The Myth of the Just War

The notion that war can be just is almost entirely utopian. The arguments used to justify wars seem morally sound in a vacuum, but when put into practice, the justifications fall apart. Justifying war becomes a slippery slope, especially when considering that those whom are most capable of waging war can do so asymmetrically. The rules for the use of force (AKA rules of engagement) and the Geneva Conventions have been enacted (and modified with alarming exceptions) to paint war as being more humanitarian (as ironic as that may sound), and when coupled with actions sanctioned by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the United Nations, and the United States, these rules and actions are subsequently utilized as means to justify engaging in armed conflict to further the geopolitical agendas of the most powerful and corrupt institutions with which humanity has ever been burdened. War is only justified as an act of self-defense in the face of an imminent threat, but this term, "imminent," must be further defined in light of the rampant abuse and perversion of the concept of "imminent threat" for the U.S. Empire’s Global War on Terrorism. Furthermore, due to the contemporary nature of limitless war on the idea called "terrorism," the definitions of the terms "noncombatant/combatant" and terrorism must also be revised.

It is imperative that a very specific definition for imminent threat be established, for this would eliminate all of the slippery slopes offered by just war theory. A threat is imminent if a foreign state or group formally declares war and expresses or proves intent to wage war on the state or people which it threatens; this would warrant self-defense. This definition can be amended by noting that it would not be morally impermissible for a third party (e.g. an ally) to come to the aid of the state or people being threatened. However, to eliminate this amendment from becoming a slippery slope, the third party can onlyact indefense of those facing an imminent threat, and must not wage an offensive war against the aggressor. An offensive war, though strategically sound, is never just due to the inevitable deaths of innocents.

Last, to eliminate the mildest justification of offensive war, it must be noted that even when the utmost of care is taken to ensure that no innocent lives are lost, the common people whom are subject to the will of an entity (e.g. their own government) who initiated a threat against another group, when invaded or faced with conflict by any outside force acting preventively, will inevitably find themselves engaged in warfare as an act of self-defense of an imminent threat – even if that threatening force is acting with "good intention." This act of being thrust into armed conflict by virtue of being invaded by an otherwise benign outside force renders the outside force (acting preventively or on behalf of a weaker party) unjust in its actions.

Even the most seemingly reasonable arguments can have slippery slopes. In just war theory, it is said that a "‘preventive war’ may be justified," (542) but this justification only works in theory. In practice, preventive wars are justified to onlookers through fear and coercion via propaganda and often through false flag events. A false flag event is an attack or false information, often state-sponsored, enacted by an entity against its self or its own people but blamed on an outside force as a justification for acting against the outside force to which the attribution for the action had been given. History is riddled with false flag events, but these are often dismissed as conspiracy theories, though the actions which had been subsequently carried out were in fact real, and often carried with them grave consequences. Preventive wars are coerced by various means, and this implies offensive war, and offensive war can never be permitted.

The second rule in just war theory states that "the war must be sanctioned by proper authority." (542) People who have assumed positions of power are not immune to the effects of power. Lord Acton, a 19th century British politician has been attributed with saying "absolute power corrupts absolutely," ergo, to have trust in "proper authority" (those with the power to unilaterally decide to wage war), is in fact an all-too-often naïve trust in corrupt authorities. Faith in the sanctions of war by a "proper authority" is blind, and is positively allegorical to trusting religious authorities in medieval and contemporary religious wars.

Just war theory’s third rule discusses the importance of intentions in the decision to wage war. This rule, stated by Thomas Aquinas, claims that the intent must be for "the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil," and that "it may happen that the war is declared by the legitimate authority…and yet be rendered unlawful through a wicked intention." (543) It is affirmable that Aquinas is correct in the possibility of wicked intention, and people must be wary of this likely and grave possibility. Good intention, from a Kantian perspective, is central to the justification of war, but good intention cannot be exclusionary of the injustice of an offensive war.

