Do ‘Just Wars’ Exist?

just war

By Ian Howarth

Significant sections of academia within the field of international relations dispute the existence of ‘just war’, and state that all war is unjust, because you cannot legalise and legitimise war.  In particular they point to the fact that all so called ‘just wars’ are classified as such by the victors, for example the NATO Kosovo air war of 1999 was a ‘just war’, in the words of then British prime minister Tony Blair who stated that it was ‘…a just war in a just cause for the values of civilization itself’ (Gilbert, 1999: 895).

Furthermore, in war both sides will declare their cause just and as such the two versions will compete.  In Kosovo, for example the publicly stated reasons that lay behind the actions of NATO were legitimate and largely humanitarian in nature.  However, in contrast Slobodan Milosevic also argued that his campaign in Kosovo against the Albanian secessionists was also a ‘just cause’, that he was motivated by the primary concept of national sovereignty and the right of every nation to preserve that sovereignty from internal as well as external threats.   In the eyes of Belgrade the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) represented a threat to the national integrity of Serbia and as such the KLA ‘terrorists’ had to be defeated in order to restore Serbia’s national integrity.  It is a cliché but it has become a standard retort that governments do not negotiate with terrorists.

The point here is not that Milosevic was justified to act in the way he did, he clearly was not, it is however that the very notion or classification of a war as ‘just’ is highly subjective and is almost without exception, a politically motivated move in order to justify state sponsored violence.  Have you ever heard a politician declare an unjust war?  Whenever a country goes to war it does so under a publicly stated reason that seeks to justify it’s course of action.  Whether it bears up to the scrutiny of history or truth, this is the underlying reason, the answer to any questioning soldier’s ‘what are we doing here?’

Apart from the questionable basis upon which a war is declared ‘just’, also lies the concept of ‘Just Wars’ historical heritage, which is overwhelmingly Christian.  The concept of war as a just cause became necessary after the ‘Emperor Theodosius I declared Catholic Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire in AD 38’ (Evans & Newnham, 1998: 288) it became necessary due the very militant nature of the Roman Empire and the fact that the teachings of Christ forbade murder, or killing on almost all grounds.  As such cannon law began to move towards a doctrine of ‘just war’. St Augustine (AD 354 – 430) was the first to write of ‘just war’ and stated that war in the defence of Christianity was just in it’s motives.  However, it was St Thomas Aquinas (1225 –1274) who theologically codified just war, providing three conditions which must be met in order for a war to be deemed just ‘(a) it must be waged by a proper sovereign authority (b) their must be a just cause (c) the intentions must be pure, so that they intend to promote good and not private aggrandizement’ (Evans & Newnham, 1998: 288).  Condition number two ‘that the cause must be just’ was such an ambiguous condition that it essentially gave carte blanche to every king, baron and bully in Europe to go to war as often, and with as much vigour as it liked for whatever represented in their view a ‘just cause’.

It was Grotius in his 1625 work ‘De Jure Belli ac Pacis’ (Evans & Newnham, 1998: 288) that took this theological justification of war and moved towards a more secular and modern definition of what a just war is.  He stated that a ‘just war’ can only be fought under one of the following conditions ‘(a) self-defence (b) to enforce rights; (c) to seek reparations for injury and: (d) to punish a wrong-doer’ (Evans & Newnham, 1998: 288).  However like the conditions set out by Aquinas, points (b) and (d) of the Grotian doctrine are also open to interpretation, for example, Iran under the Ayatollah Khomeini saw the ‘wrong-doer’ as the United States, and a jihad was declared, while President Reagan declared the Soviet Union an ‘evil empire’.  Therefore particularly to realists ‘just war’ doctrine is considered dangerous and open to exploitation, as it sets conditions upon war while at the same time leaving enough ambiguity to justify almost any sort of state violence short of genocide, and indiscriminate slaughter.

