“Only the dead have seen the end of war,” wrote George Santayana in 1922. A century later his observation clearly remains poignant. War has proven a commonplace ever since, with seldom a year passing without violent conflict. Though we in the United States have lived fortunate enough never to have prolonged conflict upon our own soil, war has remained at least marginally present in our cultural conscience for decades.
But what makes a war just? This is the question we seek to ask and answer in our Philosophical Happy Hour this week—a topic more sober and sobering than our usual fare.
To help orient our conversation, it is helpful to note that three temporal conditions have been customarily established to provide context for justification of war: jus ad bellum (before war), jus in bello (during the war) and jus post bellum (after the war).
Jus ad Bellum: Before the War
Why and when do we find war a necessity? The ethical considerations prior to engaging in armed conflict ought to weigh heavily on any legitimate and authoritative leader: considerations such as whether one’s cause is just—for instance, self-defense, defense of innocent life, or attainment of conditions necessary to living—or that the war is not clearly susceptible to abuse by bad actors, that there is a reasonable probability of success, that no reasonable peaceful option remains, and that conditions of victory are clearly stipulated and recognized.
Jus in Bello: During the War
Once conflict has been enjoined, it remains necessary that the combatants employ restraint: proportionality ought to guide every action. Even if the enemy might be wholly eliminated—purged from the face of the earth—this will seldom if ever be called for by just conditions of victory. Similarly, non-combatants should not be targeted, nor should the violence exceed what proves necessary to win the conflict: acts such as rape, torture, or the use of weapons such as chemical gasses have no place in even the most acrimonious of wars.
This restraint protects not only the opposed soldiers and civilians, but also one’s own warriors: to de-humanize the enemy is to lose one’s own humanity.
Jus post Bellum: After the War
Most especially is this evident in the aftermath. Having overcome the opposed, the victor might impose, and all too readily, certain punitive measures on the conquered. Again, the measure here must be a certain proportionality aimed not merely at victory but at peace and at the reinstallation of equitable conditions. Maintaining these principles will be much easier given both just antecedent cause and restraint in the war’s conduct. Escalation of violence beyond proportion can end only in utter annihilation of even non-combatants or in a resentment that nourishes hatred.
Join the Conversation
Though we take up here a heavy topic, given current conditions in the world, it is important to note that—so long as the sun shines—we must strive ourselves to live a fulfilling human life. Our conversation will not likely end violence in the world; but it may add some humanity to our understanding of war.
Philosophical Happy Hour
Come join us for drinks (adult or otherwise) and a meaningful conversation. Open to the public! Held every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET.