What does a "just" war mean?

I have heard some pretty positive comments come back from Obama’s speech in Oslo at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.  I don’t disagree that it is basically a good speech.  But there are two important things that need to be said.  First, nothing he said there should surprise anyone.  Second,  he did not address the most difficult concerns with his own proposal.

Now I think that my Christian identity calls me to a different kind of life that precludes supporting war under nearly any circumstance including threats to me and my own family and country.  On the other hand, I don’t know that I could ever truly live up to what God has called me to in the midst of the most striking challenges to this ideology.  Pacifism is, by all means, more difficult than responding with war and takes more courage.  I’m just never sure that I can do it.  Something that goes deep down inside of me, placed there by God when God spoke life into creation, is a desire for justice and the will to fight for it. But this post is not about me.

I don’t think that a nation can ever live by this Christian calling, though I would hope that ours could entertain it at the very least.  Nations are formed on the basis of protecting their people.  As Obama says in his speech, Ghandi and King may be great thinkers but their peaceful protests would not have stopped the advancing Nazi armies.  Darfur. Rwanda. Congo.  I don’t think peaceful protest will be effective at stopping these atrocities, even if my Christian faith tells me that peaceful protest is the right thing to do.  Nations must protect from these injustices. 

The rules for engagement are and always have been the rules of “just war.”  Obama’s speech should not surprise us because all he did in the first half of his speech is reinforce the principles of just war: proportional response, just cause, combatant distinction, last resort, legitimate authority (which Obama aludes to by referring to leadership being tempered by not being a lone ranger). 

Now those may surprise us now because they are talked about rarely.  But they have been implicit in all but the most recent American war.  (Danger must be imminent.  Bush presumably thought there were WMD’s which would POTENTIALLY constitute imminent danger.  I happen to think that even the presence of WMD’s would not have legitimate a preemptive war according to just war criteria, but that is debatable.)  Obama is simply calling us back to adherence to these criteria.  No politician present at his speech would have missed what he was doing. 

Now, the weird thing that we heard from the media here is that this was some kind of defense of just war.  I know PhD students are not supposed to be simple-minded but the only answer I can come up with is “Duh”.  Every nation worth it’s salt would make a defense of just war, because that is the best alternative that can include war of any kind (thanks for the inspiration Switzerland).  Defending just war is not a shift in government policy.  In fact, just war criteria being followed will mean that we are in less wars, not more.

Now the problem is that just war doesn’t work in the postmodern environment.  He doesn’t really address this at all except to say that we will need to rearticulate it.  Well, to Mr. Obama I say, “Duh”.  It is recognized among just war scholars that the criteria are outdated in the contemporary setting. 

How do you have legitimate authority when your opponent is a terrorist cell?  How do you have combatant distinction when your enemy is primarily civilians or dressed like civilians or using civilians as shields as in most urban warfare?  Terrorism is, by definition, founded on ALWAYS placing the notion of imminent attack at the fore.  Yet, you can never identify when a real threat is imminent (except in periodic CIA type operations but never in war operations). 

One of the key proposals which Obama suggests for a “just peace” falls prey to a similar problem.  How does he plan to sanction these types of cell groups?  Can you starve out the small number of people with enough ammunition to steal the food they need and no concern for the health of their neighbor?  I doubt it.  

Obama’s proposal is not a total bust.  The just war proposals and the peaceable solutions he advocate may actually work with North Korea and Iran.  Let’s hope so.  These are the kinds of cases that the rules were made to address. 

I do think that just war is a viable dialog in the era of postmodern war.  I don’t know what that would look like.  I do know that Obama has not gotten to the heart of the concerns.  I also know that the church is called to help politicians think through these issues.  For generations she would have been looked to for help.  Those days are no more.  And this is one of the times when I can only be dissatisfied with pacifist friends (am I a pacifist?).  That cannot help the government think through just war when government needs them the most.  Maybe they will weigh in with a word about how or if they imagine themselves serving the government with guidance.  Of course, she is always called to prophetically speak peace and justice.  But can she also share wisdom on war?  If she is Catholic or Lutheran I suppose she can.  If she is Mennonite then I doubt she can. 


  1. says

    Jeremiah,I think the Bush administration would share most of your argument that conventional "just war" principles are void in the current environment. (I doubt they would call it "postmodern," but they mean the same thing.)After all, the argument for most of the Bush policy was based on the issues you raised – non-state actors, imminent threats, difficulty in telling civilians from combatants.In that way, Obama is articulating a more conservative policy, perhaps. He is arguing that the "old way" is still relevant.


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