The fourth rule in just war theory is easily refuted; it states that "all peaceful means of sorting out differences between adversaries should be tried first." (543) If two neutral parties have a disagreement or claim against one another, at no point in that conflict does violence become necessary to resolve the conflict. It is only when one entity or individual uses force against another that diplomacy fails; such instances of force in person-to-person (or even group) interactions are violence, coercion, theft of property, wrongful detainment, and the imminent threat of any of these instances. Until any of the previous conditions of force are met, there is no excuse for diplomacy to fail (and even with all of these conditions having been met, war is still avoidable if diplomacy persists). The slippery slope of the failure of diplomacy used as justification to wage war is that diplomacy has quite often been willfully surrendered as a meansto wage war. Even when both parties refuse to maintain diplomacy, war simply cannot be the next option.

These rebuttals to the claims of just war theorists are transferable as moral principles to be used in the common person’s experience outside of war, and since these principles are applicable in the common experience, then they are equally applicable to just war theory (i.e., if the layman can be diplomatic, so must the diplomat; the microcosm is reflective of the macro). These principles are absolutely applicable to the common experience, and should not be disregarded when potentially facing war, however, if war does inevitably occur, there are intra-war principles which cannot be ignored.

War, unfortunately, has never been a stranger for humanity, so when facing its near-inevitability there are many misconceived notions about acceptable behavior when engaged in armed conflict which must be remedied. Under the subject of "noncombatant immunity" in an addendum to just war theory, there is a claim that "some noncombatants are almost certain to be killed or harmed in any war" and due to their unavoidability or lack of intent as being a target, these deaths are therefore "pardonable." (543) This is perhaps the most abhorrent and easy-to-refute fallacy about just war theory. Since an offensive war can never be justified, the aggressors posing the threat can never be pardoned for causing accidental noncombatant deaths for such a thing would have to be preconceived as an inevitable condition of waging an offensive war. Intentions matter, but good intentions do not make a person or entity immune from suffering the consequences of their actions if their actions result in foreseen and guaranteed morally unforgivable outcomes.

The idea of noncombatant casualties can never be considered "pardonable" due to the real-world lack of liability on the behalf of the people involved in causing the casualties. Specifically (in contemporary terms), when an explosive armament is launched at a perceived target and noncombatant casualties accrue, neither the pilot/operator (or on-the-ground forces calling in/launching the strike) nor the superiors higher in the chain of command (including the politicians far away and the voters who may have elected them) are held responsible (such an instance would be extraordinarily rare). Furthermore, such strikes are notorious for resulting in overwhelmingly high numbers of noncombatant casualties relative to the low or nonexistent numbers of deaths of the perceived target(s). This has been substantiated ad nauseam in various investigative works, more recently in the work of Jeremy Scahill’s (et al) coverage of US drone strikes in The Drone Papers.

The "big-picture" or collectivist/paternalistic arguments which are used to justify noncombatant deaths are the factors (amid conscious decisions to wage an offensive war) which denote the assumed liability for the repercussions of killing innocent people; it is necessary to include in this moral imperative that true noncombatants can only include those having absolutely nothing to do with war, and that combatants must also include those involved in wartime decision-making. We will revisit this subject in detail further in the essay.

There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people, and the claim that it is simply inevitable "and therefore pardonable" is morally reprehensible. The final claim on this matter which I will refute states that the prevention of such incidents are "widely regarded as the most fundamental ‘rule of war’," but this is stated merely hyperbolically by the organizations which established the rules of war because they are fully aware that these rules are broken intentionally and extra-judicially (as in the case of the methodical assassination of members of the al-Awlaki family in Yemen, some of whom were US citizens).These rules are nothing more than a court-jester in a masquerade directed toward a generally consenting and indifferent public. These rules are intended to soften the impact of the thought of sending a society’s children to war, and to limit the blowback of wartime misdeeds.

