War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. . . . A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. —John Stuart Mill1
Growing up, I felt a need to be like the people I admired. So for a time I wanted to be like Jerry West (the hall of fame shooting guard for the Los Angeles Lakers). Later I wanted to be like Beatles legend John Lennon. However, in the eighth grade while writing a report on the Second World War, I discovered two photographs of my father in The Decline and Fall of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan by Hans Dollinger. I further discovered that my seemingly ordinary father had received both the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart Medals during his tour of duty in Europe. I was embarrassed that I had not recognized what an important role model my dad had always been. From that time I’ve been an avid student of World War II, even taking part of my undergraduate studies in history.
War is a challenging moral issue to come to grips with, especially from a Christian perspective. What follows is a brief article I wrote a couple years ago about just war theory.
Christian thinkers through the centuries have taken different positions on war. Three broad theories concerning the morality of war for the Christian are: activism, pacifism, and selectivism. Activism asserts it is virtually always right to participate in war. Strict pacifism insists it is never morally right to partake in war. Selectivism argues it is sometimes right to take part in war.
Just war theory is a type of selectivism contending that while war is always tragic, and often evil, it is sometimes morally right, just, and practically necessary. Leading Christian advocates of just war theory include Augustine of Hippo (354–430), Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), and Francisco Suárez (1548–1617). This theory involves two main moral categories of evaluation.
Jus ad bellum (Justness of war): Concerning the moral justness of waging war, a just war must conform to the following moral considerations.
A just war will:
- Be waged by a legitimate authority (government or state, not private individuals)
- Reflect moral deliberation (last resort after sincere diplomacy)
- Have probability of success (reasonable belief that victory can be achieved)
- Have a just cause (e.g., defense of innocents and freedom against direct aggression)
- Be just in intent (establish peace, freedom, justice; not unlimited destruction of the enemy)
Jus in bello (Justice in war): Concerning the conduct of war, strategy and tactics must be just.
A just war will be conducted:
- With proper proportionality (sufficient, but not excessive force will be used; good should outweigh evil)
- With proper discrimination (noncombatants—civilians or innocents—should not be targeted)
Just war theory has been criticized for various reasons through the years (e.g., by failing to appreciate the benefits of a preemptive strike, being unrealistic in its moral expectations, being practically unworkable). Yet it nevertheless remains the most commonly accepted position among Christian thinkers when it comes to evaluating the moral considerations of waging war.
People throughout the world benefitted from the heroic Allies defeating the Axis powers in the world’s bloodiest war (with more than 60 million people killed). War is tragic, and at times evil, but it is sometimes absolutely necessary and the morally right thing to do.
For further study on the ethics of war, see John Jefferson Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 3rd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2004) and J. P. Moreland and Norman L. Geisler, The Life and Death Debate (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1990).
- John Stuart Mill, “The Contest in America,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, April 1862, 683–84, https://digital.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/pageviewer-idx?c=harp&cc=harp&idno=harp0024-5&node=harp0024-5%3A1&frm=frameset&view=image&seq=687.