Just War Criteria and the War in Iraq

The just-war tradition differs from pacifism in assuming that killing can sometimes be justified, e.g., in defense of the innocent. But just-war criteria also assume that war can be so destructive that the burden of moral proof is on those who would wage war. A basic distinction in the tradition is between jus ad bellum and jus in bello criteria:

1) Jus ad bellum (“justice of war”), the criteria for deciding whether waging a war is justified:

a) Just cause, such as defense against an unjust invader, or humanitarian intervention to stop grave abuses of human rights by a tyrannical regime.
– Does Iraq currently possess weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that the U.N. Security Council has repeatedly said since 1991 that it must reveal and destroy?
– Has Iraq lied about that?
– If Iraq still has WMD, how great or imminent a threat did they pose to its neighbors or to the U.S.?
– If Saddam Hussein was previously unlikely to use them directly against us, was he likely to provide them to international terrorists like Al Qaeda, who would be very likely to use them against us?
– Would the brutality of the Iraqi regime toward its own people justify humanitarian intervention to overthrow it, even if Iraq posed no threat to other countries?

b) Declared and waged by a legitimate authority.
– Did the President obtain clear authorization from Congress to invade Iraq?
– Did he also need to obtain Security Council authorization under the U.N. Charter?
– Did he get that with resolution 1441 (assuming Iraq’s material breach of it), or did he need a subsequent resolution (which was likely to be rejected by France, Russia and China)?

c) Right intention: One’s objectives must be just. Annihilation of an enemy is not a legitimate goal. Demanding unconditional surrender violates the enemy’s basic right not to be coerced into slavery.
– Do we really intend to make Iraq self-governing, or merely an oil-supplying puppet state?
– Is it right to overthrow the current Iraqi regime, not simply to disarm its WMD?

d) Proportionality: The objectives sought must outweigh the destruction likely to result from war. War must be the last resort, after all realistic alternatives have been exhausted.
– Even if Iraq’s WMD were a serious threat to its neighbors or the U.S., were there options short of invasion that would have posed fewer risks to the Iraqi people?
– Were all such options exhausted?
– Were 12 years of U.N. sanctions, ultimatums and containment enough?
– Could the arms inspectors have rooted out any remaining WMD?

2) Jus in bello (“justice in war”), the criteria governing how war should be conducted:

a) Right intention: Soldiers should not regard enemies as subhuman or lacking basic rights.
– Has our military training emphasized that?
– Are our commanders frequently reinforcing that message now?

b) Noncombatant immunity: Civilians may not be directly attacked. Captured soldiers may not be executed or tortured. All noncombatants should be treated humanely and with dignity. Rape is completely forbidden.
– Are we using weapons and tactics solely against Iraqi regime and military targets?
– Are we giving enemy soldiers adequate opportunities to surrender?
– Are we treating POWs properly, even if Iraqi forces are not?

c) Proportionality: Attacks on legitimate military targets should minimize harms to civilians. Tactics and weapons should permit a stable peace after the war, not incite long-term hatred. This criterion also rules out tactics that undervalue the lives of one’s own soldiers, such as “human wave” attacks in WWI trench warfare.
– Are we using weapons and tactics in ways that minimize risks to civilians?
– Are our commanders taking care not to expose our troops to unnecessary dangers?

David Perry

David Perry teaches Ethics and Warfare at Santa Clara University. Additional information about him is online at http://home.earthlink.net/~davidlperry/mycv.htm