in the “rape of Nanking,” when Japanese troops were encouraged by their officers to invent new and hideous ways to slaughter Chinese civilians and prisoners of war.

Ironically, the utter disregard for even basic humanity in the conduct of war by the strategically inferior Japanese caused the strategically superior US military ‘to do as they must’ and adopt a ‘take no prisoners’ mentality. In other words, when our superior military forces confronted inferior and overwhelmed Japanese forces, we could not ‘war as we might’ against another Christian nation and take prisoners alive as is common for the stronger force that has overpowered a weaker enemy. The Japanese quite effectively precluded such jus in bello war tactics by employing suicide grenade attacks and hidden pistol deceptions while surrendering. As a consequence, American forces had no choice but to do as they must and burn out Japanese with flamethrowers, or to destroy them with satchel charges in their caves and bunkers, thus not affording them the opportunity to engage in surrender-suicide attacks.

On a larger institutional scale, Japanese Bushidoism left the US Army Air Forces with no option but the utter destruction of the Japanese suicide resistance capability’ by firebomb and nuclear attacks, consequently killing hundreds of thousands who would not have had to die except for the fact that the Bushido believers simply approached war in a very anti-‘Just War’ way. While the U.S. Government made no formal announcement abrogating ‘Just War’ tactics, there is no doubt that jus in bello was abandoned in our war against the Japanese because it was absolutely necessary, given the enemy’s insistence on dying by suicide attack rather than surrendering. The American people and Western Civilization in general quietly accepted the reality of the ‘take no prisoners’ situation with no protest. One qualifying historical note is necessary here — Japanese prisoners were taken as a general rule when their surrender did not put American lives at risk of surrender-suicide attack.

Does this mean that our war against the Bushido Japanese was not just? Hardly. For the US to have adopted any other measures would have prolonged the war and increased the American death toll quite unjustly, since it was the Japanese who created the circumstances necessitating the suspension of observing jus in bello criteria. But even the strictest pacifists who refuse to accept this irrefutable logic must nonetheless admit that America’s tactics suspending our strict adherence to the jus in bello criteria does not affect whatsoever the justness of the war in the first instance, since, as noted above, jus ad bellum and jus in bello are separate and distinct sets of criteria.

So what is our alternative today?

In the terms of reference I’ve framed for this essay, there is no doubt that the Japanese adhered de rigueur to the ‘Reality School’ of warfare. While it is manifestly the case that our war against the Japanese was just in the Christian context of adhering to the jus ad bellum criteria, I have demonstrated that even our “no prisoners” and “fire/nuclear bombing” tactics (jus in bello) were quite justified in the face of an enemy who accepted no limits on his destructive power, even in cases of quite obvious defeat and surrender.

With this background, we turn to the war against the West being waged by Islam, or their term, jihad. Clearly, an intellectually honest reading of these Qur’anic suras —

8:12: When your Lord revealed to the angels: I am with you, therefore make firm those who believe. I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them.
9:5: So when the sacred months have passed away, then slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them captives and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush, then if they repent and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, leave their way free to them; surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.
9:29: Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and His Apostle have prohibited, nor follow the religion of truth, out of those who have been given the Book, until they pay the tax in acknowledgment of superiority and they are in a state of subjection.
9:111: Surely Allah has bought of the believers their persons and their property for this, that they shall have the garden; they fight in Allah’s way, so they slay and are slain; a promise which is binding on Him in the Taurat [Arabic word for the Torah] and the Injeel [Arabic name for what Muslims believe to be the original Gospel of Jesus] and the Qur’an; and who is more faithful to his covenant than Allah? Rejoice therefore in the pledge which you have made; and that is the mighty achievement.

