Updating Just-War Theory

Note: This column was written and uploaded prior to the U.S. attack on Syria late last night. The questions it raises about further developing just war theory, however, remain current – now perhaps even more than earlier. – Robert Royal

Mourning man in Douma Syria


Over the centuries, “just war theory” was proposed and developed by a series of great thinkers – Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas, Francisco de Vitoria, Francisco Suárez, Hugo Grotius, and others.

In the past, what they had in common, aside from the intention of combating the incessant plague of wars, was a standard vision of what wars were like: namely, some nation with a formidable military force threatened another nation(s). The latter would have to deliberate whether their military resources were adequate, or whether non-military means might remove the threat; or whether, as a last resort, military action would protect them or make things worse.

The principles “just-war” theorists emphasized include: the urgency of the threat, whether negotiation might still be feasible, identification of the proper authority to declare and initiate war in various forms of government, whether the consequences of war might be worse than surrender, and also ethical considerations regarding lethal weaponry, treatment of war prisoners, the harm of noncombatants, etc.

A vision of massed armies, sometimes with allies, facing down and conquering other armies on the battlefield, was common to all these theorists – even in World War I and World War II, with the addition of powerful infantry and explosives, air power, submarines, and other products of modern engineering.

But the scenario began to change sharply during and after WWII – nuclear arsenals, guerilla warfare, tremendously lethal chemical and biological agents – in short, the possibility of mayhem in quantities and intensities never previously conceived. If Julius Caesar or Ghengis Khan had had the atomic bomb, they might have hesitated using it to conquer territories they planned to occupy.

Just this week, after discussing abandonment of Syria “very soon,” President Trump threatened to launch missiles against Syria, because of the deadly chemical gas attack on civilians in the rebel-held town of Douma. Russia’s foreign minister claims that a “foreign intelligence agency” staged this attack, and a member of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry points to evidence that rebels trying to oust Syrian president Bashar al-Assad were responsible.

It is indeed strange that Assad, who has been winning the war against rebels, would invite international retaliation at this time. But the United States along with allies Britain and France are all but convinced that Assad ordered the attack, and that that there must be a response both to punish Syria and deter future attacks of a similar nature.

But it’s precisely here that the kinds of “prudential judgments” (which were never very easy even in simpler times) have become quite complicated. An initial question in just-war theory would be: is there any clear threat to our country? There is obviously no direct threat to the U.S. from Syria. But in fact an attack on Syria, allied with Russia, could trigger a new cold war, or worse.

President Trump launched a successful missile attack on Syria in April, 2017, and is apparently confident that this could be repeated without enraging the Russian Bear. But such acts of brinkmanship not only challenge Constitutional war-making powers, but “throw away the script” on justifying wars. And deposing Assad, instead of improving the situation, could pave the way for a takeover by Isis or Islamist rebels, certainly no improvement over Assad.

And such complexities are not limited to the Middle East. Traditional just war theory seems impotent in dealing with several contemporary realities and is desperately in need of further development if it is to continue to provide guidance to nations and their leaders. For example, here are some situations needing careful analysis:

* Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), in which two nuclear powers in a war could easily annihilate each other – or even bring about a “doomsday” state of affairs if other nuclear powers entered the combat – still prevails. Is there any contemporary crisis so dire that would justify a nuclear power to make a preemptive nuclear strike on a rival?

* Thousands of terrorist “cells” sprouting up throughout the world. Could any conventional army, navy or air force be effective against these?

* Widespread use of “human shields” – missile launchers set up in hospitals, explosive caches stored in schools, terrorists setting up shop in cities surrounded by innocent noncombatants, and refusing to allow any noncombatant to exit from the city. What could justify destroying a hospital occupied by terrorists manning artillery?

* Possible accidents as “the wrong button is pushed,” and war begins willy-nilly. The recent incident in Hawaii reminds us that similar incidents, which could have sealed the fate of the world, have happened in the past.

* Insane and/or suicidal leaders of nuclear-armed states, who don’t care about mutual annihilation. MAD is based on the supposition that world leaders are rational actors and not misanthropic and suicidal.

