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Is the term ‘Just War’ now outdated? Essay

Debates about what we now call ‘Just War’ go back as far as the Greek philosophers Aristotle and Cicero. In Christian understanding, the theory was developed by St Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan in 374, and his student Augustine. Drawing on Roman ideas and the Old Testament, they marked out that only a legitimate governmental authority has the right to declare war; it must be aimed at restoring peace and ideally should be a last resort.

The political situation was such that war was constant, and there was a need for a set of principles in order for the state to support the Church. Pacifism was declared for the clergy and monks only, and it became permissible to wage war on certain grounds, for instance if unjustly attacked. However war for revenge and to get reparations was also allowed, which questions whether it is at all possible to ever fulfill the criteria of either ‘jus ad bellum’ (the six requirements that must be satisfied by the heads of state) or ‘jus in bello’ (justice in the conduct of battle).

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Later, Thomas Aquinas connected and organized the theory; in the Summa Theologicae he discussed the justifications for going to war. The legitimate authority principle prevented civil uprisings and feudal wars. Originally, the King was anointed and seen as responsible before God for his military actions; thus only the King had the right to wage war on God’s enemies.

However throughout history this has been challenged; for instance, the Communist revolution violently established new authority over the previously existing autocratic ruler. Furthermore, in a democratic country, where the prime minister has been elected, the concept of the governmental leader having some sort of a connection with God is inappropriate. The atrocities of the First World War, although declared by legitimate authorities, are clearly not what the Just War Theory ever intended. Thus it seems reasonable to suggest that the theory is outdated, for technological advancements magnified the potential violent impact of war.

However, supporters of the United Nations Security Council would say that the Just War theory evolves overtime and adapts to pressing needs; for instance after the Second World War much authority was give to the UN in order to minimise countries waging war in order to satisfy their own demands and pursue their own aims and reactions. Approaching the end of the war at the Yalta Conference (1945) it was decided to ensure a third party could regulate the military affairs of the superpowers. However the UN could not prevent further military conflicts; between the 1980s and 90s the Eastern superpower weakened and the USA, as the remaining paymaster of the UN, gained a lot of support. For instance the carnage committed by Israel, America’s ally, has been largely overlooked, whereas the pre-emptive strike on Iraq was approved. Thus the concept of ‘Just War’ remains impracticable.

The issue of terrorism has also proved to be a challenge for the Just War theory. Terrorists are essentially illegitimate authorities trying to bring about political change through violent means; their conduct is often extreme, including the use of shakhids in Chechnya (female suicide bombers, often very young). In the light of 09/11 it is fair to say that when such brutal and inhuman methods are being used, a proportionate response by definition will not be a just one either. This puts certain states in a difficult position in terms of following the Just War principles. The organization identified as responsible, Al-Qa’ida, are not representative of any one country. The members are hard to track and the US cannot cope with its strategy, despite the military and nuclear powers at its disposal.

It is particularly difficult to satisfy the demands of ‘jus in bello’ when the threat of Nuclear warfare is apparent once more since the Cold War. Back then the American Roman Catholic bishops condemned the use of nuclear weapons because they are indiscriminate and disproportionate. But even if it is possible to maintain diplomacy between countries and avoid NBC (nuclear, biological and chemical weaponry) it is impossible to control non-governmental sources and rogue states that may obtain NBC and use it to threaten and blackmail. The just war theory cannot provide a clear cut response to the problem of proportionality with regards to nuclear weaponry.

The above problems are characteristic of our time; the term ‘Just War’ seems out of keeping with the scale and nature of modern warfare. Resources are growing scarce, world economy is unstable, and political differences drive nations to extreme military measures – no cause is fully just and no major state can be ‘innocent’. However, there are other issues that are not discussed as often in terms of just war – such as the division between the rich and the poor countries, and whether the latter would be justified in waging war to establish a fairer system than the one existing right now. Overall, the Just War theory can be modified and updated; it should not be dismissed because there is a desperate need for peace and justice in the world today.

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