Justifications for Waging War

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  • 0:00 Just War?
  • 0:49 Just Cause
  • 2:15 Authorization by a…
  • 3:05 Last Resort
  • 4:00 Proportional Response
  • 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.

People often debate when it is appropriate to go to war. However, no really easy answer exists for all cases. This lesson focuses on some theories that provide limited answers to the question of if it is appropriate to go to war.

Just War?

Think for a minute about war. The battles, the heroics, the patriotism. Now, think about the other side of war. Houses being destroyed. Civilians maimed. A mother's tears as her child is taken off a plane in a coffin draped in a flag. War causes a great deal of tragedy, even if it is often glorified by societies around the world.

Yet with so much suffering, how could war ever truly be justified, much less glorified? In short, that is a question for philosophers, ranging from those who see all war as evil to those who just see, as Clausewitz put it, diplomacy by other means. In this lesson, we'll look at some of the widely agreed-upon examples of situations when war is permissible, the so-called just wars.

Just Cause

For the overwhelming majority of people, there is no reason to go to war without a just cause, a reason for potentially ending the lives of so many people. In the United States, we describe all of our conflicts in the language of a just cause. In fighting the War of Independence, our rights were being trampled by the tyrannical British government. The Civil War was about slavery and states' rights, among other issues. Forays into Korea and Vietnam were to counter communism. The point is that every time the United States has entered a conflict, the government has been sure to have a good reason for doing so. Of course, the justifications for some wars are controversial and not everyone agrees with that interpretation.

In fact, differing perspectives can alter the justness of a cause. Take Germany's actions under the Nazi party. The Nazi party convinced the German people of the justness of their cause by pointing to the measures taken against Germany after WWI in the Versailles treaty. The Nazis argued that the German people needed re-unification and that the Versailles treaty could only be overcome by building a base of power and attacking. In other words, many German people also believed they had a just cause to enter WWII.

Authorization by a Competent Authority

In 1095, Pope Urban II stood in front of a group of warriors and declared that God Wills It! With that statement, more than 200 years of Crusades were fought, with the powers of Western Europe continually attacking Muslim and Eastern Orthodox societies throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. In short, those knights were convinced of the justness of their activities because of the authorization of a competent authority. In the United States, for many people, the word of the government, whether it is the president or Congress, is enough to convince them of the justness of their cause. Whether it is a government or a religious figure in charge, people tend to trust the reigning authority, and if that authority justifies a war, most people will do the same.

Last Resort

In other cases, war is seen as the only way out of a situation. In other words, it is the last resort between two powers that have tried everything else. Following the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in 1990, months of negotiations between Iraq and the United States proved fruitless as diplomats tried to convince the armies of Saddam Hussein, the ruler of Iraq, to leave Kuwait and return the country to independence. In fact, not only would Iraq not consider leaving Kuwait, the Iraqi army stood ready to invade Saudi Arabia.

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