Criteria for Justice in Waging a War & the Aftermath of a War

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  • 0:01 Just War
  • 0:50 Combatants in a Just War
  • 2:02 Civilians in a Just War
  • 2:43 Behavior After the War
  • 3:51 Limitations
  • 4:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

Look at any list of quotes from past generals and they all comment on the misery of war. Diplomats have long since fought to make the whole affair less destructive - this lesson shows how they've attempted to do so.

Just War

Say you were a soldier in a war. You agree with the cause of the war, but during a particularly long cease-fire, you realize that the people in the trenches across the way from you are probably not that different than you are in peacetime. They have families, dreams and probably even like sports. Yet, why are you trying to kill them?

The above is a difficult question, and it is a little uncomfortable. Nonetheless, it is one that countries have struggled greatly with, especially in the past 100 years. If we are to believe that war is simply diplomacy by other means, as one great strategist suggested, 'why does it have to include such suffering?' 'How much suffering is too much?' The idea of justly waging a war therefore has been hotly debated. Additionally, the idea of how to be just after winning a war has received significant thought as well.

Combatants in a Just War

When two armies meet in battle, it's not just fighting soldiers who are on the battlefield. Two other types of soldiers are present who are unarmed save for maybe a pistol. The first of these are combat medics. In many engagements, they have bright Red Cross emblems on their uniform to show that they are not a threat and should not be targeted. Likewise, chaplains administering to the religious needs of the wounded and dying are also not targeted. Think of it like a timeout for injuries in a sports match. But who came up with these rules?

A series of treaties, collectively known as the Geneva Conventions, established that these two categories of service people should not be fired upon, nor should the people that they aid. The Geneva Conventions also tried to establish other rules of war, but we'll get to those soon. After all, the goal of war between signatory states was not the destruction of life but the settling of a political disagreement. Aiming at the people helping other people is a quick way to spark hatred, and as the countries of the Geneva Convention had seen, hatred had only led to more wars. Likewise, soldiers who had surrendered should be treated justly, removed from the battlefield and detained until freed or the war had ended.

Civilians in a Just War

Those rules were fine and good for members of the armed forces, but what about civilian populations? Civilians are those people who are not in a military. According to the rules of war, these people too were afforded certain protections. Historical precedent had long kept these noncombatants safe. Not all of this was necessarily out of the goodness of the invading army's heart. After all, as written by the political philosopher Machiavelli, one of the fastest ways to cause a population to hate a foreign power was to cause civilians harm. By granting basic protections to civilians, the point of the war as a political issue could, in theory, be settled with a smaller loss of life and property.

Behavior After the War

Conduct after a war is also important. To see the full impact of this, look at the events of Europe after World War II. Soviet troops were universally feared by the occupied populations of Germany, while American and British troops were welcomed. Ensuring the well-being of a civilian population that had only been an enemy a few years prior, such as resupplying Berlin with the Berlin Airlift by the British and American forces, helped to not only smooth the scars of war but also to build relationships that kept future wars from breaking out.

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