Finally, I will make a potentially controversial claim which asserts the necessity of terrorism. Terrorism is defined as "violence against noncombatants for political, religious, or ideological ends." (544) It is crucial to understand a revised definition of "combatant," for purposes of justifying terrorism. In warfare, it is essential that the criteria for being considered a combatant include not only those currently engaged in armed conflict (actively participating in the use of violent force at a given moment) but also those whom are in positions of power, passively engaged in combat through strategic decision-making (e.g. pertinent military officers and pertinent politicians).

Currently, the standard for when a combatant becomes a noncombatant is if he/she disarms and surrenders (if they don’t already meet certain other conditions), rendering him/her immune to further fatal persecution (though this standard is seldom abided); this definition includes all persons not actively engaged in the use of force and grants them immunity from fatal persecution, even if they had, just a moment prior, slaughtered or ordered the execution of a great number of people (though, at the point of capture, legal arbitration could take over and assume a feigned moral high ground for purposes of political optics). A revision of the definition of combatant would justify the killing of those whom would otherwise be considered noncombatants if they had committed atrocities passively via orders to subordinates. This is precisely how punishments are dealt to those whom are found guilty of having committed war crimes; terrorism, by definition, could therefore hypothetically be no different than a war crime tribunal. Since wars are waged for political, religious, and/or ideological purposes, and if terrorism occurs for the same reasons, then war and terrorism are definitively identical.

The notion that terrorism is exceptionally different from waging war must be rejected, and the exploitation of the word "terrorism" for political gain and fear-mongering must also cease. The power of terrorism as a political term must be reallocated exclusively for when real terrorism actually occurs, for the rampant abuse of the word leads to the dilution of its meaning (as in the case of "fascist," "nazi," and "racist"). Additionally, the definition of combatant must include those who would be otherwise held liable for the deaths of innocent people in any reasonable capacity (this would exclude voters, for they often lack knowledge of the subject and persecuting voters would be genocidal and counterproductive). The intent of assuming liability for innocent deaths is to deter people from waging war in the first place, for if every leader feared their own persecution due to the potential deaths of innocents, then they would be more reluctant in their wartime decision-making processes and (ideally) condemn, resign from, or fight against waging war. Of course, an impeccable intelligence apparatus and numerous other methodologies is required to ensure that no wrongful death occurs, and only with such an achievement could war no longer be synonymous with terrorism, but until such a far-fetched thing is achieved, war and terrorism will remain one and the same.

I will offer a non-warfare example of decision-making, liability, and punishment as it pertains to the defense of terrorism and the revision of the definition of combatant. A parent decides to starve his children to get them to comply with the parent’s established rules one child dies of starvation, and the parent is arrested, tried, charged, and imprisoned. This is allegorical to unilaterally imposed sanctions or other actions against economically poor nations resulting in mass famine, therefore genocide. The notion that military pilots, military officers, and politicians should not be held liable for the consequences of their actions – no matter how indirect – is akin to saying that the father of the child who starved to death should not be held liable for the child’s inability to acquire sustenance.

Haig Khatchadourian "argues that acts of terrorism are always wrong because they violate basic principles of just war theory and, except in rare cases where other overriding moral principles apply, they violate their victims’ right to be treated as moral persons." (547) Even a staunch opponent such as Khatchadourian admits that there is sometimes an exception to justifying an act of terrorism (which, as previously established, is no different than committing an act of war). Khatchadourian does not include in his remarks about terrorism the widely-accepted definition which specifically excludes the mention of "innocent people." Khatchadourian’s remarks are based on the assumption that terrorism can only be enacted against innocents, while the definition specifically states "noncombatants." Without a revision of the definition of noncombatant, coupled with ignorance of the definition of terrorism, Khatchadourian’s understanding rests within the widely-accepted paradigm which regards terrorism as an atrocious anomaly that exists only in the hearts of evil men.

An alternative revision to the definition of the word terrorism has been offered "that confines terrorism to nonstate actors [e.g., mal Qaeda]," (548) but this definition is intended specifically to constrict the paradigm as a means to avoid the justification of terrorism by means of a revision of the definitions of terms like "combatant" and "non-combatant," and to further justify the prolonging of the current Global War on Terrorism which has no perceivable end in sight.

