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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Just War Revisited

boisi center for religion and american public life

On October 20, 2016, General James Dubik, U.S. Army, ret., Reverend J. Bryan Hehir, and Ambassador James F. Jeffrey discussed applications of just war theory in the modern age. The panel discussion focused on Dubik’s book, Just War Reconsidered (University of Kentucky, 2016), which reassesses just war theory and highlights the ethical accountability of political and military leaders not only in initiating wars, but also in strategizing and executing plans in war.

Dubik laid out three elements of just war: ethical cause for entering war, the principle of proportionality (including protection of the innocent during war), and reflection in the aftermath of war. Dubik argued that the traditional interpretation of just war theory tends to alienate military and political leaders from their moral roles. In this model, leaders are responsible for making an ethically informed choice about whether or not to initiate war, but troops bear the responsibility of fighting war ethically. Dubik rejected this approach, claiming that traditional just war theory does not address the moral consequences of war-waging. He emphasized that war is more than just fighting; it involves strategy and decision-making that affects soldiers, civilians, communities, governments, and political relationships before, during, and after war. Dubik also questioned the tendency of theorists to draw a sharp line between military and political leaders. To make just war possible in practice, the military and political perspectives must exist in dialogue, recognizing the moral agency and responsibility of all individuals involved.

Jeffrey praised Dubik for his work, but warned that Just War Reconsidered is both “wonderful” and yet “dangerous.” Jeffrey, who served in the State Department during George W. Bush’s administration, agreed that it is wrong to thoughtlessly waste the lives of citizens, but did not agree that an extensive process of moral decision-making is necessarily the answer. Instead, Jeffrey argued a staunch commitment to moral decision-making can delay action and thereby risk lives in areas of conflict. These practical consequences are time-sensitive and often not worth the risk. Jeffrey concluded that, while it may be helpful to recognize the moral agency of all parties involved in war, in practice it is sometimes more just to act quickly.

Hehir spoke about the religiously based origins of just war theory, explaining that the secular world has adopted the theory and applied it to international law. In the modern world, just war theory has become “public property.” Hehir drew attention to the modern tendency to settle moral dilemmas in war based on precedent. For example, following what was once “the great question of the bombings in World War II,” cities were established as fair targets in subsequent wars. Hehir argued that, regardless of the changing applications of just war theory, it should be rendered important as an imperative for moral reflection. Without a theory of just war, it is easy to slip into an amoral conception of war and conflict. “In an imperfect world, a structured theory that imposes restraints is absolutely necessary.”

After the panelists spoke, the audience raised questions regarding the legitimacy of a government entity declaring an action “just,” the accountability of the U.S. government to the international community, and the specific issue of drone warfare. A lively discussion demonstrated the relevance of just war theory and its usefulness in engaging moral questions of war and conflict.