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Justice in War: Arguments For and Against Essay

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Updated: Jun 6th, 2020

All political orders throughout the world involve the use of force and violence either implicitly or explicitly. Each country has at least a well-trained military to represent or defend it in times of war. Every society depends on a systematic prejudgment which has to be defended even if it means the use of force (Held, Morgenbesser & Nagel 1974, 81). However, the question remains, is there justice in war? I believe the appropriateness of military force depends on the circumstance and the basis for the war. In an ideal society, the war would not be the best means for solving national and international conflicts and disagreements.

Von Ossietzky (1979, 12) believes that policymakers in a government or an international block need to reason when presented with an overwhelming threat to national/international peace. Von Ossietzky also acknowledges that it is sometimes difficult to come up with a fruitful agreement in discussions meant to adopt alternatives to war. Haass (2009, 3) asserts that governments always find it difficult to decide whether to employ military force or not except in clear-cut cases.

All the three positions, pacifism, realism and the just war tradition seems to agree that war is morally wrong, but is one of the options available for maintaining peace and solving conflicts between nations and international blocks. Although pacifism group disagree with the idea of war under whatever circumstance (Teichman 1986, 21), Albert Einstein, a military pacifist agree that war can sometimes be the solution to achieving peace (Von Ossietzky 1979, 10). Most pacifists argue that the destructions, casualties and death that result from wars can not be justified by any good intentions or results of war. The realist group believes that the use of military force is one of the options available in interstate or international conflicts.

The just war tradition supports this viewpoint and agrees that military force can be applied in certain circumstances. The question therefore is; when can military force be used to stop acts of injustices which violently disrupt peace in communities? The just war theory has always offered valuable guidance to policymakers or decision-makers and the military alike in times of conflicts or during wars. According to the theory, war has to be the last resort. It has to be guided by right intentions; the cause has to be just and must be sanctioned by a proper authority to avoid evil and achieve justice (McMahan 2005, 2). Again, there has to be a good chance of success.

The use of force and violence should be adopted as the last resort when all other non-violent methods available can not be applied to restore peace and justice or the desired result (Holmes 1989, 211) although this does not mean that all the available options have to be put into practice before finally deciding to go to war. Those who possess the power to make decisions in times of conflicts have to use the information available to weigh the cost-benefits of the war. They have to analyse whether the use of military force meets the criterion as well as the realistic prospects of success in the use of violence. Thus, those who are charged with making decisions in times of conflicts need to have specialised knowledge as well as information as regards to the effectiveness of war in that particular situation. There must be a reasonable prospect of success.

The use of military force is also justifiable if restoration of peace and justice is the just cause of the war. Wars of choice may also be justifiable. According to Haass (2009, 12), wars of choice are those that a country participates in even though it has no vital interest.

Military force should only be used as a way of helping the region return to peace. The strategies employed in the war should not be used to spread terror among the population or to increase unnecessary suffering and destructions. The weapons and military equipment used in the war should not cause irreversible damage to the environment or long-term impacts on the population (Holsti 1991, 137). Military force aimed at solving conflicts and achieving peace should not be characterised by what was witnessed in the US’s destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in 1945, which claimed over 200,000 innocent lives (Walker 2005, 334). Use of such chemical and biological bombs as well as nuclear weapons is not legitimate, especially when used on an innocent population. The use of such weapons and technology is not ethically justifiable even if it can be used to achieve the desired result immediately. Thus certain classes of weapons have to be avoided.

The use of military force needs to be applied discriminately. The innocent and those who have surrendered need not be subjected to the violence (McMahan 2005, 13). Justice during the war is only achieved if the combatants and the innocent population are distinguished, and the latter are protected to avoid instances of double effect. Those identified as non-participants in the war, but are affected by the war need to be given some aid to enable them to continue with their lives, and their property equally protected from any form of military destruction (Best 1980, 189).

For war to be justifiable, it needs to promise good intentions, such as establishing peace and justice in a region where violence is the order of the day. The actual motivation of the war has to be morally appropriate. Wars motivated by revenge, ethnic hatred or conflict over control on vital resources are considered illegitimate and unjustifiable (Orend 2010). The war will only be considered justifiable if the reason for resorting to war is to pursue just cause (Elshtain 1992, 44).

Violence in another region could compromise peace and justice in other countries or regions. For example, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, which had occupied and disrupted peace in Afghanistan and Pakistan threatened the life of the international community (Foreign Affairs 2011, 17). Such invasion by the US military is justifiable as it seeks to prevent more attack on civilians and potential mass murder of people in various countries. The cause of war should be strong enough to earn both domestic and international support.

The decision-makers who are also the policymakers have to convince the international community that the use of military force will help achieve more good for the majority at a lower cost as compared to what can be achieved through inaction, sanctions or diplomacy. Haass argues that considering these standards, the US’s second war on Iraq was not justifiable since more sanctions on Saddam could have worked (Haass 2009, 14). This means that a country also needs to consider the proportionality of the war. Before a country initiates a war, it has to weigh the expected benefits of the war against potential evils which include casualties. In a legitimate war, soldiers restrain their force to that which is proportional to its aim. Weapons of mass destruction must not be used in achieving legitimate military ends.

Any justifiable war must be ordered by a competent authority. The consequences of war are enormous, and therefore permission to go to war has to discussed and granted by the United Nations Security Council and opted for if considered the best alternative. Other international organisations such as NATO, EU or OAU may also decree military action in their regions of coverage. However, such international organisations are also subject to influence by major powers, who hold major stakes in them, to pursue their self-interest and not that of the warring parties.

Waging war risks lives of many, meaning that the decreeing authority or the UN should only settle on the military force after other policies have been tried and failed or deemed to be unfit for creating a long-term solution. In the event of a conflict, a country that is unable to abide by these requirements and goes to war is often regarded as lacking legitimacy. This was the situation recently experienced in Libya where the UN granted its military forces from various countries the permission to help protect innocent Libyan citizens from aggression by government-allied forces, restore peace and justice.

Going by the reasoning and the guidelines offered by the just war tradition, wars can sometimes be justifiable if it has a necessary cause and pursues a legitimate course. Several alternatives have to be considered before settling on military force. Again, the war itself has to be carefully handled to restore peace and justice and to avoid spreading terror, causing death and harm to innocent populations and destruction to their property.

Reference List

Best, G., 1980, Humanity in warfare. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 189.

Elshtain, J. B., 1992, Just war theory. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. p.44.

Foreign Affairs, 2011, How America can compete. Foreign Affairs Magazine, 90 (4).

Haass, N. R., 2009, War of necessity, war of choice: A memoir of two Iraq wars. Washington, DC: Council of Foreign elations. pp 3-17.

Held, V., Morgenbesser, S., & Nagel, T., 1974, Philosophy, morality and international affairs. New York: Oxford University Press. p.81.

Holmes, R., 1989, On war and morality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. p. 211.

Holsti, K., 1991, Peace and war: Armed conflicts and international order, 1648-1989. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 137.

Orend, B., 2010, . The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, Zalta, E. N, ed. Web.

McMahan, J., 2005, Just cause for war. Ethics and International Affairs, 19 (3): 1-21.

Teichman, J., 1986, Pacifism and the just war. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. p. 21.

Von Ossietzky, C., 1979, Bulletin of the atomic scientist. The Bulletin, 35 (3): 1-88.

Walker, J. S., 2005, Recent literature on Truman’s atomic bomb decision: A search for middle ground. Diplomatic History 29 (2): 334.

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