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White Poppies


Q1.  When is it “right to fight”?

Q2.  If it is ever right to fight, how do we “fight right”?





The concept of a Just War is a tradition that has its roots in pre-Christian thinking but was adopted into Christian thought by Augustine in the fourth century and codified by Thomas Aquinas almost a thousand years later.


Augustine said that war had to be just in its intent (what it aimed to achieve), disposition (revenge is ruled out), auspices (only states have the requisite God-given authority to declare and conduct war), and conduct (the means must be proportionate and civilians must be spared).  In his view:

“We do not seek peace in order to be at war, but we go to war that we may have peace. Be peaceful, therefore, in warring, so that you may vanquish those whom you war against, and bring them to the prosperity of peace.”

The Just War concept makes a fundamental assumption – that war is unavoidable in certain circumstances – that inevitably begs the question which is asked by those Christians who uphold a different tradition of pacifism and who argue that no war can ever be “just”.  Thomas Aquinas’s short treatise on war, the Summa Theologica, responds (inadequately, I think) to the argument that all war is sinful, an objection based on the verse “All that take the sword shall perish with the sword”(Matthew 26v52). In a reply that seems full of chincanery,  Aquinas argues that taking up the sword under orders of the state can be distinguished from taking up the sword to arm oneself.  The latter is sinful, but the former is not forbidden.

Charles Guthrie and Michael Quinlan, in a short new book called Just War, The Just War Tradition: Ethics in Modern Warefare, seek to set out authoratively the circumstances in which it will be right to go to war.  Their authority comes from the leadership roles both have held either in the armed forces or in government.  Both profess their Christian faith, although the book seeks to promote a secular position rather than a religious one.  Indeed, if the origins of the Just War concept are any indication, the principles are – in fact – secular for all that they have become an expression of a Christian position in relation to war.  The book is limited in that it only considers the limits of one possible tradition, that of the Just War.  It is also limited in that it fails to deal specifically with the potential of a war that involves the use of nuclear weapons.  The use of nuclear weapons threatens the principles of a Just War – in particular proportionate means and non-combatant immunity – to an extent that conventional weapons do not.


John Stott sets out a more complete consideration of possible Christian positions in his book, Issues Facing Christians Today.  My 1984 edition was written when the perceived enemy was the USSR and contemplates three possible positions – complete Pacifism, the Just War tradition, and Relative (or Nuclear) Pacifism.  Both the Just War book, and Stott’s chapter are considered here, together with chapters from the book, Crimes Against Humanity, now in its 3rd edition and written by the English human rights lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson QC.

The principles that go to make up the Just War concept may be stated as:

1. Formal Declaration

2. Just Cause

3. Proportionate Cause

4. Right Intention/Legitimate Object

5. Right Authority

6. Reasonable Prospect of Success

7. Last Resort

8. Discrimination/Proportionality

Various authors give different names to the principles, and some principles may be separated out or conflated.  The Guthrie/Quinlan book separates them into two groups; some principles relate to going to war or “the right to fight”, and others to “how to fight right”.  Stott’s treatment is to relate the principles to, first, the beginning of the war, secondly, to the conduct of war itself, and, thirdly, the end of the war.   Any potential situation of war must be able to fulfil all principles.  Failing in one area will mean that the war cannot be called “just” and is, therefore immoral if not unlawful.

Just Cause




If Stott is convinced that any just war must be defensive, not aggressive, Guthrie and Quinland contemplate that a war might be just if “we truly judge that there is substantially more right on our side than on his”, and that recent non-defensive conflicts might be justified on the basis of a “responsibility to protect” or “pre-emption in the face of an enemy plainly willing to commit further outrages if it could”.


It is true that international law has been moving in this direction over the last ten years or so.  In 1986 the UK Foreign Office concluded that the consensus was then that the overriding rule of non-interference in the affairs of a sovereign state could not be overridden itself by the existence of a right of humanitarian intervention.  Geoffrey Robertson devotes a chapter of his book, Crimes Against Humanity: The Struggle for Global Justice, to a consideration of the more recent position following on from conflicts such as Kosovo.  Six weeks into the bombing of Kosovo, Vaclav Havel condoned the bombing, despite the apparent breach of the non-interference principle, by saying:

“This war places human rights above the rights of the State …although it has no direct mandate from the UN, it did not happen as an act of aggression or out of disrespect for international law.  It happened, on the contrary, out of respect for a law that ranks higher than the law which protects the sovereignty of states.  The alliance has acted out of respect for human rights as both conscience and international legal documents dictate.”