The effect of Grotian doctrine was to split ‘just war’ into two distinct categories ‘jus ad bellum’ (lit the law towards war) and ‘jus in bello’ (lit. the law in war) (Brown, 2002: 103).  It is from these two categories that the modern legal structure of war is defined, which has had the effect of emphasising ‘jus in bello’ over ‘jus ad bellum’ within international law.  This can be seen in the examples of the Hauge (1901) and Geneva (1926,1946) Conventions which consider exclusively the conduct of states during  war, and not the conditions upon which a war can be declared.   Similarly the International Organisation of the Red Cross/Crescent only intercedes to assist combatants during war, and does not assist civilian populations.  This can be further seen in the mass deportation of the Jews of Eastern Europe during World War II to the concentration camps.  This process was known by the Red Cross, but it was not the business of the organisation to interfere with ‘internal domestic matters’.

The only major legal framework for the declaration of war, and therefore the declaration of a ‘just war’ can be found in Article 2 of the United Nation’s Charter which states that ‘prohibition on the use of force is qualified by two exemptions (1) the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence in the face of an armed attack, preserved by Article 51; and (2) action taken for the maintenance or restoration of international peace and security authorized by the UN Security Council under Article 42’ (Baylis, Wirtz, Cohen & Gray, 2002: 56).  However  this does not really make things any more clearer than before.  It was under exemption one that Israel attacked Egypt, Syria and Jordan in 1967 in order to defend itself from planned aggression.   In short Israel claimed the right to pre-emptive defence, which is surely a contradiction in terms, a contradiction which conversely is being promulgated today by the United States in its ever widening ‘War on Terrorism’.

If any war can be deemed ‘Just’ under international law, then the 1990/1991 Gulf War is probably the best and most unambiguous example of such a conflict.  The basic background to the conflict is as follows; on the 2nd August 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait, quickly overrun the Kuwaiti defence forces and annexed the territory, the United Nations (UN) Security Council on the same day responded by calling for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, and on the following day sanctions were imposed against Iraq by the USA and the USSR banning the sale of arms to Iraq.   This was followed two days later by UN measures which extended the sanctions to the sale of Iraqi oil.   These UN sanctions came into effect on the 13th of August 1990 when British and American Warships began a naval blockade of Iraq.

On the 31st August ‘Japan offered $1,000 million’ (Gilbert, 1999: 706) towards the cost of a multinational force that might be sent to the Gulf to liberate Kuwait; following this, and much international shuttle diplomacy by the US President George Bush, in November 1990 the ‘Security Council passed Resolution 678, which authorised military action against Iraq if it had failed to withdraw from Kuwait by the 15th January 1991’ (Gilbert, 1999: 713).  An international coalition force was constructed and sent to the Gulf under the command of US General Norman Schwarzkopf; the forces began amassing in late November in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey.

At midnight on the 16th January 1991 with the coming into force of resolution 687, Operation Desert Storm commenced.  The conflict was swift and decisive starting with an overwhelming air campaign, which essentially crippled Iraqi air defences, and gave the coalition complete air supremacy within three days.   The ground attack commenced on the 24th February 1991, and by the 26th of February Iraq began to withdraw from Kuwait.  On the 28th February coalition forces entered Kuwait City and declared Kuwait liberated, later the same day ‘Tariq Aziz Iraqi Vice-President agreed to rescind Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait’ (Gilbert, 1999: 718).

The campaign had been swift, decisive and resulted in comparatively few allied casualties.  However, Iraq was in turmoil and many thousands were dead, both civilian and military targets had been hit.  In one particularly horrendous incident the motorway leading to the Iraqi city of Basra, became known to US soldiers as the ‘Highway of doom’ and to USAF pilots as ‘Turkey Shoot Alley’ (Allen, Berry & Polmar, 1991: 220). As thousands of retreating Iraqi troops blocked the highway US warplanes and helicopters picked them of one by one leaving the highway jammed all the way back to the Iraqi border with the burnt out wreckage of a retreating army and littered with the corpses of thousands of Iraqi soldiers.

The key justifications that were employed in order to declare the Gulf War a ‘just war’ complied entirely with both the Grotian doctrine of ‘Just War’ and international law through Article 51 of the UN Charter, which provides every state the right to act in self-defence against an armed aggressor, either alone or collectively.  The invasion of Kuwait by Iraq clearly represented an aggressive armed attack, and the UN coalition force that was assembled to liberate or restore Kuwait’s national integrity clearly corresponds to the ‘collective’ defence of Kuwait.   In short the Gulf War under international law and Grotian doctrine can be declared a ‘just war’. It was a war of defence, a war triggered by unprovoked aggression by Iraq against a peaceful neighbour.

