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.

For those who assume the inevitability, even necessity, of warfare, struggling to retain some semblance of just war rationality in the face of modern war has required an ever-expanding process of weakening the demands just war criteria. Most obviously, the principle of noncombatant immunity has evolved into a principle of intending to minimize “collateral damage” in the context of recognizing the inevitability of attacking noncombatants.

In practice, the focus on “intentionality” has remained largely without teeth, witness the affirmation of the American use of nuclear weapons in 1945 as still fitting within the just war’s jus in bello.

Because of such a strong willingness to compromise on traditional just war principles, we can see this type of response by just war adherents as bordering on a blank check approach in which moral opposition to violations of just war principles such as noncombatant immunity and proportionality always defer to national interests.

Such post-World War II just war thinkers as Paul Ramsey, James Turner Johnson, and Jean Bethke Elshtain have, in their affirmations of each one of America’s 20th century wars as “just wars” have given evidence of this just war tending toward blank check view.

For those who seek to remain committed to applying traditional just war criteria in a way that could well lead to rejecting particular wars their nation’s might engage in due to violations of those criteria, the evolution of modern war has pushed them more and more into oppositional stances.

During World War II, violations of noncombatant immunity with the Allied bombing of population centers in Germany and Japan evoked scattered condemnatory statements mainly from American Catholic moral theologians. The use of nuclear bombs at the end of the war evoked stronger critical responses—especially concerning violations of the principle of proportionality.

The immense growth in the American nuclear arsenal, the pursuit of undeclared wars in settings such as Korea and Vietnam, and evidence of American involvement in anti-democratic revolutions in places such as Iran, Chile, and Nicaragua, expanded the expression of strong opposition to American military practices, largely couched in just war terms.

A widely-discussed expression of the just war philosophy as a framework for opposing actual war-planning was the pastoral letter produced by the bishops of the Catholic Church in the United States, 1983’s The Challenge of Peace.

While many critics opposed this pastoral letter for being too hostile toward American military practices (cf. the Catholic writer George Weigel), there were some who criticized the letter for not pushing the critique strongly enough.

One of the questions of the just war theory is whether it actually bumps against its limits in trying to respond to modern warfare. Is it possible that those who would seek to apply the just war tradition to the present day are faced with a choice between either a version of the blank check or a version of pacifism?

I will suggest that rigorous application of just war criteria leads to an inevitable conclusion: World War II was an unjust war. If we understand the just war approach to require refusal to participate in unjust wars, then we are led to conclude that American Christians who accepted this requirement should have been conscientious objectors to that war. Probably a few of the 18,000 who served in alternative service or went to prison as COs did so for this reason. Certainly many of the COs during the Vietnam War did so due to their application of just war criteria.

But doesn’t a “just war theory” that leads to rejection of the justness of World War II then in reality a “just war theory” that would lead to rejection of any conceivable war the United States might take part in? That is, is this kind of “just war theory” not actually a version of pacifism, what we could call “evidential pacifism”?

By “evidential pacifism,” I have in mind a pacifism that reaches the conclusion that no war can be morally acceptable based on the evidence of actual wars analyzed using just war criteria. We may distinguish evidential pacifism from “a priori pacifism” which begins with moral principles (or, maybe, theological convictions) that reject the acceptability of warfare a priori, regardless of the evidence.

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