Monthly Archives: August 2021

Challenging the Just War Tradition to Take Its Stated Values Seriously

Ted Grimsrud—October 5, 2011

[This paper was presented at a conference at James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA, commemorating the ten-year anniversary of the 9/11/2001 attacks. The focus of the conference was on the on-going relevance of the just war theory.]

Often discussion about the morality of warfare sets in opposition just war philosophy with pacifism. My intent in this paper is to challenge just war adherents to work within their tradition to overcome the scourge of war. I believe that the just war tradition, if vitalized, could become a powerful resource for overcoming the scourge of war. Though I am a pacifist myself, I believe that it is likely only through a vitalized just war approach that the power of militarism in United States society can be reduced.

“Blank check” or pacifism

In practice, in the West throughout the past couple of thousand years two views concerning participation in warfare have been prominent—pacifism (characteristic of a tiny minority) and what I will call the “blank check.” The “blank check” says it is the citizen’s duty to do what the state asks. If the state says go to war, the citizen’s job is to obey, essentially without question. The just war philosophy has existed in the gray area between these two other views. Just war has mainly been about the ivory tower-type discussions of moral philosophers, usually about particular wars after the fact.

Augustine himself, considered the father of the just war doctrine, actually also taught a version of the blank check. Only the nation’s leaders had the role of determining a particular war’s justness; for the citizen, the task was simply to obey and assume that the leaders will suffer the consequences if they are fighting unjust wars.

Much more recently, conscription and the options that have been allowed for soldiers have reflected this same dynamic—blank check or pacifism. In the United States, people who can demonstrate that they are indeed pacifists (opposed to all war in principle) are allowed the legal recourse of conscientious objection. Everyone else is expected to enter the military if drafted and then obey their leaders, leaving to the leaders’ discernment about the justness of particular wars. The United States has never allowed those who adhere to just war principles to say, “No, I will not take part in this particular war because it is unjust.”

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