Over the course of human events (to paraphrase a famous document) we have developed a theory of a “Just War” or jus bellum iustum.
There are three elements to this concept. The first is the right to go to war, jus ad bellum, the second is right conduct in war, jus in bellum, and the third and most recent is right conduct after the war, jus post bellum.
The problem with this analysis is, of course, who is doing the analyzing. The Latin phrases are courtesy of Saint Augustine, someone who might be a bit prejudiced in what he would consider “jus bellum.” But I give credit where credit is due.
A true picture of the reasoning behind a “just war” cannot arise until one has the perspective of history. Yet therein lies a problem. Wars are fought for immediate reasons, often the results of a cascading series of provocations and retaliations. The validity of the justifications may take years to emerge from the carnage of the battles.
Who decides what constitutes the “right to go to war?” Looking at the history of warfare, one finds a difficulty in understanding the justification for one group attacking another.
By understanding this, we gain an opportunity toward better decision making before unleashing the dogs of war.
The best example of this is the Crusades. Under the beliefs held by Christians, the Holy Land was the center of their faith. When these lands were seized by the followers of Islam, the right to go to war was self-evident to those Christians.
The same might be argued for those followers of Islam, the Holy Land was holy to two diametrically opposed faiths held by people of equal sincerity.
In the Crusades, one could argue that, given their perceived right to go to war, each side violated the next two conditions; their conduct during and after the battle ended.
The rationale for the Crusades has not withstood the ravages of time. We hope.
Imagine a scenario where the oil producing countries of the Islamic world decide to stop exporting oil to the US. Let’s argue that they do this on religious grounds. They believe the US is following a path which conflicts with their faith. Their conscience will not allow them to support this difference of beliefs.
Our economy, security, and survival would be at risk. Would we have the right to go to war?
In 1939, in response to Japan’s attack on Vietnam and China, that is precisely what the US did. Roosevelt stopped all exports of oil (we were a leading exporter then) to Japan.
Could that be considered sufficient provocation for Japan to decide they had a jus ad bellum? A right to go to war?
How about the fact that one of the reasons we went to war with Japan was for attacking Vietnam. Then we helped divide Vietnam after the end of World War II. Then we went to war to support one-half of the country against the other half.
Given the benefit of a historical rather than a contemporary perspective of war, it is harder to concur with the justification for many wars. Clearly the right to defend oneself exists in the face of an attack. The response of the US to Pearl Harbor was justified under the concept of jus ad bellum.
However, taking into consideration some of the actions by the US and others leading to the Pacific War, it becomes murky and muddy. The real tragedy is the price we pay for learning these lessons. We spend our most important treasure, the lives of those we send to war, for reasons we may not fully understand for years.
Reasons we may realize were flawed at best, or fraudulent at worst. Search the name Archimedes Patti (Why Vietnam: Prelude to America’s Albatross) for a tragic example.
Are wars ever just? That is a difficult concept. They are perhaps unavoidable given the realities of the moment. So war is necessary when unavoidable. Later generations may see it differently through the prism of time.
Reasons for war are the first things lost in the fog of war.
History is written by the victorious, but time is an exacting editor.