Jus ad Bellum et in Bello: Just War Theory, today.

So what to do with Just War doctrine when considering what transpired the other day?

In the raid that bagged Osama bin Laden, the United States sent a military team into another country without that country’s explicit authorization or involvement to conduct a military operation against a target within that country’s borders. The team accomplished its narrowly defined mission and then left, without even considering further military action against the country.

That’s still an act of war, isn’t it?

I mean, I’m with Josh: I’m happy that Osama bin Laden breathes death and destruction no more. I also pray that he saw the Light and made some act of conversion before the SEALs’ bullets entered his face after he refused to surrender, thus ending his earthly journey.

I’m also happy that pretty much every single other terrorist leader is likely a little less comfortable these days.

But what does this means from the perspective of the Just War tradition?

I’ll state right out, I believe the invasion of Afghanistan to topple the Taliban, as well as the multi-national invasion of Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein were both justified. Part of the reason is the realities of modern, non-linear warfare.

Gone are the days when the greatest threats to a nation-state were neighboring nation-states and their infantry, canon, and cavalry. Gone are the days when wars consisted of battle lines drawn on maps, criss-crossing national boundaries, pitting war machine against war machine. We have entered an age when non-state organizations establish bases in sympathetic countries, train non-uniformed, militarized civilians, seek to acquire terrible weapons for use in non-conventional ways, and intend to wreak havoc in other countries, with no advance warning or declaration, usually against civilian targets, for ideological or sectarian reasons. That simply does not fit anywhere into the Christian Just War tradition.

And any thought that the domestic law enforcement and domestic judicial structures are the proper arena to deal with such threats is just silly. Prosecuting as a common criminal the terrorist who gets caught alive while not addressing the larger organization that produced that terrorist and many like him does nothing to uproot the problem. It’s like picking a few leaves off of a tree that threatens your house, but ignoring the drooping branch and the leaning trunk planted in your derelict—perhaps openly hostile—neighbor’s yard. International politics are Hobbesian rather than Lockean, and we best not forget that.

Now, we cannot jettison the principles of Just War doctrine in formulating our response to such acts of aggression as 9/11 (or even the bombing of the USS Cole), but it certainly calls for a consideration of what the Just War tradition can allow; how the tradition must be further developed in light of technological advances and the threat posed by such non-state aggressors. Threats that were simply unfathomable to Ambrose, Augustine, and Aquinas, but are all-too-real nowadays.

Is it really “pre-emptive war” if the despotic leader of the target nation has already committed acts of war, even if not conventional military invasion of other countries, through sponsorship of aggressive actions by international terrorist organizations, and is also known to be pursuing greater means of inflicting harm against neighbors? Or does a state of war already exist between the despotic leader and the targeted nation, even if not declared, thus taking the “pre-emptive” tag away?

Is it legitimate to topple a government known to sponsor and/or give safe harbor to international non-state aggressor organizations that have carried out aggressive actions against other countries?

Is it legitimate to send strike teams into another country with whom you are not at war—but who either lacks the political will or the ability to handle certain situations on their own—to eliminate individuals known with certainty to be responsible for acts of international aggression? This is with the explicit understanding that the strike teams mean no proximate threat to the sovereign government and will leave upon completion of the task at hand.

I don’t propose that I have the final answer, but at this point I believe all three cases are legitimate expressions of Just War in the new and continuing age of international non-state aggressor organizations that usually target civilians. I’m sure many here disagree, but it is a discussion that needs to be had.



  • greg smith

    Dear Tom ~ I agree that the Just War theory to be revisited in light of the paridigm shift in warfighting. In the early ’80’s I spent some time dialoging about the bishops pastoral “God’s Promise and our Response.” Even the nuclear standoff between the USSR and the West had more in common with he middle ages than do the asemetrical conflicts we find ourselves in today. Some of the classic Just War standards do seem to hold however. Were we justified going into Iraq without thinking through what would happen in the days after we ousted Saddam? Ditto in Afganistan. Is it moral, considering the realities to do anything other that what we just did – go in, eliminate the immediate threat and get out. Consider that Iranian nuclear facilities may be buried so deep that air strikes would be ineffective. If we have to send in ground troops in a grand raid, occuping large sections of the country till we can locate and nutralize them, are we justified in using this situation to leverage a regime change?

  • Bill

    I believe it is preposterous to discuss Just War Theory when what is REALLY happening in the world is not even known or discussed. Why did Al Qaeda attack the U.S.? Why are American forces in 138 countries? I am reading sites where the assassination is dismissed as the “killing of an elderly man dragging a dialysis machine”. He was irrelevant and it was done for a. revenge and b. for political advantage.

    Let me cite some facts: In the Vietnamese (undeclared) War, the U.S. killed over two million Vietnamese and wounded/maimed another two million more. In order to defoliate the jungles, the U.S. dropped tons of Agent Orange on Vietnam. That Agent Orange is causing BIRTH DEFECTS TODAY. The Vietnamese gov’t. reaches out to the U.S. for assistance and it is denied. And you are worrying about one death because it is in the Main Stream Media each day???