However if we widen the net of the definition of a ‘just war’ in this case to include St Aquinas’s definition then we encounter a problem, he states that for a war to be just ‘the intentions must be pure, so that they intend to promote good and not private aggrandizement’ (Evans & Newnham, 1998: 288).  The motivations behind the Gulf War are much in dispute; the black and white answer is as stated above the defence of Kuwait.  However, why would the great powers, the USA, UK, France, and at the time the Soviet Union care about some small Arab kingdom?  The answer is oil.  With the Kuwaiti oil fields added to Iraq’s, she would become the principle supplier of the West’s oil at that time, with reserves greater than Saudi Arabia, a position of immense power of leverage over western policy in the region.   Furthermore, Iraq may go on to threaten Saudi Arabia.  What would the USA be able to do if for example Syria or Jordan had invaded Israel with Iraqi support, threatening to cut supplies of oil to the west if the USA intervened in Israel’s defence?   In short were the true motivations for the grand UN Coalition no nobler than the economic interests of the world superpowers, and the defence of American hegemony in the region?  If so then this wars claims to just war status can at least partially be questioned, because it used deceit to justify its motives and covered its true intent through the guise of a war of liberation.

Still further examining the conditions under which the war was fought the ‘jus in bello’ of the Gulf War, and returning to the earlier example of ‘Turkey Shoot Alley’.   The Gulf War may have been initiated as a ‘just war’, but Grotius does state that a ‘just war can become unjust if the intentions were wrong (see above) and if unjust acts are committed’ (Evans & Newnham, 1998: 288).  What justifications can the United States or the Coalition forces in general, present that gives just cause to the ‘murder’ of thousands of retreating Iraqi’s.  This in short raises the same dilemma that emerged as a result of the sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands War (1982) was the ship sailing towards or away from the combat zone, or does it not matter which way it was going, as war is war?

The answer to the above is like all the other aspects of the ‘Just War’ debate, unclear, and is therefore much like the very nature of ‘Just War’ itself.  Arguably the Allied actions on the road to Basra de-legitimised the Gulf War, removing the right for it to be declared ‘Just’.  However, equally it could be argued that these were enemy forces within a combat zone, in a war commenced by the retreating forces and as such fair game.  It is worth noting that the carnage of ‘Turkey Shoot Alley’ did end at the Iraqi border and therefore did not violate resolution 687 that only allowed the liberation of Kuwait, in short the liberation of Kuwait didn’t turn into the invasion of Iraq.

It is clear that the concept of just war stems from a western Judeo-Christian view of the world, and in examining  the origins of this concept and its modern incarnations alongside a conflict that is arguably a ‘just war’ we are able to starkly see the dangerous and ambiguous nature of the concept.  Do ‘just wars’ exist?  Well on balance I tend to favour the argument that they do.  However, they are rare and the vast majority of conflict that has and is occurring in the world most definitely does not meet the standards of a ‘just war’. In recent times we have seen many conflicts, notably Afghanistan and the 2003 Invasion of Iraq.  Do either of these conflicts meet the standards of just war either explicitly or in their spirit?   The answer to that question would constitute a whole other essay, but it does go to highlight once again how hard it is to distinguish between wars that could be regarded as just (World War II, 1990/91 Gulf War) and those that are not.  In making the distinction between the two it may well be little more than a perspective of history and which side of it you find yourself on.


Allen, Thomas. B, Berry, Clifton. F, and Polmar, Norman (1991) CNN War in the Gulf, Maxwell Macmillan International, London, p220-221

Baylis, John, and Wirtz, James (2002) Strategy in the Contemporary World: An Introduction to Strategic Studies, Oxford University Press, Oxford, p56

Booth, Ken, and Dunne, Tim, (eds.) (2002) Worlds in Collision: Terror and the Future of Global Order, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke Hampshire, p10-13

Brown, Chris (2002) Sovereignty, Rights and Justice, International Political Theory Today, Polity Press, Cambridge, p102-105

Evans, Graham, and Newnham, Jeffrey (1998) The Penguin Dictionary of International Relations, Penguin Books, London, p288-289


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