What is a Just War?

| by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne

(November 17, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) The concept of a just war first emerged when the Roman Empire was Christianized and pacifism was abandoned by the Christians as a consequence. The use of force was considered “just” if it accorded with the divine will. Therefore, the doctrine of a just war took gradual shape under Greek and Roman philosophy and was used as justification for the maintenance of peace and order in a society. More clarity on the concept was offered by St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.) who opined that a just war avenged injuries suffered when the offender did not make amends. This enabled the concept to be extended to cover the punishment of wrongs and the restoration of peace. St. Thomas Aquinas, who lived in the thirteenth century, in his Summa Theologica further garnished the doctrine by stating that a just war punished the subjective guilt of the offender rather than the objectively wrong activity. This definition included three elements: a just war should be waged by a sovereign authority; it had to be justified by a just cause which punished wrongdoers; and such a war had to be supported by the right intentions of the warring Party.
War in Afghanistan— File Photos
The emergence of the European States pushed the concept towards modern day reality where the prevalent view at that time was that it was first required that the Parties attempted a peaceful resolution to their dispute before they could embark on a war of conviction that would justify a just war. These several European States had diverse ideologies but shared fragile regimes which necessitated a diversion of legal doctrine from the original justification for the use of force to punish wrongdoers to the maintenance of order and stability by peaceful means. The original concept therefore declined with the inter-Christian wars and began to shift towards formal processes of law, away from ideological considerations, thereby endorsing self-defence of person and property as the governing criterion. The famous jurist Grotius who lived in the sixteenth century, in his monumental De Jure Belli ac Pacis advocated this approach and supported the punishment of wrongs committed against the citizens of a particular society.
At its last stage of evolution, a war became just that – a war – and it mattered not whether it was just or not. What mattered was that a state of war existed. It was the will of the sovereign that was relevant in matters of war. The modern period of war, which commenced with the First World War (1914-1918) marked the end of the system of balance of power. It introduced the need to determine the legitimacy of war based on a League of Nations and international affairs that called upon the international community to determine the justification of war waged by a sovereign and adjudication of disputes arising therefrom.
Wikipedia defines war as a phenomenon of organized violent conflict which involves at least two organized groups, and is a premeditated activity at least on the part of one side, and at least one of the groups uses violence against the other. This definition accords well with the fact that a war need not necessarily be waged between two sovereigns and that it is a generic term for organized violence. A war can be fought against a crime against peace, which at international law refers to planning, preparation, initiation, or waging of wars of aggression, or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances, or participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the foregoing. This definition of crimes against peace was first incorporated into the Nuremberg Principles following the Second World War and later included in the Charter of the United Nations. According to this definition aggression would constitute a crime against peace that would justify the waging of war in its generic sense.
Irrespective of what whether a war is just or not, the reality is that what a society needs from a democratically elected sovereign is firstly protection and secondly a good standard of living. The human is not a warmonger by nature and human potential for peace overwhelms his proclivity to resolve conflict by going to war. Douglas P. Fry, in his book “Beyond War argues that for perhaps ninety nine percent of our history, and for well over a million years, humans lived in nomadic hunter and gatherer groups, in egalitarian bands where generosity was highly valued and warfare was a rarity. Fry’s thesis is that war is the natural corollary of social organization and the rise of States. The culmination of Fry’s thesis is that war, like slavery, can be abolished mainly because, from an anthropological perspective, humans have shown a greater tendency toward living with each other in harmony than going to war. The second reason adduced is that with the exponential increase of weapons of mass destruction, we must, as of necessity abolish war before it abolishes us.
Despite the wars raging in some areas of the world, many of us lead normally peaceful lives: we go to school or work; interact with our peers; return home; have dinner with the family and go to sleep in a peaceful environment. Many of us are clever and decent and we know that if the world around us disintegrates, we go down with it. Therefore we have to strike a balance between the extremity of war, which usually is a last resort, and the sensibility of peace. Peace is not just the absence of war but a condition that gives everyone in a given society an equal standard of living. In order to achieve this we have to recognize one fundamental truth – that we live in a world of constant change and our world is mostly one of paradoxes. No one could have put it more succinctly than Charles Handy who, in his book The Age of Paradox says that although the paradoxes of modern times cannot be solved, they can be managed if we can understand what is happening and are prepared to act differently.
The bottom line is that if a sovereign has to resort to war to protect its citizens, it must, whatever the definition of war might be. A brigand who uses aggression against a society or State falls into the classic mould of Alexander the Great who epitomized the early martial personality. Some scholars are of the view that Alexander’s career was piracy pure and simple and that his main motive was to carry out an orgy of power and plunder. Paradoxically, this was romanticized by the average plebeian who made Alexander a hero. Alexander’s motive, which drove his war career, was annexation which, in modern terms seemingly shows no rational purpose for war, and the moment he died his generals and governors attacked one another.
I can only conclude with the words of the great master Sun Tzu in his Art of War: “When the civilian leadership is intelligent and the military leadership is good, when superiors and subordinates are of like mind, and will and energy operate together, this is called fullness”.
Also, my poem which I hope epitomizes the spirit of the soldier:
The Soldier
In the arid sand
Of Arisi Malai
He found himself very weary
His body warm, his throat parched
From the sun’s unrelenting fury
He laid his gun on the shore
Walked into the cool blue sea
And felt his body shrink with delight
With the frigid ocean’s mercy
It was then he saw a dark figure
Another man in the water
Whose countenance he recognized
And made his step falter
On a dark day the previous week
The man had led two attacks
Against the soldier’s platoon sparse
Leaving all but him dead in their tracks
Their eyes met in hated recognition
Their minds not sure what to do
Both knew they had guns on the shore
and could use them in a moment or two
After a moment’s hesitation the man swam away
Clearly not going to reopen
The attacks he just carried out
The other day with his weapon
The soldier knew he could do so
by reaching for his gun
And killing his dreaded enemy
Sweet revenge and so much fun!
Yet, was this war
The soldier thought
And he knew he would not be winning
By killing a defenceless person
Albeit an enemy caught
So he let this golden moment pass
And went on with his swimming
No shot rang out
No one was hurt
And a human had refrained from sinning
There will always be war
There will always be peace
The trick is to know which is which
The rules are quite clear
You must not ever fear
To stand up to values that are rich.


Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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