Religious Studies

Just War theory

Most religions offer teaching on war and conflict. And over time religion has been at the heart of conflict between nations.

War and power

The majority of people believe that fighting and killing are wrong but they might agree that in some situations war is inevitable, particularly for defence.

A Holy War and a Just War are different.

The aim of a Holy War is to protect the religion of the people concerned. A famous Holy War fought by Christians was the Crusades of a thousand years ago when Christian Europe claimed the Holy Land from the Muslims who governed it.

A Just War is just if it is fought for a reason that is justifiable, and that carries sufficient moral weight. The country that wishes to use military force must demonstrate that there is a ‘just’ cause to do so.

Conditions for a Just War

A Just War is one which has to be fought but is conducted according to certain conditions. These were developed by Thomas Aquinas (c1225-74) and Francisco de Vitoria (c1483-1546) and are still referred to by Christians today.

The theory is not intended to justify all wars but to prevent them by showing that going to war - except in certain limited circumstances - is wrong. The intention was to motivate states to find other ways of resolving conflicts, prevent war and to limit its effects.

The conditions of a Just War are:

  • it must be fought by a legal recognised authority, eg, a government
  • the cause of the war must be just
  • the war must be fought with the intention to establish good or correct evil
  • there must be a reasonable chance of success
  • the war must be the last resort (after all diplomatic negotiations have been tried and failed)
  • only sufficient force must be used and civilians must not be involved

Some wars can appear to meet all of these conditions. For example, World War Two (1939-1945) would appear to have been a Just War:

  • it was fought by Germany and the Allied countries who were legal authorities
  • Germany was being attacked for invading other countries
  • the intention was to correct the evil Hitler was doing for Nazi Germany
  • the Allies felt that they had a reasonable chance of success and they did win
  • all forms of negotiation with Hitler and the Third Reich had failed
  • most of the fighting was limited to the armies concerned and to harbours and munitions sites

This looks as though it was a ‘properly constituted’ Just War, but actions like the Allied bombing of Dresden, a two-day raid by almost 2,400 bombers that destroyed the city and killed perhaps 135,000 civilians to virtually no military purpose, certainly broke the final condition.

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