restoring our biblical and constitutional foundations


The Theory That Backfired

 David Alan Black 

The Just War Theory (JWT) continues to be used by a good number of Americans to justify the president’s war on and occupation of Iraq. The JWT does have some moral value, in my opinion. It was developed to help Christians judge war and to steer the church and society toward peace. But it is also clear to me that in the history of the church the JWT has usually functioned to justify war rather than to judge it. The theory was originally developed to show that some wars might be an exception to the Gospel of peace, but in reality it has become a tool to defend every war that comes along.

As I see it, the problem with the JWT is that it lacks a sufficiently thorough-going Christian ethic. Perhaps that’s why it has never been a formal doctrine of the church—although many use it as though it were. Both the classical JWT as articulated by Augustine and the contemporary “liberation theology” of some Latin American theologians exemplify the Constantinian orientation that fuses church and politics in a questionable if not unbiblical way. Both assume that one side will be just and the other unjust, whereas there is usually (if not always) much that is unjust on both sides during war.

To take an example from World War II, sources have put the number of dead during the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden at 135,000. The town was completely destroyed. This strategy certainly made the allied air war against Germany understandable. In essence, it opened up a second front since it tied up over a million Germans in air defenses. It also tied up tens of thousands of 88 millimeter guns that had to be used for anti-aircraft purposes even though they were the best anti-tank guns the Germans had. One could even argue that the Germans might have been successful in their attack on the Soviet Union had the air war not raged over the skies of Germany.

Yet it is precisely here that the JWT breaks down. The horrors of modern warfare always make the JWT ineffective, for although it condemns weapons of mass destruction it breaks down completely when weapons are specifically designed to destroy nameless civilians indiscriminately. Referring to the air campaigns of World War II, Ralph Raico has noted:

But the great war crime which will be forever linked to Churchill’s name is the terror-bombing of the cities of Germany that in the end cost the lives of around 600,000 civilians and left some 800,000 seriously injured. (Compare this to the roughly 70,000 British lives lost to German air attacks. In fact, there were nearly as many Frenchmen killed by Allied air attacks as there were Englishmen killed by Germans.) The plan was conceived mainly by Churchill’s friend and scientific advisor, Professor Lindemann, and carried out by the head of Bomber Command, Arthur Harris (“Bomber Harris”). Harris stated: “In Bomber Command we have always worked on the assumption that bombing anything in Germany is better than bombing nothing.” Harris and other British airforce leaders boasted that Britain had been the pioneer in the massive use of strategic bombing. J.M. Spaight, former Principal Assistant Secretary of the Air Ministry, noted that while the Germans (and the French) looked on air power as largely an extension of artillery, a support to the armies in the field, the British understood its capacity to destroy the enemy’s home-base. They built their bombers and established Bomber Command accordingly.

Please note that such widespread and massive destruction obviously violates every rule of the JWT. In Iraq, a similar thing can be said. Civilians are being killed there on almost a daily basis and yet there is no hue and cry from evangelicals over this failure of the JWT. According to an report, there have been over 1,500 civilian deaths in Baghdad since the American occupation, while 20,000 civilians were injured during the war. UNICEF recently reported that more than 1,000 children have been injured by unexploded ordnance since the end of the war. This includes now unguarded Iraqi munitions. The report emphasized that “the coalition forces have a clear obligation under humanitarian law to remove these dangers from communities.” Cluster bombs are an especially notorious culprit. Many of the victims are children—from babies to young teenagers—who were killed after the cessation of direct bombing raids often because they attempted to pick up a brightly-colored or otherwise enticing bomblet.

These illustrations could be multiplied tenfold but they suffice to suggest that Christians have historically had a problem in consistently applying the JWT to any specific conflict in which they have been involved. As Christian pacifists have contended for centuries, self-interest prevents most people from being able to determine when a war is just. Even in Iraq, there are enormous problems with concluding that this conflict is just. Among the conditions to be fulfilled before war is justified are several that only questionably apply to the situation in the Iraqi War: (1) the war must be defensive—it must be a response to unjust aggression; (2) success must justify all wartime sacrifices; (3) there must be some proportion between the moral and physical costs of the hostilities and the peace and better social order sought after; and (4) only military targets, not unnamed civilians, can be targets of military strikes.

Most disturbing of all is the fact that the kind of military action the U.S. is using in Iraq is not really stopping terrorism. In fact, it has actually prepared the soil to generate more terrorists. As Pat Buchanan said during the last presidential campaign,

How can all our meddling not fail to spark some horrible retribution …. Have we not suffered enough – from PanAm 103, to the World Trade Center, to the embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam – not to know that interventionism is the incubator of terrorism? Or will it take some cataclysmic atrocity on U.S. soil to awaken our global gamesmen to the going price of empire? America today faces a choice of destinies. We can choose to be a peacemaker of the world, or its policeman who goes about night-sticking troublemakers until we, too, find ourselves in some bloody brawl we cannot handle.

In his classic essay on just war, Murray Rothbard wrote: “My own view of war can be put simply: a just war exists when a people tries to ward off the threat of coercive domination by another people, or to overthrow an already-existing domination. A war is unjust, on the other hand, when a people try to impose domination on another people, or try to retain an already existing coercive rule over them.” Murray concluded that there have been only two wars in American history that were unquestionably just (and where the opposing side waged a war that was clearly unjust)—the American Revolution, and the War for Southern Independence. Rothbard’s position leaves little room for justifying wars. He argues that war is too destructive, and the state too eager for war, to sacrifice a principled opposition to unjust wars and foreign interventions.

Those who truly love freedom love peace. In the end, the JWT does not advance the cause of peace because it does not sufficiently recognize the idolatry of nationalism. The nation-state has become a god in our civilization, and there is a deep-seated propensity to preserve and defend that god at any cost. Paradoxically, one of the things that has contributed most to this idolatry has been the JWT itself.

November 24, 2003

David Alan Black is the editor of He is currently finishing his latest book, Why I Stopped Listening to Rush: Confessions of a Recovering Neocon.

Back to daveblackonline