A Just War?

War has been problematic since Roman times, especially after the rise of Christianity. “Thou shalt not kill” did not seem to leave much wriggle-room. Yet it was recognised that people have a right to defend themselves when under lethal attack. St Augustine suggested a solution in his theory of a Just War. This was developed by St Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages and his tenets for a Just War have been more or less accepted ever since by those who concern themselves about such things.

This article looks at the main tenets of Just War Theory as they relate to our wars in the Middle East and then asks if a war can be just that deploys the weapons of our modern arsenals.

Six essential elements for the conduct of a Just War are:

  • Just Cause
  • Proportionality
  • Proper Authority
  • Last Resort
  • Right Intention
  • Reasonable Hope for Success

Just Cause

The cause is just if it is to prevent the domination of a country by an attacker.

A  just war exists when a people tries to ward off the threat of coercive domination by another people, or to overthrow an already-existing domination. ((Libertarian scholar Murray Rothbard))

Another contemporary view is that “The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain.” ((Catechism of the Catholic Church (para. 2309))

War is not just if it is fought to punish a people, to acquire their assets or to change their regime.

Our wars in the Middle East do not fit this criterion for a just war. The survival of our state is not under threat from Iraq or Afghanistan; nor are we seriously threatened with lasting and grave damage. Any threat from terrorists could, and should, be dealt with by appropriate police activity.


Even proponents of war generally consider that a violent response should be proportional to the offence. Our government’s justification for our wars in the Middle East is that they are necessary to make British citizens at home safe from terrorists.

War, conducted primarily by the Americans and the British, has been waged in Iraq since 2003 and in Afghanistan since 2001. Since these wars began 52 British citizens have died in the UK in a terrorist attack.

Since no official record is published listing the number of Iraqi civilians killed – (“We do not do body counts” – General Tommy Franks) estimates for the current total vary widely from an absolute minimum of 94,708 to 1,366,350.

In 2006 the medical journal, The Lancet, published an article that estimated the number of Iraqis who had died since the war began was 600,000.

But even if we take the very lowest figure for the Iraqi deaths, the relationship between 52 civilian deaths in the UK and 94,708 in Iraq quite clearly exposes the truth.

These wars are NOT a proportional response to any threat to British citizens.

(The estimates of civilian deaths as a result of the war in Afghanistan range between 12,400 and 32,057.)

The terrorist atrocity in Britain, which resulted in the death of 52 citizens, took place in 2005.

In the same year 3,201 people were killed in UK road accidents; 28,954 people were seriously injured and the total number of casualties was 271,017.

Moreover the 52 terrorist killings has been, to date, a one-off event; the figures for death and injury on the roads are similar every year.

In addition, every year the number of deaths in the UK due to hospital infections alone is variously estimated to be between 5,000 and 20,000.

If the government was concerned about saving British lives it would be immeasurably more effective in its utilisation of citizens’ wealth if its military spending on gratuitous wars were redirected to ensuring better driving on our roads and on achieving cleaner hospitals.

The figures expose the truth. These are not Just Wars.

Proper Authority

A war must be declared by a proper authority. The proper authority in the case of the Iraq and Afghan wars was the United Nations. It is common knowledge that Mr Blair did not receive the UN resolution he asked for to authorise the invasion of Iraq.

The Proper Authority, the UN, refused to sanction the war.

We have learned from the Chilcot enquiry that the government lawyers advising the government considered that the Iraq war was illegal and told the government so.

Elizabeth Wilmshurst, while deputy legal adviser to the Foreign Office, said her office had “consistently” advised that an invasion would be unlawful without a new UN resolution.

A Dutch inquiry, led by a former supreme court judge, found that the invasion had “no sound mandate in international law”.

United Nations resolution 1441 stated that Iraq was in material breach of the terms of a previous Resolution. There was much discussion during the run-up to the war as to whether or not Resolution 1441 gave legal justification. However. this had already been discussed at the time of proposing the resolution. Some states were concerned that it might be used as legal justification for war. These states were categorically assured by the US and the UK that this was not the case.

The ambassador for the United States, John Negroponte, told the world that:

[T]his resolution contains no “hidden triggers” and no “automaticity” with respect to the use of force. If there is a further Iraqi breach, reported to the Council …. the matter will return to the Council for discussions as required in paragraph 12.

In addition the ambassador for the United Kingdom, the co-sponsor of the resolution, said:

We heard loud and clear during the negotiations the concerns about “automaticity” and “hidden triggers” — the concern that on a decision so crucial we should not rush into military action; that on a decision so crucial any Iraqi violations should be discussed by the Council. Let me be equally clear in response… There is no “automaticity” in this resolution. If there is a further Iraqi breach of its disarmament obligations, the matter will return to the Council for discussion as required in paragraph 12.

