Just War Theory in 21st Century
Justice is a word that is commonly misused over and over again. For what appears to be just in one place might be viewed as injustice in another. Thus, when talking about justice, one should not forget to take into consideration ‘culture, traditions and belief system’. Just War theory is a belief that force or war/s can be instruments of justice provided that it aims towards a better scenario or living condition (Elshtain, 48). In this paper, the concept of the Just War Theory will be discussed in detail together with its implication and possible role in the Vietnam War in reference to the movie ‘Fog of War’. This paper would try to argue that despite the fact that the ‘Just War Theory’ is outdated; it should still be considered due to its ethical implications and influence.
Fiala (4) explained that a war is something that is ‘intentional, actual and widespread armed conflict between political communities’. Tying up the concept of justice with the idea of ‘actual killing between human beings’ is seemingly absurd, yet it is a fact that there are cases wherein force is an essential factor to achieve peace and justice. During war, the concept of justice is ambiguous and vague. In most cases, the winning party’s concept of justice prevails while the losing party experience injustice. As McNamara stated, if the United States lost the war in Japan, he along with Curtis LeMay will be considered as war criminals (Fiala, 4).
In brief, the Just War Theory is a dogma that started with Saint Augustine’s writings which justify the use of wars and force to achieve ‘the greater good’ or ‘the lesser evil’. One, as Elshtain (46) does, must go back to the principles established by Thomas Hobbes regarding the formation of society to escape ‘life in the state of nature which is basically, brutish, nasty and short.’ Saint Augustine argued that war is sometimes necessary to extend ‘peace’ or at least to save people from a worse situation. War is permissible if it is an act of ‘charity’ to save another person rather than a selfish pursuit of conquering or even self-defense (Elshtain, 48-49).
The Just War Theory served as war guidelines in the past. It helped limits the casualties and the length of war. The theory also justified the position of the Kings and leaders as the ‘right authority’ to establish civil peace (Elshtain, 54).
The ‘fog of war’ is a term that has been used to describe the situation during war wherein confusion abounds. It also denotes ambiguity regarding the military ability and/or reason to wage and fight war. In the ‘fog of war’ the enemies’ ability and beliefs are unknown. The phrase was coined by von Clausewitz (Elshtain, 56) who tries to explain the intricacies that results from uncertainty that abounds during war most specifically with regards to exaggeration and/or over simplification.
The documentary ‘Fog of War’ by Morris, tried to uncover the different angles and ambiguities that might have actually transpired during the World War II. The film was based on the interview and discussion of McNamara’s actions, former US Secretary of Defense, detailing his participation on the decisions made during the World War II, Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam War. The movie highlighted ’11 lessons that McNamara learned’ from the wars decades ago. The purpose of the film is merely to enlighten the public about the critical decisions that must be made during the outset and duration of the war. The film elaborates the ‘fog of war’ that transpired and tries to uncover ways to minimize, if not totally stray away from the possibility of another ‘fog of war’ in the future.
Just War theory tries to decrease the number of causalities by taking into consideration the civilians, who are more particularly the elders, the women and the children. Elshtain (57, 58) outlined some of the fundamental principles of the ‘Just War Theory’. First involves the ‘open declaration of war by an authority’. Second, there must be a ‘just cause’ or the advent of war must be a better circumstance than the present stat. Third, there must be a ‘right intention’. Fourth, war must be taken as the last possible resort.
What happened during the start of World War II in Japan is considered by most to be in accordance to the ‘Just War Theory’. Primarily, the war started when the Japan forces bombed Pearl Harbor. As an act of retaliation and to protect innocent people of the United States from the dangers imposed by the Japanese forces, the government officials attack 67 cities in Japan killing almost 1 million civilians in the process (Morris). Japan prior to the Pearl Harbor incident had demonstrated massive humanitarian violations throughout the Southeast Asia.
As discussed above, the conception of the Just War Theory happened during the time of Saint Augustine wherein battles are fought on foot and empires and kingdom waged war with one another over territory, pride and resources. Wars usually happen in a battlefield or somewhere where there are less or no civilians. The movement of infantries and battalions are obvious and more predictable than today. The invention of aircrafts, missiles and other airborne weaponry further complicates modern day war. And most importantly, wars of today’s era are based on ideology or some kind of political belief and nationalism.
Fiala list some of the main problems that the ‘Just War Theory’ is subjected to. The first concerns the ‘problem of just cause’ (Fiala, 12-13). Self defense is the most prevalent type of ‘just cause’ according to Fiala. Nevertheless, there are wars wherein the cause is vague. In the case of Vietnam War, the war broke off after a ‘false alarm’. Therefore it is something that cannot be considered as a ‘just cause’. Clarity of ‘cause’ might also be needed to minimize the possibility of mistakes. Fiala (12-13) also listed the problem of ‘right intention’, this is grounded on the fact that wars are almost always political in nature. The ‘right intention’ refers to ‘morally upright’ intentions which might not be present in political decisions. The next problem is that of ‘right authority’. During the time of Saint Augustine, the authority of leaders or kings is not questioned as they are often considered divine (12-13). Nevertheless, in modern era, such conception is lost, the authority is usually vested on the president or the national leader. Yet, the actions and decisions of the executive power are not always infallible. The next problem that Fiala discussed was that of ‘last resort’(12-13). War to be considered as just must be the last resort. Nevertheless, one can pinpoint several instances in the Vietnam War which indicates the lack of proper ‘communication’. There could have been a more peaceful way than war but the government failed to realize them at that moment. Fiala quoted Michael Bess who concluded that the United States could have won the war ‘without resorting to large-scale area bombings’ (62). Fiala (12-13) mentioned other problems that can be found in the current ‘Just War Theory’ such as the problem with probable success and the problem of proportionality. There are also problems that concern the definition of ‘intrinsically evil’ and the problem with discrimination (Fiala, 12-13).
In the Vietnam War, McNamara admitted that a ‘fog of war’ is indeed present (Morris). As there has been several misunderstanding due primarily to communication problems and lack of proper information, the war broke out and thousands of lives are sacrifice in the name of fighting off the communist’s ideology (Morris). Nevertheless, at the end, it turns out that the war between the North and South Vietnam is rooted on Civil War which renders the tragic outcome futile.
The Just War Theory is an outdated ideal. The circumstances in the 20th and 21st century largely differ from those of the past. Not only that the warring states came from different ideological background but also they have different religion, culture and ideals. Nevertheless, revisions can be done to be able to address the current trends of warfare. The basic tenets of ‘Just War Theory’ remains that force can be use to administer justice; the question is what kind of justice is right and applicable? As McNamara states ‘how much evil must be done to be able to do good… at times one might need to engage in evil, but minimize it.’
Elshtain, J. B. Just War Against Terror. New York. Basic Books. 2004.
Fiala, A. The Just War Myth. Lanham, Boulder, New York, Toronto, Plymouth, UK. Rowman & Littlefield. 2008.
Morris, E. Fog of War: Lessons from the Life of Robert McNamara. Documentary Film. Sony Pictures Classics. 2004.