  • Francis

    Tom: Your title references the principles to be held before war and the principles to be held during war, but your article really focuses on the events that led to the current conflicts. What about proportionality? Non-combatant immunity? How many civilians have died as a result of these wars? In Iraq alone, estimates indicate close to 105,000 civilians. This number does not include military on either side. How is this “justice”? What about comparative justice? How can we weigh the actions leading to war (belief that there are WMD’s and potential threats to the U.S.) against the very real deaths of men, women and children simply trying to live their lives?

  • Davide

    Two words: “war sucks”

    • Bruce

      One word: Agreed.

    • http://twitter.com/tomcrowe Tom Crowe

      Sure does. So does Original Sin. The two are related.

  • Mrs.T

    Hi Tom,

    I have a question about your post, and I’m sorry if it seems really obvious but I don’t know much about the Just War Theory. But, it seems like you are saying that a pre-emptive strike on Iraq was acceptable because we thought they had weapons of mass destruction and they were behaving in an aggressive way. If that makes our attack of them legitimate under the JWT, then don’t we also have to apply that standart toward ourselves? I mean, the U.S. definitely has weapons of mass destruction, and we also have behaved aggressively toward Middle Eastern countries. So doesn’t it follow that they would be perfectly justified in attacking us in whatever way that they could?

    Also, wasn’t the primary reason for going into Iraq the belief that they had weapons of mass destruction, along with Saddam Hussein’s constant sabre-rattling? I did not think it had much to do with terrorism. I recall President Bush saying that it was because of wmd’s and the fact that Saddam had “gone after” his father. I do not recall our government linking the war in Iraq to terrorism until after the fact.

    • http://twitter.com/tomcrowe Tom Crowe

      Mrs. T — There were 23 reasons for going in to Iraq laid out in the authorization passed by Congress back in 2003. They included the indisputable-at-the-time knowledge that he had WMD, but they were certainly not limited to that. And while that was the most discussed reason in some quarters, I don’t believe it was the most compelling. One of the most compelling reasons was that the 1991 Gulf War to push Saddam out of Kuwait, an ally, ended when Saddam agreed to no-fly zones, and a strict inspections regime. He repeatedly flouted both conditions, rendering the cease fire moot, meaning the *first* Gulf War never really ended, it just took us that extra time to finish the job. The UN Security Council passed 16 resolutions in 12 years telling him to obey the conditions of the cease fire, “or else.” Well, we finally followed through on the “or else.” In addition, Saddam had announced to the radical Palestinians that he would pay the families of suicide bombers who killed Israelis to help support them. That’s sponsorship of the non-linear sort of warfare the post is about, which makes Saddam a direct party to attacks on a U.S. ally. As for whether it makes us eligible for attack, consider the sort of aggression we have put forth–in defense of those who cannot defend themselves; to topple governments who harbor these non-state aggressive organizations, etc., and you should be able to see the distinction between what we do and what they do that renders them eligible for attack. One of the conditions of a just war is that the nation waging war is a justly constituted, justly governed nation: I like to think the U.S. qualifies on that point, while Saddam, Assad, the cabal in Tehran, etc., do not, and thus are incapable of waging a just war.

  • tz1

    You are simply defining “just war” in such a way that it can never be prohibited. What threat did Hussein pose TO THE UNITED STATES? If you allow any possible third party, illusion, or random evil to justify all the evils of wars you have justified any and all wars – and you might want to ask the Iraqi Christians who remain if the harm was not greater than the original evil.

    I do keep bringing up George Tiller, but I will expand it to Abortion.

    Has every peaceful or other action been taken? How long do we wait for the various government entities to repeal Roe? Casey didn’t. The judges won’t. How, other than violence could we end this holocaust in less than a decade?

    Is the evil grave? 40 million deaths – more than Osama, more than Saddam.

    Will action be a greater evil? I cannot see how, there would be a few targeted assassinations. There are fewer targets and they are in the phonebook.

    Is there a chance of success? It is all but certain.

    If Just War will permit any or all the wars or military actions you name, then it would permit if not require similar actions against the holocaust in our midst. Go there if you will. But if you will not apply even strict standards, or say “a war on abortion would be unjust”, you cannot justify our actions against the terrorists. Do the math. Over a million this year.

    About two weeks before Tiller was killed, Dick Cheney and his family was out saying they had to break the law to save innocent lives.

    • http://twitter.com/tomcrowe Tom Crowe

      tz1, I did not lay out my definition of ‘Just War,’ so your first sentence is moot. ——- Saddam both fired upon U.S. warplanes policing the no-fly zone to which he agreed, and he attempted the assassination of a former U.S. president. Those are two causi belli, for starters. The present plight of the Iraqi Christians is horrid, and no one here at CatholicVote has written about how bad it is more than I have, I don’t think, but post hoc ergo propter hoc is not an argument, so that’s not a reason why it was not jus ad bellum. ———– You have consistently conflated one very important point when repeatedly bringing up Tiller. Tiller and abortion are a matter that can be handled through a change in the law of this country. Abortion is, at present, legal. But there is an opportunity to make it illegal through a legitimate lawmaking and enforcement procedure, at which point the law enforcement apparatus will enforce the laws protecting life. Such does not exist in international affairs. As I note, international affairs are Hobbesian, not Lockean: the rule of the fist is necessary and justified far more readily in international affairs than in Western domestic affairs.

    • Joe


      Do you object to police officers using force to enforce law? If not, why specifically is their use of force justified?



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