Just War Tradition: Is It Credible?

by John Howard Yoder

John Howard Yoder is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame and formerly at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries. A graduate of the University of Basel (D. Theol.), he has served the Mennonite denomination in both mission administration and overseas relief, as well as at Goshen Biblical Seminary, where he was professor from 1965 to 1984 and President from 1970 to 1973. His publications include When War is Unjust (Augsburg 1984), The Original Revolution (Herald 1972), The Politics of Jesus (Eerdman 1972), and Karl Barth and the Problem of War (Abingdon 1970).

This article appeared in The Christian Century, March 13, 1991, pps. 295-298. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. Article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Just war discourse deceives sincere people by the very nature of its claim to base moral discernment upon the facts of the case and on universally accessible rational principles. It lets them think that their morality is somehow less provincial and more accessible to others than if it referred explicitly to the data of Christian faith, including the words and work of Jesus.

Public dialogue in the U.S. about the Persian Gulf war has drawn heavily on the language of the just war tradition—more so than has been the case with any war since at least the 1860s. The tradition has been appealed to by journalists and politicians, as if it were common knowledge, as a basis for making (or denying) the claim that the war in the Persian Gulf should go on.

Most of the time, the just war tradition is used to test a particular war (or a strategy or a weapon) for its moral and legal acceptability. That was done recently in the CENTURY by James Turner Johnson and Alan Geyer (February 6-13). The reciprocal approach is also needed: the tradition can be tested by a war. Does the tradition in fact facilitate shared moral and legal decisions by so labeling issues that they can be adjudicated?

Johnson is right that the just war tradition is "deeply rooted in both Christian tradition and international law." He is also right, in the several books he has written on the theme, in reporting that it has never been universally accepted or applied by Christian moralists or statesmen. It has never been promulgated ex cathedra by Rome, though it is in the Anglican, Lutheran and Reformed confessions. Deep rootage does not make the tradition morally true; but it does set the stage for giving it a fair test. The gulf war, both in the ways it is like all wars and in the ways it is unique, makes the testing both concrete and urgent, while also heightening the chances that the "facts" available when this text is drafted will have been changed by the time it reaches readers.

There is no reason for me to survey the current debate as concerns the substance of the arguments, nor to suggest my own verdict on each of the contested points, as I would do in a setting where time and structure would permit a serious debate in just war terms. What I want to do is to view the debate as a test of whether the entire just war mode of moral discourse is adequate to guide the responsible citizenship of people who claim that their first moral obligation is to the God whom Jesus taught them to praise and obey, and their second to the neighbor, including the enemy, whom Jesus taught them to love.

The just war tradition does serve, some of the time, as an agenda, a checklist of questions which it is fitting to ask in considering war. If your concern is not on that list (for example, if you think "love your enemy" is itself an adequate moral guide), it will be denied standing in the debate. If on the other hand you ask about "last resort" or "innocent immunity," others will grant your fight to put the question. That being the system’s intention, there are three questions we obviously can pursue: a) Does the system as system have integrity in that its concepts are so defined as really to serve as criteria? b) Do the people claiming to use the system have moral integrity in that they will renounce the strategies and actions which the system rejects? c) Is the system compatible with the other elements of Christian moral commitment which it does not expressly include? The first of these questions is our first concern here. My more basic concern as a Christian pacifist would of course be with the third.

Does the just war tradition work? Let’s consider some instances.

1) The facts of the case. As distinguished from people holding to pacifism or the "holy war," people holding to the just war tradition claim to make decisions on the empirically knowable facts of the case. It is assumed that these facts are knowable in principle and known in fact: Has there been naked aggression? Is the belligerent government legitimate? Has everything else been tried? Moralists have assumed that these facts could be ascertained. In our present experience that is not so easy. The control of information is a science and an art (known in the trade—in the language of billiards—as "spin"). In early February this reached a new level of brazenness. Margaret Tutwiler informed us that when the President had told conservative Protestant broadcasters that the U.S. wanted unconditional surrender and a war crimes trial, he was expressing his emotions, not policy; that when Secretary of State James Baker and his Soviet colleague Alexander Bessmertnykh said that the coalition would accept a cease-fire and would promise a regional peace conference, that was inoperative because it had not been checked. For "spin" purposes, it helps to have several different statements, each supposed to please somebody or send some message, with none of them binding and no call for consistency among them. From mid-January to mid February we were told almost daily both that there is no schedule and that the war is proceeding on schedule. On February 13-14, Generals Kelly, Schwartzkopf and Neal gave significantly different readings as to whether the tragedy of the bunker bombing in Baghdad would lead to changes in targeting policy. All the media commentaries interpret these discrepancies more in terms of spin control than of truth.

