JUST WAR THEORY, A Conceptual Analysis

Just War Theory

Application of morality in launching, fighting and terminating war has been a matter of divergent explanations and interpretations since the very inception of human society. But, still, there are certain agreed-upon principles that are supposed to be followed by states while resorting to war. The laws, which, now, have been codified as International Law and expressed in the UN Charter, were initially guided by a theory named ‘Just War’. After undergoing centuries of evolution, theory of Just War today encompasses all the spheres and aspects of the morality of war. This write-up is aimed at digging deep into the theory, its major contributors, the contending perspectives on the morality of war and the principles of war on which the traditional Just War Theory is actually based.

Although the fluid nature of war, emergence of unconventional warfare and the advent of modern sophisticated technological devices and equipment of war have changed the dynamics and consent on the Just War Theory seems eroding, the relevance of morality in war has started gaining tremendous strength. Role of social media and people’s instant access to information have transformed the whole security environment making it more vulnerable to criticism.

The other schools of thought – besides Just War – related to the relevance of morality in the use of violence during a conflict are Pacifism and Realism. Their poles-apart views have made social scientists work on understanding the emerging debates on the subject. The US wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, and now-rampant civil wars and separatist movements across the globe, as well as the transnational terrorism have increased the relevance of the morality of war.

Three Principal Perspectives

1. Pacifism

Pacifists generally have an uncompromising opposition to the waging of war by a state and participation in it by an individual. They consider that avoiding violence is the means to resolving the contentious issues among states. Human intercourse, the pacifists believe, should be governed by peaceful rather than violent or belligerent interactions. And all the issues must be resolved through arbitration, surrender, or migration, and not by resorting to violence.

However, a contending claim comes from Buddhism, the first genuine pacifist movement in the known history, when Buddha would demand from his adherents a total non-participation in any act of violence directed to their fellow beings. Christianity, however, is known for its turn-the-other-cheek teaching, on which most Christian-pacifists base their argument of ‘absolute nonviolence’ even in the face of tyranny and oppression. M.K. Gandhi, Bertrand Russell, Mirabehn, Fannie Fern Phillips Andrews, J Keir Hardie, Rosika Schwimmer, Pierre Leroux and others are known for their Pacifist worldviews.

However, Pacifism based on the Christian teachings has remained under influence and criticism due to works of theologians and philosophers like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas on the justification for war. St. Augustine is considered the father of modern-day Christian Just War tradition. The advocates of ‘nonviolence’ are, however, dubbed as escapists who would not dare to stand by the oppressed as neutrality in the face of oppression favours the aggressors and status quo forces.

2. Realism

Realism, probably, is the most dominating explanation of global politics in modern times. For realists, “war is an organized violence carried out by political units against each other.” To be organized and to be launched officially are the features that distinguish realism from other theories of war, including Pacifism. Owing to the anarchical international system that is devoid of any central authority to regulate the affairs of the states, war, to realists, is an integral part of this system and is pursued as an instrument of policy.

Realism is not as simple as is often presented rather it’s a complex doctrine. At its core is strong scepticism over the application of morality, justice and even law to the conduct of global political affairs. The national interest dominates the interaction of states, and for the pursuit of interests, a state acts as a unitary rational actor on the international chessboard. States will live, according to Hobbes; “in the condition of a perpetual war, and upon the confines of battle, with their frontiers armed, and cannons planted against their neighbours round-about”.

The only morality of war is that it should be won by any means at disposal, according to realists; otherwise it has nothing to do with the rough-and-tumble terrain of world politics. International law, justice and morality have least capacity over a sovereign state to hinder its power, security, economic interests. The only truth, as Machiavelli puts, in all matters is the ‘effectual truth’, as no moral rules, made by men, actually exist. So the morality of warfare is a complete bunk and it is amoral. And “to see that a matter of the highest importance (like war) is involved, we must not rest satisfied with either scholarly excuses or moral frowns”.

3. Just War

Between absolute nonviolence of pacifism and the concept of inevitability of war as an instrument of policy of realism, there comes a middle way of Just War which is an effort to condone, or justify, the making of war. It presents certain conditions for nations going to war as well as rules during and even after the war. These are principles a majority of nations, at least theoretically, have agreed upon. Just war, unlike an always-prohibitive Pacifism, is permissive to war in certain situations.


The principles of Just War are usually divided traditionally into two while in the modern times into three sections:

1. Jus ad Bellum
2. Jus in Bello
3. Jus Post Bellum

1. Jus ad Bellum (Just recourse to war)

St. Thomas Aquinas, who based Just War theory upon natural law, first articulated the element of jus ad bellum in Western thought at length. It includes the factors which justify the decision of going to war:

a. Just cause

It’s the most important component of the theory and it means being on the right side. The mainstay of the Just Cause to wage a war is the principle of self-defence. In the International Law, ‘self-defence’ is the prime just cause while the second one is the right to self-determination. These concepts may be linked to the principle of collective security.

b. Legitimate authority

A legitimate sovereign state and a lawfully-constituted government of a state can be the only authority to declare a war.

“The first thing is the authority of the prince by whose command the war is to be waged. It does not belong to a private person to start a war, for he can prosecute his claim in the court of his superior,” wrote St. Thomas Aquinas.

c. Public declaration

Public declaration of the war and taking the masses on board is necessary in today’s democratic and liberal world to avoid any unrest among the people.

d. Proportionality

At the level of jus ad bellum, proportionality entails having a logical connection between the objectives to be achieved and the means applied for the purpose. Proportionality is, to Walzer, a matter of adjusting means to ends.

e. Last resort

The state must consume all possible peaceful or nonviolent measures. Negotiations, economic sanctions, diplomatic means should be employed to avoid war. War is like flowing water; once you go to war, no one knows what shape it would take and what way it would move.

f. Realistic hope of success

The war is too costly a business to be indulged in. So the states and actors should opt for war only if they visualize clear indications of success. A state must not squander the precious lives and properties of the citizens in a futile effort.

2. Jus in Bello (The law in waging war)

a. Discrimination

During a war, if the noncombatants are targeted and if collateral damage is not minimized, the prolonging of war is most likely. Secondly, deliberately targeting civilians in war is against International Humanitarian laws. All war-related laws, especially those of Islam, prohibit the use of force against civilian population. Children, old men, women, animals and even fruit trees of the enemies must not to be targeted as per the teachings of Islam. Just War too excludes those who are not directly a part of fighting.

b. Proportionality

During the war, the use of force must be proportionate. It includes means, weapons and tactics to wage a war as well as the force to be used keeping in view the might of the opponent.

3. Jus Post Bellum (Justice after war)

This is relatively a new concept that has been added to the traditional theory in the modern times. It would mainly look into the justification for the declared objectives of war and postwar rehabilitation, reconstruction and retribution efforts by the international community, as well as the warring parties. As Jimmy Carter asserts, parties are to make sure that postwar situation of the country must be better that what already existed; otherwise the war might not be called a justified war.


The Just War Theory is a comprehensive set of moral principles that the states should adhere to before going to war, to act in restrain during war and to be just in the postwar developments. Although the traditional version of this theory has become almost irrelevant in understanding the modern-day moral demands due to emergence of new war methods and to cope with the new justifications for launching an offence, yet the theory provides for the philosophical basis for theorists and philosophers like Michael Walzer (Just and Unjust Wars) and others to develop their modern just war arguments.

Strengths & Weaknesses of Just War Theory


Just War theory defines the conditions under which violence may be used and it combines the wisdom of thinkers and philosophers from many centuries.

It is a flexible theory and grows and develops with the times.

Just War theory recognises the necessity of action against an aggressor.

Just War theory allows defence of the defenceless.

Just War theory does not allow acts of war simply because they are thought to be in the interests of a nation.

WMDs may change Just War theory, but we still need to consider their use within a moral framework.

In spite of difficulties with the individual principles, Just War theory remains a universal theory.


There is no guarantee that it will be appropriately applied or that it is necessarily be applicable to all circumstances.

Some religious believers hold an absolute pacifist stance which does not allow them to fight in any war, even if it is allegedly ‘just’.

The theory can be applied to any war to make it appear just. Both sides will apply it in such a way that their claim is apparently just.

It says that violence is permitted, but the principle of sanctity of life demands that all deliberate acts of killing- including those in war are forbidden.

Just War theory is unrealistic, as the strong and powerful will always win. Moreover, conditions are too simplistic and ambiguous to apply in practice.

WMD demand a different approach, as they break all the basic rules. Nuclear arms go way beyond the conditions of warfare envisaged by Augustine. Modern weapons are capable of destroying the whole of human civilisation and attempts to refine attacks to hitting only military targets are open to human error Terrorism demands a different approach, as terrorists take no notice of the rules.

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