* Jihadists under the influence of religious beliefs bent on converting the world, by force, if necessary.

In an ideal world, we might seek:

* Universal nuclear disarmament and absolute prohibition of proliferation – although this is difficult to imagine after what happened to Muammar Gaddafi who obligingly disarmed in 2003.

* Fail-safe international intelligence systems capable of foiling electronically transmitted plans for attack.

* Refusal of any further building of mosques unless reciprocity in building of churches prevails in the Middle East. The prevailing lack of reciprocity has facilitated importation of violent religious operatives under the cover of uni-directional “religious freedom.”

But several more practical and less idealistic strategies might be:

* “Surgical” bombing of nuclear reactors in “rogue states,” as Israel did to Iraq in 1981 and to Syria in 2007– which would require incredibly accurate intelligence resources.

* Identification and destruction of all chemical and biological arsenals, as well as dismantling arsenals capable of producing a high-altitude nuclear explosion, causing an “electro-magnetic pulse,” which would disable electrical resources throughout nations.

* A nuclear “Marshall Plan” offering aid in transforming dangerous nuclear facilities to peaceful nuclear power plants – thus advancing the Biblical prophecy about “swords” being transformed into plowshares (Is. 2:4).

* Taking a cue from the targeted assassination of Osama bin Laden and other terrorists, the assassination of the most demonic leaders, who both enslave their populations and threaten destruction of the United States.

According to the famous Doomsday Clock published by the Atomic Scientists, mankind is now at “two minutes before midnight.” So those of us who dream of world peace feel a certain urgency. If this is not a starkly exaggerated urgency, it may be time to think “outside the box.”

Recent diplomatic developments indicate that an unprecedented meeting between President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un may take place in May. The president has insisted that denuclearization is a precondition for such a meeting, and Kim seems to accept that precondition, saying, “The ‘issue of denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved’ if the U.S. and South Korea respond ‘with goodwill’.”

After so many failed diplomatic efforts at removing one of the most serious threats to world peace, can we attach any realistic hope to such a meeting?

Kim is not in the vulnerable position that Gaddafi was in disarming. He has China at his back and South Korea open to reunification. Turning “swords into plowshares” in that area is not completely unimaginable – although certainly “outside the box.”

But actually, the most “impractical” strategy for world peace would probably be the most effective: I am thinking of the battle of Lepanto in 1571 in which a small Christian fleet defeated a Turkish Armada, as well as the nationwide Rosary crusade in Austria in 1955, leading to the withdrawal of Soviet armies. In other words, a worldwide Rosary Crusade. But I know, I know – this is too far “outside the box.”


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19 Responses to Updating Just-War Theory

  1. Mary Salmond says:

    It surely couldn’t hurt any of the world’s countries to pray a rosary or unity prayer in unison on a specified day. Even an atheist or agnostic might be against war.


  2. Toad says:

    ”Even an atheist or agnostic might be against war.”
    Well said, Mary.


  3. “Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas, Francisco de Vitoria, Francisco Suárez, Hugo Grotius, and others” were very fortunate; they lived in a world where they never had to ask if just-war theory covers with this question:

    Is a group of allied powers allowed a limited attack on a country in order to prevent it from manufacturing or using chemical weapons – prohibited under international law – against its own people?


  4. kathleen says:

    @ Robert

    My response to your question would be, “Yes, perhaps, depending if we have the responsibility of doing so, or not. But first give me absolute proof that this country’s leader has indeed ordered chemical weapons to be used on his own people!”!

    There is no “proof” at all, despite what an eager Macron might say, only a desire to topple the Bashar al-Assad regime and suspicions due to the information they are fed. We are being lied to once again, in exactly the same way as in the war of Iraq. (Loads of apologies when the lie that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction was uncovered, but the damage was already done by then!)

    Russia’s foreign minister claims that a “foreign intelligence agency” staged this attack, and a member of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry points to evidence that rebels trying to oust Syrian president Bashar al-Assad were responsible.

    It is indeed strange that Assad, who has been winning the war against rebels, would invite international retaliation at this time.