2) Who in fact does decide? The just war tradition was not originally intended to be used in democracies. It was originally assumed that decisions about war belong to sovereigns. The democratic vision which makes the citizenry "sovereign" changes how the system has to work. Disinformation and spin control invalidate the administrators’ claim to legitimacy. Civilian and military administrators are not trained to distinguish dissent from disloyalty, secrecy from security. They thus can refuse to provide "the people" with the wherewithal for evaluating the claimed justifications.

This change makes the availability of usable nonsectarian language like that of the just war tradition all the more necessary, because there must be debate. Yet in the sovereign’s eyes the debate seems to be unfair and disloyal. Both George Bush and Margaret Tutwiler would rather that we not all consider ourselves entitled to share in moral decisions about the killing done in our name. This phenomenon is not new, however. Ferdinand and Isabella did not appreciate the questions Francisco de Vitofia was asking about their treatment of Native Americans.

I do not propose to side simply with the media in their complaints about access and censorship. Yet it is clear that without reliable sources of information there is no basis for evaluating most of the claims on which a just war decision is based. When the head of the Joint Chiefs parries a factual question with "trust me," I don’t.

3) Reality is deep and wide. The just war paradigm for decision, like much of the rest of ethical casuistry, assumes a punctual conception of legal-moral decision. The decision to go to war, or to use such and such a strategy, it is assumed, is made at one time, not before or after that instant. What is either right or wrong is that punctual decision, based upon the facts of the case at just that instant, and the just war tradition delivers the criteria for adjudicating that decision. This procedure undervalues the longitudinal dimensions of the conflict. Here Geyer’s reading is truer to the facts than Johnson’s, as he takes account of what he calls "the burdens of history." During the first Reagan-Bush decade, other cases of "naked aggression" somehow did not need to be punished so rigorously. Iraq was textually told in July that the U.S. would not intervene; the classical distinction between "moral" just cause and "material" just cause becomes pertinent at this point.

In real life most decisions are not punctual. They have longitude—they were prepared for by a lot that went before. Setting mid-January as a firm deadline, counter to most of the wisdom of ancient diplomacy and the modern social science of conflict resolution, was done weeks before. As the date approached, Bush’s definition of its degree of firmness escalated to the point that by the 15 th he in fact had no freedom to do otherwise. Yet the just war paradigm had not illuminated the weeks spent painting the U.S. and Iraq into their respective corners in the way it looked on January 15. Even less did it take account of the till longer predisposing factors for which the U.S. is more to blame than Saddam Hussein: the decade spent competing with the U.S.S.R. in building up Hussein’s forces, and the explicit statements made in July to the effect that what Hussein might choose to do with border problems was not our concern. The full amplitude of the just war tradition would be capable of considering such components of complicity and even entrapment as part of the definition of just cause, but our public discourse has consistently described the case as if the history of Mesopotamia began in August.

The claim that the UN resolutions suffice to assure "just authority" is belied by destruction in Iraq unrelated to freeing Kuwait (bridges, roads, municipal water and sewage systems) and by restatements of war aims (asking Iraqis to replace Saddam Hussein, demanding unconditional surrender and a war crimes trial) which go far beyond the UN objective (note as well the elements of bad faith in the UN appeal to which Geyer pointed).

Does a vote in which despite enormous pressures 47 senators opposed the resort to military force (and some of the "yea" voters said the president had acted wrongly throughout the fall but now they would rally ‘round the flag) constitute a moral mandate? One can grant that this consultation of Congress is better than stonewalling completely the right of Congress to be consulted, and that the UN actions constitute more backing than we ever even thought about requesting for Panama or Grenada. Thus the criterion of "legitimate authority" is more nearly met than at some other times. Yet the scale of the air war has gone far beyond the UN authorization, as did the continuing escalation of the war aims so that by February 15 Pentagon projections were assuming the demand for unconditional surrender rather than withdrawal, and by February 25 flanking actions were undertaken to prevent withdrawal.

4) Shared definitions? The public is deceived by the tacit assumption that because the "criteria" can be listed in common-sense language there must be a shared definition of most of the operational terms, as there is in a natural science or even in law. A criterion is something you can measure with; that can be done only if its meaning is shared by the several parties. In real use, however, most of the just war "criteria" are so subject to bias that they do not serve to adjudicate with any semblance of objectivity. The words like "legitimate authority" and "just cause" provide a common language, but they serve only to talk past each other. The contrast between my esteemed colleagues and good friends Geyer and Johnson exemplifies this brilliantly; the words are the same, but they use them to describe two different worlds.

5) What is the alternative? In most cases we are deceived by the tacit assumption that if and when the criteria are not met, one does not go to war. The doctrine can (theoretically) have teeth at several points: refusal to obey an unjust order, "selective conscientious objection" when called to serve an unjust cause, suing for peace when one cannot win without using unjust means, prosecuting a war crime. Yet no nonpacifist church has prepared its members for such hard choices. No independent information sources assure the availability of the facts that would demand or enable such resistance.

