World War II and the Limits of “Just War” Thought: Early Reflections

Ted Grimsrud—March 7, 2011

I am thinking about writing a paper offering a theological critique of the “just war theory,” using World War II as a test case. Theological reflection on this conflict has tended to start with the assumption that for the U.S. and its allies, the war was self-evidently a “just war.” Hence, few have examined the war carefully in light of the main just war criteria. The war simply stands as evidence that war is sometimes necessary and capable of serving just ends using just means.

The Christian just war tradition drew heavily on political philosophy from the Roman Empire and found its paradigmatic application during the high Middle Ages in Christian Europe. Its core affirmations emphasized limitations to the prosecution of warfare such as noncombatant immunity and a sense of proportionality where the damage done by the war did not outweigh the good it hoped to accomplish.

The emergence of modern warfare, characterized by the waging of war against entire societies profoundly challenged just war philosophy—precisely in relation to these core principles of noncombatant immunity and proportionality.

Over the course of the 20th century, the challenge of coming to terms with modern warfare pushed just war adherents in two different, even seemingly contradictory directions. One side moves toward what we could call the “blank check” approach, where Christian citizens recognize the appropriateness of their national leaders making the decisions about when and how to wage war—the citizens’ job is simply to obey. This perspective actually has strong roots in Augustine’s thought. The other side moves toward pacifism, the principled rejection of the moral acceptability of all wars and the concomitant expectation that Christians will never be willing to participate in war.

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