    Others will say that Russia is lying, or that unnamed member of the UN is lying… but I wonder why I find their claims a lot more believable and likely than the claims of Pres. Trump and Russia-hating Europeans!!
    Syrian Christians have also spoken out in defence of Bashar al-Assad and his war on the Islamic terrorists.

    Strange too to remember how reticent the West was to come to the aid of Christians in the Middle East when ISIS was daily butchering and beheading them not so long ago… yes, lots of women and children as well! But now that the victims are not Christians they appear all too ready to do so.

    However, Bashar al-Assad has not been intimidated and has announced that the war on terrorism will continue…


  5. johnhenrycn says:

    How about a survey (like the one here concerning PF’s latest *think piece*) asking whether Trump should be charged with a criminal offence or impeached or both?


  6. Toad says:

    ”But first give me absolute proof that this country’s leader has indeed ordered chemical weapons”
    ”Absolute proof” of anything – except some mathematics and logic – is not possible. Including the existence of God. Ask JH the lawyer, since you won’t believe me. (Especially the existence of God) What would constitute ”absolute proof,” in these circumstances?
    A confession by Assad?


  7. rachel says:

    So enter a state of paralysis about everything??


  8. The Raven says:

    Absolute proof, Kathleen? Why not the criminal burden of proof: beyond reasonable doubt?

    Let’s look at the evidence:

    • We know that chemical munitions were deployed in Douma – this is without doubt, we have physical evidence and film footage, despite the half-baked denials of Assad and his backers;
    • We know that Assad has continued to produce and utilise chemical munitions, not withstanding the show of compliance earlier in the conflict;
    • We know that this weapon was deployed from an aerial combat platform (the pattern of damage militates against a ground based deployment);
    • We know that Assad had helicopters over the site at the time of the attack.

    There really is no room for any reasonable doubt here.

    As for the cui bono argument that you raise, Assad has got away with chemical attacks in the past (notably when our Labour Party shamefully vetoed military action in 2013), he had every reason to believe that the current outrage would go unpunished.

    It’s quite legitimate to question whether the action taken by a president whom you have previously lionised will be effective (I doubt it), but it is not legitimate to argue that it is without justification.


  9. Toad says:

    Not sure if Rachel, @9.31, is referring to my comment or not, but if we wait for ”absolute proof” we will have absolute inaction on almost everything worth doing.
    If we all agree that chemical weapon sites should be destroyed (and I do) – why not destroy all conventional weapon sites as well?
    Of course, we’d have to use conventional weapons to do so.
    But then who wouldn’t prefer to be shot than gassed? Much nicer.
    I also agree with Raven’s points. Although the options for Syria appear to be two: horrible ( Assad) or unspeakable (ISIS).


  10. kathleen says:

    @ The Raven

    OK, so with such great “knowledge” of the (ahem) proven wickedness of Bashar al-Assad, we are willing to side with and help the Islamic terrorists in their aim to takeover the country to establish their brutal form of Islam? Similar arguments (on proven lies) were used to attack Iraq, and the outcome has been a disaster. Not only have Christians been reduced to a fraction there nowadays, owing to the savage genocidal actions of ISIS and forced exile, but we have also permanently unstabilised the region and fostered the enormous growth of Ialamic terrorism!
    Are we really willing to repeat those terrible mistakes all over again in Syria?

    Even if you are prepared to ignore the claims of Russia (and the UN representative mentioned above) who are there on the ground in Syria and know better than any of us sitting comfortably in our safe Western homes what is going on, are we also going to ignore the testimony of Bishop Khazen and the suffering Syrian Christians, plus the many Muslim Syrians who back their President?

    It’s quite legitimate to question whether the action taken by a president whom you have previously lionised will be effective (I doubt it), but it is not legitimate to argue that it is without justification.

    Whether it is “legitimate” or not is a matter of opinion: time will tell.

    I would not say I “lionise” President Trump – for I am aware he is far from perfect – but I am certainly very thankful that he won the US elections, and I back many of the things he has done since. I disagree with him here, but he still has my support and my prayers.


  11. The Raven says:

    Has everyone really been paying so little attention to what’s going on in Syria?