— leaves no doubt we are once again in a worldwide war with an enemy of the ‘Reality School’; that is, an enemy without a Western concept of humanity in warfare or observance of Judeo-Christian morality. This sobering reality of cold-blooded murder masquerading as warfare is especially true as understood in the context of the legal interpretations of these sura mandates by all of the historical, traditional, and authoritative legal schools [fiqh] of Islam, together with the actual conduct of the Muslim world, both its violence in the name of Allah and its masses which remain overwhelmingly indifferent to this violence. The callous savagery and indifference of the Islamic world are matters of a media-documented record; consequently, any talk of slavishly satisfying every Christian ‘Just War’ criterion is worse than irrelevant when defending ourselves against this jihadist enemy; it is morally reprehensible. As was the case with the Japanese Bushido enemy, only the suicidal or the moronic would advocate strictly adhering to jus in bello criteria, or employing the methods of the ‘Pacifism School’ in response to jihad.

So today we find ourselves facing an Islamic-initiated war of such violence that it makes the bloodcurdling savagery of the Japanese Bushido believers appear almost tame. Only those blinded by the most dangerous ideologies (both on the anti-war left and libertarian right) would argue that the war against Islam does not meet the jus ad bellum criteria used to prosecute our war against the Japanese from 1941 through 1945.

But the Pacifists among us who might concede that we have just cause to go to war against the Taliban and al Qaeda, insist we apply the jus in bello criteria of micro proportionality that weighs the use of a particular weapon or tactic to determine that its proportionality to the threat, and discrimination between combatants and non-combatants. Thus, the howls of risible protest by the anti-war crowd from both ends of the political spectrum against the rendition programs and enhanced interrogation methods designed to extract valuable lifesaving information through physical deprivation, water-boarding, the threat of physical force, GITMO imprisonment, and the rest of the long list of “war crimes” we are alleged to have committed. For instance, if we had followed the strict jus in bello proportionality demands of the left and libertarian right, Osama bin Laden would still be alive and planning jihadist terror attacks against us.

Obviously the suicidal nature of Islamic jihadists poses many of the same problems of micro proportionality for the American military that we confronted in World War II. Similarly, no-nonsense ‘rules of engagement’ (ROEs) on the battlefield to protect the lives of our American soldiers when subduing jihadists should be the same as those used on Iwo Jima by the U.S. Marines. Of a Japanese Iwo Jima army garrison of 22,000, only 212 survived the battle as prisoners-of-war. There are no practical differences between the suicidal commitments of the Japanese Bushido believers and the Islamic jihadists, so the Christian ‘Just War’ question of micro proportionality must be applied only after due priority is given to safeguarding the lives of American service personnel. Recall that just as Japanese Bushido believers believed dying for the emperor was their highest Shinto honor, Muslims likewise believe suicidal dedication to Allah is their greatest Islamic calling as is illustrated in Sura 9:111:

Surely Allah has bought of the believers their persons and their property for this, that they shall have the garden [Islamic Paradise]; they fight in Allah’s way, so they slay and are slain; a promise which is binding on Him [Allah]….

Discrimination between combatants and non-combatants in the war against Islam and its jihadists requires the same kind of common-sense analysis about the appropriateness of applying the jus in bello criteria of micro proportionality. In other words, ‘Just War’ doctrine cannot be applied in some sort of Judeo-Christian ‘Just War’ vacuum, thus unnecessarily endangering the lives of U.S. military personnel, when we confront an enemy operating completely outside of any restraint in their religious war context. The standards regarding who is and who is not a combatant — the criteria of Christian ‘Just War’ doctrine later embodied in the Geneva Convention Laws of War — are unfortunately most practicably appropriate for a Napoleonic-era rural battlefield where orderly lines of soldiers in brightly colored uniforms marched toward each other with single-shot muskets, and civilians were nowhere near the battlefield. In fact, distinctive uniforms were the result of international agreement in the Christian world in order to distinguish combatants from noncombatants in the 17th century.

Certainly a battle of uniformed combatants is the preferred scenario for sparing civilians in warfare; however, these conditions no longer obtain in the world of 21st century jihad where any Muslim faithful to Shari’a is a potential suicide-homicide bomber, regardless of age or gender. So as Sura 9:111 makes clear, any man, woman, or child Islamic believer takes on the mantel of combatant by virtue of his or her Muslim faith and commitment to die in the cause of Allah. Also, Islamic jihadists shun uniforms to disguise themselves as civilians in order to launch ambushes and then to retreat back into the civilian milieu in an effort to hide and discourage return fire from the ambushed force. The U.S. ROEs in Iraq, and even more so in Afghanistan, have unnecessarily resulted in American military personnel killed because they have been, and still are, prohibiting Americans from firing preemptively and/or in self-defense if Muslim civilian collateral casualties are possible.

