Just War Theory and Modern Warfare

Emory experts weigh in


The idea of creating conditions that make war "morally just" dates back to the Romans and Greeks, and was further developed by St. Augustine, who, while believing that Christians should be pacifists, made an exception for fighting defensively or in the defense of innocents. In an age of terrorism, counter-insurgencies, predator drones, and PSYOP units, however, do the principles of a just war—one waged defensively, by a proper authority, for a lasting peace—still apply? We asked a cross-section of University experts to share their thoughts.

Just war

Armed intervention, even for humanitarian reasons, is not to be undertaken lightly. It requires a precipitating event of significant magnitude. . . [which] might include egregious human rights violations, crimes against humanity, massive war crimes, or genocide.

Edward Queen, Emory Center for Ethics

The concept of just war remains rooted in ancient ideals. A just war, then and now, should not be self-serving, to gain land, resources, or power, and should be declared only after all non-violent forms of diplomacy have been exhausted. A just war is always a last resort.

Professor Nicholas Fotion, author of War and Ethics: A New Just War Theory

Defining the enemy

It's not always clear who the enemy is. In old warfare, you line up and meet your enemy. But now you don't know whether to trust civilian women, kids, dogs. Insurgents will use anything, anyone, a woman in a burka with bombs strapped to her. It's unpredictable and uncontrollable. Guys say, I was scared 24/7 over there. You have to think what that does to your nervous system, your emotions. It's not the regular rules of engagement.

Psychologist Barbara Rothbaum, post-traumatic stress expert

Hussein had his men go to a town on the way to Baghdad and give machine guns to the men and boys there. By ROE (rules of engagement) they are combatants because they have weapons, so our soldiers had to treat them as such when they engaged us in battle. Were the actions of the American soldiers just? Yes. The evil lies with the criminals who forced fathers and sons to run into battle. But were American soldiers touched by the evil of the situation? Also, yes.

Dan Cantey, Iraq veteran and graduate student, Department of Religion

How do we define an army, if there are no uniforms? Are terrorists considered soldiers, criminals, pirates, enemies of all humanity? Should they be tried in military or criminal courts?

Edward Queen

Armed contractors

There is very little way to control their behavior. If they kill civilians, is it reported? Does anyone do anything about it? Or are they just sent home on the next plane?

Nicholas Fotion

Armed private contractors are one of the most asinine ideas we've had, particularly in fraught situations where the need to build local relationships is key. It's a disturbing trend, at best.

Edward Queen

Instant isolation

It's almost a cliché from World War II, the long boat ride home, but that was very therapeutic. You could process and grieve together. Contrast that with one of our guys from Vietnam who, as his plane was taking off, mortars were following it, he barely escaped, and then less than twenty-four hours later he was home watching what he called 'lies' about the war on TV in his parents' living room.

Barbara Rothbaum
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