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(The Socrates Cafe on NPR has this as a question this month. Because of the format of that discussion, I am trying to be somewhat provocative; this is meant to be part of a conversation, not my final considered word.)

In short, no. Not as we wage war today.

The theory of the Just War requires that first, there be a just cause. It cannot be just to recapture property or punish wrongdoers; it must be to prevent imminent danger to innocent life.

Second, all other means of solving the problem must be exhausted or shown to be ineffective.

Third, there must be serious prospects of success; the cause must not be futile.

Forth, the damage (including disorder afterward) caused by the war must not be greater than the damage caused by the original threat.

There are some situations that meet the first criterion; genocide in Darfur comes to mind. There is an immediate danger to innocent life. But those are not the situations we as a nation choose to involve ourselves in, or if we do, it is with measures that fall short of war.

We have a lousy record of meeting the second criterion. Political posturing is not the same as seriously attempting to negotiate or avoid war. Serious attempts to "exhaust all alternatives" would include actions that might cause us to lose face. But a Just War is waged to save lives, not face.

The third criterion requires that we have a clearly defined goal, and that we will know objectively when we have reached that goal. That goal should be just so much, and no more, than is needed to correct the original danger to innocent life. Again, our history is not good in this regard. Our so-called "war on terror" does not and cannot meet this criterion.

Lastly - and the real reason I answered "no" at the beginning -- when the theory of Just War was formulated, war was waged with swords. It was possible to restrict damage to combatants and prevent innocent deaths. This is no longer possible. Today, "collateral damage" in the form of innocent deaths is an accepted part of war. As long as that is true, war cannot be waged according to the criteria of a Just War.

Check the Wikipedia entry for "Just War" for more on the theory.

Note that, in true Socratic fashion, this question really hinges on "What is War?" Under "exhausting alternatives", would a well-planned police action count as war? How about an assassination? They are violent measures, but might more easily meet the third and fourth criteria.


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August 2016

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