    This isn’t a binary war between Assad and Da’esh, there are a number of forces on the ground opposed to both the islamists and Assad (the YPG being the most important).

    Many people are fighting under Islamist colours because there is no other effective resistance since we scandalously abandoned them in 2013 and not all Islamist groups are like Da’esh either.

    Some (by no means all) Christians and Alawites support Assad, others oppose him. And as the Bishop of Rome (as he styles himself) is repeatedly teaching us, holding episcopal office is no indicator of good judgement.

    Iraq was a catastrophe because the invasion followed a minimal-forces military doctrine and there was no realistic planning for the post-war security environment, it didn’t have to be that way and future interventions don’t have to follow the same template.


  12. JabbaPapa says:

    There really is no room for any reasonable doubt here

    There is room for reasonable doubt if only because in the previous three incidents, the first two appear to have been carried out by some insurgent/terrorist group(s) who then tried to blame it on the Syrian government, and the third is most likely to have been a terrorist/”rebel”/insurgent chemical weapons dépôt that was accidentally hit in an attack by conventional weapons that breached the storage unintentionally and released the agent into the surrounding area.

    Of course, doubt is just doubt — and it’s not because the three previous incidents were falsely attributed to Assad’s régime that this accusation is false too ; also, the previous incidents led basically to some half-hearted condemnations mostly for show, whereas it is clear that the three Nations involved this time have taken things far more seriously.

    As for the so-called “doctrine” of the so-called “just war”, it has never existed — rather, the Church has always taught that warfare is to be engaged in only defensively, the grey area being that military actions for the defense of your neighbouring peoples can sometimes be perforce aggressive and constitute invasion.


  13. JabbaPapa says:

    Iraq was a catastrophe because the invasion followed a minimal-forces military doctrine and there was no realistic planning for the post-war security environment

    Iraq was a catastrophe because, after Saddam fully complied with the UN (aka US) demands to destroy his chemical WMDs, the US and the UK fabricated lies that he had not done so, in order to “justify” a completely unnecessary war of aggression against a foreign power for the purpose of destroying it.

    Whatever else Assad and Syria could be accused of, it’s NOT being so stupid as to make the same mistake as Saddam, which was to leave himself defenseless against the US Armada.

    Or what, is one really going to be so hypocritical as to simultaneously champion the so-called “just war”, and yet condemn Assad and the Syrian Government and military for their actions to defend Syria from multiple agents of foreign aggression ?

    Truthful reporting of warfare died in the British Press during the Falklands War — ironically, the closest thing to a “just war” that the UK has been involved in since 1945. The old integrity of The Times and the BBC were killed in the collateral propaganda damage of that conflict, and the British Press and Media as a whole have never recovered from it.

    That was when war reporting started to be offered to the general public as a form of entertainment, rather than truth being told to people as it is.

    Assad meanwhile is neither a Hitler, nor a Stalin, nor a Saddam, nor a Qaddafi, nor a Pol Pot, nor a Mao, nor a Cromwell, nor a Bonaparte, nor a Nero.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. The Raven says:

    Jabba, that is nonsense, the so-called “chemical weapons” plant that the Assad and Putin apologists have been trumpeting was an explosives/accelerants plant, it didn’t even have precursor-chemicals for the agents implicated in this attack. Similarly, the only people who seem to swallow the whole “false-flag” line on the previous attacks seem not to have read anything about them.

    Had the coalition forces formulated and implemented effective plans for post-war security in Iraq, no-one would be trying to draw false equivalences between Iraq and Syria.

    And we know what Assad is, he’s a murderous thug who likes to inflict rape and torture on captives, to starve civilians to death and to use chemical weapons on children.


  15. JabbaPapa says:

    Raven, the one thing I agree with you completely about is that equivalences between Iraq and Syria are basically false ones.

    But no, I don’t think that the first two incidents were anything as sophisticated as “false-flag” (they were terrorist atrocities perpetrated by whichever group of extremists aligned with whomever), and I think that they were politically manipulated after the fact. Which did admittedly lead to some mothballing of the Syrian WMD capabilities, but I have seen not a shred of credible evidence that these incidents were Syrian Government mandated.