Geoffrey Robertson argues that the irresponsibility of large states to prevent war in other situations (by, for example, an abuse of their veto powers on the UN Security Council) “underlines the necessity for an international law principle permitting intervention in a humanitarian emergency, if need be without the unanimous support of permanent members of the Security Council.”.  Such an emergency is elsewhere defined as where a belligerent group (not necessarily a state) makes a systematic attack deliberately directed against a civilian population involving acts of multiple murder.   The US/UK led intervention in Iraq has been justified on the basis that this new principle of humanitarian intervention is now established international law, but the legality of that principle and the intervention continues to be fiercely debated.


If a pre-emptive strike is now generally considered lawful, Guthrie and Quinlan say that the hurdle of justification should continue to be set very high.  Robertson has developed a further set of safeguards which he believes should be applied including the prior support of the Security Council, or failing this of a majority of its permanent members, the clear guilt established by objective proof of the offending state, and compliance with remaining principles of the Just War concept such as proportionality of means and having a legitimate object.

Proportionate Cause

A consideration of the legitimate or proportionate object principle will, Guthrie and Quinlan say, involve a comparison between the likely outcome of taking up arms on the one hand and the likely outcome of doing the best we can by other means such as international pressure and sanctions, diplomacy and negotiation, and a calculation of the likely margin of benefit of taking up arms based on the comparative probability of such outcomes.  Only if this margin of benefit is large enough to justify the risks, penalties and costs of armed conflict to everyone involved will war be justified under the Just War concept.   Calculations are difficult, and doing nothing is not morally neutral, however:

“There underlies all the evaluations … a difficulty that is uncomfortable but inescapable: they entail taking very serious decisions on the basis of estimates of complex futures, with wide margins of uncertainty and as a result much scope – often on both sides of the conflict – for different perceptions and judgements about where justice and prudence point.  We ought always to have in mind, and to try to maintain a degree of intellectual humility about our ability to foresee the future in matters as grave as war.  But choice amid uncertainty is a constant issue in most fields of human activity, and it cannot be a valid reason for pacifism – for ruling out war altogether.”

Right Intention

Coupled with the concepts of “just cause” and “proportionate cause” is the insistence that there is a right intention.  This rules of acts of revenge, and requires a genuine intention to help create a better (that is, more just) subsequent peace than there would otherwise have been.  According to Guthrie and Quinlan, a subsidiary goal which does not have a right intention (such as the control of oil reserves) is neutralised providing the central intention was not injust or inadequate.  Stott is more idealistic: “the intention must be as righteous as the cause.  Just causes are not served by unjust motives.  So there must be no hatred, no animosity, no thirst for revenge”.

Right Authority

The declaration of war, when it comes, may only be made with right authority.  Traditionally this authority was held by a sovereign state.  But by the founding agreements of the United Nations, sovereign states agreed in principle to limit their authority to declare war so that military action going beyond self defence must be authorised by the UN Security Council.  All would be well if the UN system functioned well, but the excessive veto powers of the five permanent members of the Security Council (US, UK, France, Russia and China) are an obvious and well-documented shortcoming.  This is so not only because action is occasionally not taken because of the veto of a single permanent member, but also because the threat of the exercise of a veto leads states to take it upon themselves to act unilaterally.  So inadequate is the system that Guthrie and Quinlan believe the Just War doctrine requires states to proceed without the authority of the UN if they are to carry out their responsibilities.

Reasonable Prospect of Success

States will also have to calculate the likely prospect of success.  A likelihood of defeat does not mean that the war will not be just – substantive resistance may, for example, lead to a better outcome than immediate capitulation.  War will always need to be the option of last resort, or the option “least to be preferred”.  Whilst this may appear to imply that a great deal of time should be spent exploring other options, Guthrie and Quinlan say that this is not what is required, that the early application of force may do more good and less harm than a delay.  Here, as with the other principles, there is much that is left to the discretion of the decision-maker.

“The tradition does not yield a tidy and unambiguous answer to every question.  It continually calls for judgements, often contestable in good faith, on matters lying well beyond the experitise of moral philosophers.  It is, from one standpoint, simply a systematic reminder of moral questions which we ought to think about when we consider embarking upon armed conflict or when we engage in it.  But it is surely beyond argument that some framework for the moral analysis of war is necessary.  Those who would reject the Just War approach have to face and answer the question of what other ethical roadmap they would propose to put in its place.”


If those principles discussed above deal with the beginning and end of the war, the remaining principle deals with the jus in bello or how to fight right.  The insistence on discrimination means that war must be directed at enemy combatants and military targets and that civilians are immune.  Such a distinction is, however, impossible to preserve and this pragmatic truth is recognised by all writers.  Both Stott, and Guthrie and Quinlan insist that the distinction must be maintained but whilst Stott rules out the intentional killing of civilians, Guthrie and Quinlan argue that as long as it is “truly an unwelcome side-effect – ‘collateral damage’” and that all that reasonably may be done has been done to reduce the risk to non-combatants, and the action taken is proportionate then “there is a crucial difference between foreseeing something and intending it”.

