What Makes a Just War Just?

The Church’s Just War Doctrine describes four conditions for a legitimate defense by military force.

A landing craft from the U.S. Coast Guard-manned USS Samuel Chase disembarks troops of Company E, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division (the Big Red One) wading onto Omaha Beach on the morning of June 6, 1944. During the initial landing two-thirds of Company E became casualties.
A landing craft from the U.S. Coast Guard-manned USS Samuel Chase disembarks troops of Company E, 16th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division (the Big Red One) wading onto Omaha Beach on the morning of June 6, 1944. During the initial landing two-thirds of Company E became casualties. (photo: Chief Photographer's Mate [CPHoM] Robert F. Sargent)

In Roger Vadim’s 1968 French-Italian science fiction film Barbarella, while Dr. Duran Duran, the film’s over-the-top archvillain, tortured the film’s title character, he admitted in a moment of amoral clarity, “I would hate it if anyone treated me the way I treated him.”

There’s nothing virtuous or holy about passively stepping back and watching a selfish and wicked perpetrator take advantage of people who can’t otherwise help themselves. A civilized society can’t be maintained if we resolutely refuse to punish unjust attackers. Refusing to punish them will only embolden them to continue their attacks.

Punishing the unjust attacker teaches him that his behavior has consequences and that the world isn’t judged by his standards and that others people’s lives, property and safety are by far more important than the unjust attacker’s self-ascribed “rights."

Another obvious problem with pacifism is that if the pacifist excuses the unjust attacker’s violence, then why not excuse any subsequent violence perpetrated by those who have been attacked? If the defender’s attack is just as indefensible as the attacker’s, then it should be treated similarly ― in other words, it’s a free-for-all. It’s silly to condemn the demands of those who have been unfairly attacked while defending the “feelings" of the unjust attacker.

Further, if a society which hopes to protect the rights, lives and property of its citizens can’t be maintained, then that means the unjust attackers will always win and we don’t want them to win. If God wanted unjust people to win, he would ask us all to hate and attack each other for any and no provocation. It follows that for us to maintain a just society, any and all attacks upon it and its citizens must be punished appropriately. However, if pacifists are correct in their assessments that the unjust attacker is somehow sacrosanct, then what is the impetus for us to help anyone who needs our assistance? Why not let the homeless die unwanted and unattended to? Why not let people die of starvation if others aren’t offering them food? It’s essentially the same pacifist argument for not stopping an unjust attacker. This is just as ridiculous ― and morally reprehensible ― as saying that the hungry have the “right" to live undernourished lives or the naked to live unencumbered by clothing.

Why indeed should we even bother with any of the corporal or spiritual works of mercy if the intentional inflicting of suffering were somehow acceptable or, at least, not admonishable? Why instruct the ignorant? Don’t they have the right to wallow in their ignorance? Who are we to admonish sinners let alone forgive them? The argument can be made that we have no right to judge anyone’s behavior as sinful. However, if this is true, then the pacifist must then admit that he has no right to judge us who hope to defend those attacked by the unjust attacker.

This silliness may very well be a symptom of the new political correctness which Pope Benedict XVI called the “pathology of reason."

It’s illogical to insist one is shielded from the very rules one applies to others. If one goes about punching people in the nose, one can’t then be offended or even surprised when someone else claims the same right and offers the attacker a bit of his medicine.

This brings us to our main point ― what makes a just war just?

The Catholic Church’s Just War Doctrine describes four conditions for a legitimate defense by military force (CCC 2309):

  • the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation, or community of nations, must be lasting, grave and certain;
  • all other means of putting an end to the violence must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  • there must be serious prospects of success;
  • the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated (the power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition).

The right to engage in war lies solely with the sovereign authority of the State. This right is a result of its need to protect all other rights it offers and affords its citizens. If not, the pacifist must then argue that no one has any rights whatsoever and they can easily be impinged upon by any unjust aggressor who happens along. But, if such is the case, then the pacifist automatically loses all of his rights if an unjust attacker were to insist upon it.

After all, what’s sauce for the goose tastes just as delicious when served with the gander. The pacifist can’t have it both ways. It’s not a cosmic crapshoot. We are all imbued by our Creator with certain inalienable rights and responsibilities, regardless of our bullies’ whims, and the violation of those rights warrants a just and proportionate defense.

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