To further refute the validity of the "nonstate actor" definition of terrorism, it must be noted that the U.S. government has contradicted its own policies by arming, funding, training, and providing supplies for organizations which fall under this "nonstate actor" version of being a terrorist organization. The U.S. Department of State, via plans outlined by a private think tank called The Brookings Institution, has even gone as far as removing (pg. 117) at least one organization from its list of terrorist organizations, for example, the Mujahedin-e Khalq, or MEK, for geopolitical purposes against Iran. In fact, the U.S. government’s actions have gotten so far out of control that Pentagon armed fighters in Syria have fought against CIA armed fighters.

The morally deprived institutions, regarded as "proper authorities," which most often seek to wage war have been proven, time and time again, to possess no ability to consider abiding by sound, moral principles which would enable diplomacy, peace, and prosperity. Due to the incomprehensible amount of propaganda and disinformation which inundates many societies, it is no wonder that a given public offers little resistance or dissension against the status quo. This general apathy and docility can only be remedied by a benign re-education campaign via a simple revision of an understanding of what constitutes a truly just war. It is not only the author of this paper who understands that there are powerful and corrupt entities which seek the Orwellian ‘re-definining’ of words vital to the prolonging and justification of war, but there are numerous other theorists who acknowledge these patterns, which is precisely why it is crucial for the sake of saving countless lives that this incessant information-warfare be met with counter-information warfare measures, tenfold.

Literature Reference: Vaughn, Lewis. "Political Violence: War, Terrorism, and Torture." Doing Ethics: Moral Reasoning and Contemporary Issues. W.W. Norton & Company, 2016.

Matthew King is a former U.S. Marine Corps infantryman, combat veteran, university student, and anarchist. He is aspiring to become an investigative journalist and documentarian with an emphasis on geopolitics, human rights violations, and institutional corruption. Visit his website Contact him at or @SansLetat on Twitter.

9 thoughts on “The Myth of the Just War”

  1. Wars are justified for many reasons, but there is one factor common in all wars – power. Power (manifested as interest) has been present in every conflict – no exception. It is the underlying motivation for war. Other cultural factors might change, but not power. Interest cuts across all apparently unifying principles: family, kin, nation, religion, ideology, politics – everything. We unite with the enemies of our principles, because that is what serves our interest. It is power, not any of the above concepts, that is the cause of war. St Thomas Aquinas said that, what now would be called ‘national interest’ is not a justifiable reason for war: which would make all wars immoral.
    But that is not the main problem – it is not for me to determine why others should or should not go to war – it is the consequences. Because power is the primary motivator every civilization/nation eventually gets the war it is trying to avoid: utter defeat. This applies as much today as any other time in history. Leaders and decision-makers delude themselves, thinking they can avoid their fate.

    1. Thanks Peter. Power is absolutely the end-game. I would like to expand on this essay and perhaps make it a series to explain every facet of war, but I also want to pose solutions. More to come.

  2. What if when a young boy named Adolf, was in seminary school, had been taught there is no such thing as a just war would the world and humanity be better off for it.

  3. Thank you for this breakdown of Just War theory. I’m a Christian (and someone who narrowly avoided enlisting in the USMC), and I’ve been making this case for years now: the ideal of these standards is not only fantasy (utopia is a better word for it), but a cloak to disguise naked aggression and imperial conquest.

    Things like the Land letters are morally reprehensible, but it seems we’ve gotten away from that. Nowadays we wage global war on a low-burner, avoiding the fanfare of the Afghanistan/Iraq invasion. The Neo-Con plan of Democratic Imperium was too vulnerable to public scrutiny in the long run; better to become Drone Queen with tactical deployments anytime everywhere, coupled to our various satrapies.

    I bookmarked this post. I hope you write a series.

  4. This article sounds a bit too much like it’s discussing someone’s wet dreams. You know, wouldn’t it be great if you had this just war where you could do whatever you wanted?

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