One way for the layman to understand this entire analysis would be simply to ask the following: “What would happen if some space alien force, that recognized no laws of war, no humane behavior, and no just war tactics, attacked and slaughtered mankind mercilessly in an effort to conquer the planet for its natural resources?” Could a rational or moral man or woman countenance the pleas of the Pacifists or anti-war zealots to refrain from ‘unjust’ war tactics? But today we do not face some imaginary space alien force, instead we face a very real jihadist force that recognizes no laws of war, no humane behavior, and no just war tactics. Common sense dictates that we act accordingly to protect our society.


My analysis of the factors bearing on the adequacy and applicability of Christian ‘Just War’ to the present conflict presented in this essay leads me to conclude that there is no question that jus ad bellum criteria are fully satisfied from any reasonable standpoint. And just as was the case in the World War II Pacific Theater, the Islamic enemy’s disregard for any human or Judeo-Christian standard of morality makes the application of historically accepted jus in bello criteria practically impossible for our soldiers on the battlefield to undeviatingly adhere to without unnecessarily putting their lives at risk. Therefore, our warriors should never be asked to attempt to implement jus in bello restrictive criteria in combat when taking prisoners.

Furthermore, just as World War II-era Americans accepted this reality and went on with the war approving whatever was necessary because “no prisoners” and “fire/nuclear bombing” were essential to expeditiously end an unjust, Japanese-initiated war; so too Americans and especially our government must now realize that U.S. war fighters face almost the same set of gruesome circumstances in this existential, Islamic jihad-initiated war. In today’s conflict, the stakes are as high, or even higher than they were in 1941 because the theocratic-politico-military doctrine of Islamic Shari’a is every bit as oppressive and vicious as the Axis fascism we fought in World War II.

3 thoughts on “The Concept of Just War

  1. A well argued essay which if read and understood by intellectually honest people, should leave no doubt in their minds that we now face an enemy, albeit an enemy that has yet to be universally recognized as such, that is probably more ruthless than the Imperial Japanese Army was infamous for.

    But just a little nitpick; the author states that no Jap prisoners were taken due to their deceptive acts of surrender brought on by their suicidal tendencies which placed American
    soldiers lives at risk.

    A little historical fact here if I may: During the Kokoda Campaign in New Guinea during mid-1942, an unofficial order was passed down the Australian line not to take Japanese prisoners, not because of what the author has outlined, but because of what the Japs did to those whom they had taken prisoner.

    May I also add that my research has yielded some simple truths about the human species when engaged in killing other humans while being a target themselves. Being engaged in such acts produces the two powerful emotions of fear and hate, and it is fear and hate which drives the malnourished and weary soldier to continue fighting, not the cause for which they are fighting which generally rates a poor last in the scheme of things.

    while the author has based his essay on Christian values, the author has not mentioned or even alluded to the fact, that the West is currently hamstrung by the shackles of politicial correctness and multiculturalism. If we are to have a chance in this current battle of civilizations against an enemy that only plays by their rules, those shackles must be removed.

  2. the auses were practicing the axiom, if you give no quarter you’ll get no quarter.

    the muslims give no quarter and eventually we will have to return the favor.

  3. I agree with the author that winning a war, and saving the lives of your troops takes precedence over the rules of engagement or the normal standards of civilized conduct.

    However, we should not confuse the necessity of unrestrained tactics for the justification of stupid actions. For example, nothing can be used to justify the invasion of Iraq by George Bush, as the invasion served to catastrophically weaken the position of the US in the region.

    Similarly, the occupation of Afghanistan is a huge liability to the US. Afghanistan will continue to suck up American lives and treasures in a fruitless effort to liberalize an Islamic society, whether or not US troops follow rules of engagement.

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