Last resort
By March 2003 Hans Blix, head of the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) inspection team in Iraq, declared that his team had found no WMD. He assured the international community that they had made significant progress, that they were receiving ‘proactive’ cooperation from the Iraqi authorities and that they only needed a few more months to resolve outstanding disarmament issues.

Despite this, and in spite of many dissenting opinions and regardless of many questions regarding the integrity and reliability of the underlying intelligence, Britain and American went to war.

Right Intention

The intention stated by the British government in the Iraq war was the removal of the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction which were presented as a dire and immediate threat. We now know that there were no such weapons. We also know that the government had no good reason to believe that there were.

Moreover there is now good reason to believe that the intentions of the British government, which had abrogated its responsibilities to the will of the Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, were different to the one which was mendaciously presented to the British citizens. It seems that these illegitimate intentions included Blair’s wish to ingratiate himself with the American administration.

Reasonable hope of success

The size of the invading force in Iraq was sufficient to achieve a quick military victory but totally inadequate to take control and run the country until stability was achieved. The result was widespread looting followed by fighting between rival factions within the country.

Among the justifications for going to war in Iraq was the contention that the invading forces would end the cruel dictatorship and replace it with a benign democratic regime. Since there was virtually no planning for the aftermath of the war there was no hope of achieving the latter goal.

In Afghanistan Britain had already been defeated in three previous wars. The 1838-42 war ended when a 16.000 strong British column was wiped out. The second war in 1878-81 saw an entire garrison massacred in Kabul, and the third war of 1919 resulted in the effective independence of the Afghans. ((Gerald Warner’s Telegraph blog))

Prior to our recent invasion the Russians had invaded the country with a substantial army, lost 15,000 men and after the deaths of over one million Afghans, they admitted failure and left.

There was, and is, no reasonable hope of success in these wars.

Our wars in the Middle East are not just by all the main criteria for the engaging in a just war.

Is just war possible today?

Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell warned us in their 1955 manifesto that the human race has a choice. We can renounce war or we can bring about our own end.

Here then is the problem which we present to you, stark and dreadful and inescapable: Shall we put an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war?

Their manifesto included the words:

We have to learn to think in a new way. We have to learn to ask ourselves, not what steps can be taken to give military victory to whatever group we prefer, for there no longer are such steps; the question we have to ask ourselves is: what steps can be taken to prevent a military contest of which the issue must be disastrous to all parties.

Weapons are now so destructive and indiscriminate that we must, at last, take heed of this warning. There is always a danger that wars will escalate. They could escalate to the nuclear level and bring an end to the human race. So the view that it is no longer possible to have a just war is hard to refute.

We do, indeed, need to learn to think in a new way.

Jim McCluskey is the author of The Nuclear Threat. Read other articles by Jim.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on February 16th, 2011 at 10:24am #

    however, there shld never be collective punishment when a few individuals break an international law.
    thus, even if iraqi govt had indeed obtained one or more nuclear bombs, aggression against iraq wld have been a criminal act.

    all one needs to do is to put price on heads of individuals who manufactured the bombs and then send in hunters for them if they wld not destroy the bombs or appear before world court– provided, of course, it wld not be in service of u.s. and other lands.

    and nevertheless, only after u.s., et al wld do away with ALL their weapons of mass destruction.

    and even then, u.s.– at least– wld remanufacture or hide some wmd. which brings us back to the accepted dictum: right of a folk to bear arms. it is an universal right and jsut u.s., israeli, or russian right!

    in a lawless world, one wld be foolish not to arm self. let’s face it, ?all european lands r armed to the teeth and with wmd? and the cause for it is? but, of course, to have it their way and grab more land-resources anyway they can! tnx

  2. AaronG said on February 18th, 2011 at 4:03am #

    “Proper Authority – A war must be declared by a proper authority. The proper authority in the case of the Iraq and Afghan wars was the United Nations.”

    There is no human “proper authority” for war – definitely not the UN, which is a nice way of referring to Anglo-America and is a farce anyway. A nation or group of people that is being attacked certainly has a right to self defense, but that doesn’t mean that they have the “proper authority” to wage war. This just keeps the tit-for-tat wheel of revenge rolling as it has during all history. As the last century clearly showed, the (jewish) kid that got beaten up has an understandable reason for revenge when he grows older, but he has no RIGHT to carry out that revenge on other weaker kids. Violence produces more violence.

    There is only one Proper Authority that will justifiably bring to ruin those ruining the earth………..