    The third incident is more confusing, but the chemical weapons storage breach from damage after missile/bomb attacks does still fit the evidence of what happened better than the other proposed scenarios.

    But yes, this fourth incident could very well have been perpetrated by Syrian Government forces, and I’ve seen no convincing scenario nor evidence to suggest to the contrary.

    the so-called “chemical weapons” plant that the Assad and Putin apologists have been trumpeting was an explosives/accelerants plant

    That is irrelevant — there are no realistic claims that it was a “chemical weapons plant”, but only that a clandestine storage location was hit.


  16. johnhenrycn says:

    Given my (our?) limited knowledge in this fog of war, I’m inclined to take every statement made by the belligerents and their leaders with a large grain of salt. And let’s admit: the rebels fighting the Assad regime are not above using innocent civilians as cannon fodder, or even chemical fodder. Think of Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank and how they use youngsters and women as suicide bombers, and how they use hospitals and schools to hide and launch attacks. A small step from that sort of thing to using chlorine gas or whatever against civilians as a propaganda tool.

    Besides, from a purely practical point of view, we need to consider: when was the last time the USA and its allies won a war and brought permanent or long term peace to any part of the world? Furthermore, if they are intervening in Syria for humanitarian reasons, they should invade the Congo first, where the death rate from civil war is well into the millions, not just a piddly few hundred thousand as in Syria.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. johnhenrycn says:

    “Former head of British Armed Forces gets cut off by Sky when he goes off-script on Syria.”


  18. kathleen says:

    JH, the expression of that Sky reporter when she cut off the analysis of the former head of the BAF, says it all: “Oops – d**n it – he is telling (oh, horrors!) THE TRUTH.” !!

    Far too many in the UK allow themselves to be brainwashed by the pro-Islamic, ultra-socialist agendas of the Times and the BBC, and other secular agenda-driven sources. The once (long ago) reliable sources of information have been totally compromised by the New World Order elite that has successfully infiltrated these popular Media outlets. Those who look no further to discover the truth are suckers who can no longer be objective, fair, and THINK for themselves! (The US and other Western nations are likewise affected by their own disinformation sources.) Just ask yourselves: why on earth President Assad would incur the wrath of the West by using chemical warfare on civilians (risking a possible backlash) when he is already winning the war on terrorism? It would have been a very foolish and counterproductive move, and just does not make sense.

    Even though the words of the good Bishop Khazen of Aleppo have been derided above (^), his judgement bears a lot more weight than the naysayers:

    ”The rebels claim that the government used chemical weapons. The accusation is not new, but a constant in the propaganda war. Chemical weapons are internationally proscribed, which is why their use is considered particularly morally reprehensible. The allegation was used in the Iraq war against Saddam Hussein and also at the beginning of the Syrian war against Assad. It could not be proven neither in one case nor in the other. Therefore, it is suspected that, as in the past, it is a disinformation campaign.”

    Of course the situation prior to and after the Iraq war, and that of Syria today, are certainly not identical, but nonetheless there are plenty of similarities. There are lessons we could learn by our belligerent intervention (under false pretences) in Iraq, that should avoid the US and allies making the same disastrous mistakes all over again.

    The Raven @ 18:26 yesterday:

    ”And we know what Assad is, he’s a murderous thug who likes to inflict rape and torture on captives, to starve civilians to death and to use chemical weapons on children.”

    Sorry to disagree with you, dear Team-mate, but we “know” nothing of the sort! Only please remember that you cannot fight jihadist terrorism wearing kid gloves.
    However, your description above fits in perfectly with the barbaric Islamic terrorists who are trying to oust Assad – yup, nail on head – although you missed out the bit about the terrorists’ sadistic delight in multiple beheadings of their helpless captives.


  19. kathleen says:

    And for those who still “dance with the devil” of Saudi Arabia, insisting they are our allies, they should look at Saudi Arabia’s track record on churning out the most extreme kind of Islamic ideology… which has bred the greatest number of terrorists and terrorist cells in the world!

    This young Syrian journalist knows what she’s talking about:


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