Guthrie and Quinlan’s statement is a denial of responsibility.  If you foresee that something is going to happen, then you are responsible for it happening and, in a sense, can be said to have intended it by omission.  If I can foresee that my action is bound to cause injury to someone else, and that injury ensues from my action, then I am responsible for my action.  If it was within my power to prevent that action, but I chose not to, then I intended the consequence that came about as a result of the action I chose. The injury or death of non-combatants is a reality of modern warfare, largely unforeseen when the original principles of the Just War were developed.  Nuclear war throws the problem into even sharper focus.

Stott distinguishes between those Christians who adopt a pacifist position, those who uphold the Just War tradition, and a third group who, whilst not ruling out war altogether, cannot countenance the use of nuclear weapons or other indiscriminate weapons such as chemical weapons because of the impossibility of avoiding death to civilians.  He cites numerous passages from the Bible which express horror over the spilling of innocent blood and that the authority given to the state by God is limited, including with regard to the use of “the sword”.  Yet Stott realises that unilateral nuclear disarmament might well make nuclear war more rather than less likely but is dissatisfied with the seemingly inevitable pragmatic conclusion that if the deterrent is to deter there must be an apparent conviction that the deterrent might be used.  When faced with the prospect of using indiscriminate nuclear weapons to start or be involved in starting a nuclear war, or being overtaken by the enemy, he choose moral principles over “prudential balance”:

“In the end, then, we have to decide which blessing we value the more: social freedom, though at the cost of losing our moral integrity by starting a nuclear war; or moral integrity as a nation, though at the cost of losing our social freedom by allowing our country to be overrun.  I this might one day be the option before us, I hope we should know which to choose.  It would be better to suffer physical defeat than moral defeat; better to lose freedom of speech, of assembly, even of religion, than freedom of conscience before God.  For in his sight integrity is yet more valuable than liberty.”

The International Court of Justice adopted a different position when it was required to give its advisory opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons.  It concluded “The Court considers it does not have sufficient elements of fact to enable it to conclude with certainty that the use of nuclear weapons would necessarily be at variance with the principles and rules of law in armed conflict in any circumstance” even if “the use of such weapons in fact seems scarcely reconcilable with respect for such requirements”.  Such conclusion was drawn because the Court “cannot lose sight of the right of every state to survival and thus its right to resort to self-defence … where its survival is at stake”.

The Pacifist Tradition

The Pacifist tradition is the third tradition espoused by Christians in relation to war.  It is old and honourable tradition: Saints Maximilian, Marcellus, and Martin are three Christian saints revered for their refusal to fight in the first few centuries after Jesus.  All three were converts to Christianity and all three were executed because they refused to fight.  Saint Maximilian, a young Christian was executed in AD 295 for refusing to join the Roman army. He said, “I cannot serve in the military; I cannot do wrong; I am a Christian”. Saint Martin of Tours was an officer in the Roman army who converted to Christianity. On the eve of a battle around 340 AD, a battle to defend the empire against invading Teutons, he told the emperor that he could no longer fight; it went against his religion.

The Pacifist tradition grew out of Jesus’s call to non-violence and non-resistance:

“For he resisted neither betrayal nor arrest, neither trial nor sentence, neither torture nor crucifixion.  When he was insulted he did not retaliate.  He was the innocent, suffering Servant of the Lord.  ‘He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth’ (Isaiah 53v7).  He loved those who despised and rejected him.  He even prayed for the forgiveness of those who nailed him to the cross” (Stott, p84)

Christians, then, must surely committed to peace whatever tradition they choose to follow:

“True, the quest for peace with justice is much more costly than appeasement.  We also admire the loyalty, self-sacrifice and courage of serving soldiers.  Yet we must not glamourize or glorify war in itself, however just we may perceive its cause to be.  Some Christians believe that in some circumstances it may be defended as the lesser of two evils, but it could never be regarded by the Christian mind as more than a painful necessity in a fallen world.” (Stott)

Guthrie and Quinlan’s book is beautifully produced, but it is altogether too thin.  It dances round the really difficult question of indiscriminate weapons and fails to question the assumption that war is inevitable and may be justified.  John Stott’s account is much more complete and with great skill he manages to present three traditions that are at odds with each other, and yet reconcile them under the umbrella of peace.  Geoffrey Robertson is a lawyer first and foremost and his book is about law, not morality.  There is a big difference between the two: even if the Just War concepts have become accepted into international law, there is still room to argue that they do not truly represent the Christian position.