6) The rubbery claim of discrimination. The hopeless debate over the Ash Wednesday bunker attack demonstrates how rubbery is the claim of discrimination. Johnson is right that "smarter" weapons can be discriminating; yet the exponential escalation of the number of sorties throws away much of that gain. More is abandoned when the concept of "military target" is expanded to include the main highway between Baghdad and Amman, so that when Jordanian refugee buses and fuel trucks are destroyed it is the drivers’ fault. When antiaircraft artillery is placed on the roof of a home it is the householders’ fault. When scores of women and children take overnight refuge in a bunker it is Saddam’s fault. Assigning blame is not the same as moral discernment. Such reallocation of "fault" may have some pertinence for the sacrament of absolution (where "intention" matters in a particular way), or as mitigation in a war-crimes procedure, but it does not protect innocent lives. When General H. Norman Schwartzkopf said the next day that "all Saddam Hussein needs to do to stop our killing civilians is to surrender," he replaced a restraint in bello with an accusation ad bellum.

Discussion is radically distorted by assuming that the only "legitimate means" question is civilian immunity. There are many more treaty commitments, all the way to the October 1980 conventions on "excessive use of conventional weapons" (Certainly a fair description of the scale of the air war since mid-January).

7) How, does one measure "proportionality"? We must weigh the devastation of Iraq (even if there were no civilian deaths) and the promise of decades of future trouble in the region against the evil of failing to reverse promptly the August 2 annexation. By what coefficients do we do that weighing?

What then is the tradition good for? The current debate, and the Johnson-Geyer exchange as one instance, suffices (other evidences, other hard-to-apply criteria, could be added) to demonstrate the incapacity of the system to yield a clear and commonly accessible adjudication of contested cases. What the just war tradition is really good for is that together with pacifism it can identify and denounce the less restrained views which in fact dominate public discourse and decision-making. These views are in principle three:

1) Many people think that since war consists by definition in the breakdown of civility, it is not only counterfactual but also counterproductive to try to retrieve the notion of moral accountability within the struggle. A maximum effort subject to minimal scruples will best end the anarchy and the suffering. Michael Walzer calls this stance "realism," emphasizing by the quotes that its claim to self-evidence is spurious. Reinhold Niebuhr espoused the term with less restraint, though his view of the moral issue was highly nuanced. Charles Clayton Morrison called war "hell"; hell is where there are no moral decisions, only the outworking of earlier sins. Against this, the just war tradition maintains that moral accountability and the possibility of restraint do not end when war looms. The a priori presumption against recourse to war needs to be overridden by fact-based warrants (jus ad bellum); once hostilities are undertaken the means must be legitimate and proportionate (jus in bello).

2) Many people think that what justifies war is a transcendent cause, discerned by a prophetic person. Overlapping with the "just" alternative in early medieval thought, "holy" war or the Crusade differs from the just war (properly so-called) as to cause, last resort, and probable success, and usually with regard to the human dignity of the enemy/infidel. Against this view, the just war tradition maintains that even wrong belief does not deprive humans of their rights, and even a religious rationale does not justify wrong means.

3) Many people think that war frees its actors from moral restraints by offering a unique setting for the proof of the virility of a political elite, of military personnel, or of a nation. The conflictual activities delicately referred to by some of our rulers as "ass-kicking" must be understood not so much ethically as ritually. The adversary is not a fellow human with dignity (before God and the law) equal to one’s own, but an opportunity to prove one’s manly qualities by facing danger and shedding blood.

When held to honestly, the just war tradition agrees with pacifism in rejecting these three views. It is these three views, however, which in fact dominate real politics. The fundamental deception imposed on our public discourse is that despite the use of just war categories by sincere people, the overall shape of the macro decisions is determined by the other three kinds of dynamism.

Sometimes this deception may be intentional and cynical; but that is not my present claim. More prevalent and more insidious is the fact that just war discourse deceives sincere people by the very nature of its claim to base moral discernment upon the facts of the case and on universally accessible rational principles. It lets them think that their morality is somehow less provincial and more accessible to others than if it referred explicitly to the data of Christian faith, including the words and the work of Jesus.

"Has there ever been a just war?" Cynics ask this because they think that their disregard for restraint is thereby validated. Pacifists ask it because they wonder how seriously to take the just war thinkers’ claim not to have sold out morally. The question is wrong. The basis of moral obligation is not the record of past successes in doing right. Has there ever been a perfectly monogamous spouse? A faithful Christian church? The fitting question is whether in the current case those who claim that heritage are in fact letting it set the limits of their action. On that question the jury is still out. The claim of my nonpacifist colleagues that the system they are using is more socially responsible, more understandable to ordinary people, more culturally accessible to people of other value communities, more able to manage with discrimination the factual data of political decisions, than is my testimony to Jesus’ words and work, still has the burden of proof.