Yves here. Below is a useful primer on the evolution of thinking around what constitutes a just war and an outline of what are now considered to be the key parameters. You’ll note that a just war can take place only between states, leaving wars of liberation and revolutions as presumed unjust.
Dr. Sotirovic ends with the thought that a war of attrition wind up being unjust via how it is conducted. I’m not sure that is a given; reader ideas welcomed.
It might help to factor in a discussion of the evolution of war strategy from the Big Serge post, The End of Cabinet War. Dr. Sotirovic voices the view that World War I and II shattered the doctrine of the Just War. But Big Serge suggests that happened before, in the Franco-Prussian War, although only a comparatively few recognized that at the time. From his post:
By all rights, [Field Marshal Helmuth von] Moltke’s masterpiece at Sedan should have ended the war. The French had lost both of their trained field armies and their head of state, and ought to have given in to Prussia’s demand (namely, the annexation of the Alsace-Lorraine region)….
Instead of bringing France to its knees, the Prussians found a rapidly mobilizing nation which was determined to fight to the death. The mobilization prowess of the emergency French government was astonishing: by February, 1871, they had raised and armed more than 900,000 men.
Fortunately for the Prussians, this never became a genuine military emergency. The newly raised French units suffered from poor equipment and poor training (particularly because most of France’s trained officers had been captured in the opening campaign). The new mass French armies had poor combat effectiveness, and Moltke managed to coordinate the capture of Paris alongside a campaign which saw Prussian forces marching all over France to run down and destroy the elements of the new French Army.
Crisis averted, war won. All was cozy in Berlin, it would seem?
Far from it. While many were content to shake hands and congratulate each other on a job well done, others saw something horrifying in the second half of the war, and the French mobilization program. Surprisingly, Moltke himself was among this party.
Moltke viewed the ideal form of war as something which the Germans call a Kabinettskriege. Literally a Cabinet War, this referred to the limited wars which dominated affairs for much of the 16th through 19th centuries. The particular form of these wars was a conflict between the professional militaries of states and their aristocratic leadership – no mass levies, no horrible scorched earth, no nationalism or mass patriotism. For Moltke, his earlier war against Austria was an ideal example of a Cabinet War: the Prussian and Austrian professional armies fought a battle, the Prussians won, and the Austrians agreed to Prussia’s demands. There was no declaration of a blood feud or a guerilla war, but instead a vaguely chivalrous acknowledgment of defeat and limited concessions.
What happened in France, in contrast, was a war which began as a Kabinettskriege and devolved into a Volkskriege – a people’s war, and thus had brought into question the entire concept of the limited Cabinet War altogether. As Moltke put it:
The days are gone by when, for dynastic ends, small armies of professional soldiers went to war to conquer a city, or a province, and then sought winter quarters or made peace. The wars of the present day call whole nations to arms…
Big Serge’s entire post is worth reading, since he also connects the lessons of the Franco-Prussian War to the Ukraine conflict. He also has a longer post on The Moltke Mirage. And remember Big Serge is a very big admirer of Moltke.
Thank Dr. Sotirovic for sending us this informative piece.
By Dr. Vladislav B. Sotirovic, Ex-University Professor; Research Fellow at Centre for Geostrategic Studies, Belgrade, Serbia
As a matter of historical fact, since human beings have been living in settled communities (villages, towns, cities), they have sought to protect themselves against different types of military threats to their lives and livelihood but on other hand as well as to occupy the land of others and to rule over the others. Many archaeological excavations confirm that security was a main consideration in the design and construction of human settlements. There are records of endless numbers of different palisades, moats, walls, turrets, and other defense constructions around the world for the purpose of communal or state security in the case of war against outsiders (for instance, the Hadrian Wall in the UK).
The purposes of war have been different ranging from the purpose of pillage, slave capture, and occupation of certain territories, to access to resources, revenge, abduction of women (for example, the Trojan War), strategic routes, honor or prestige, etc. However, in many historical cases, those settlements and polities that lost wars faced draconian consequences (for instance, the destiny of the city of ancient Punic Carthage in North Africa). Wars ended typically with the extermination of the surviving male citizens, pillage, and the capture of youth and women as slaves. Villages, towns, and cities were destroyed in many cases to the ground.
The Second World War completed the demolition of measures designed to provide security for both the territorial integrity of states and civilians during military operations. The two atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and 9th, 1945 by the US authorities are far better known, but, however, the numbers of killed people were not significantly higher than those who lost their lives from conventional fire bombs (for instance, the 1945 Dresden Massacre). Nevertheless, while some German Nazi and Japanese leaders were captured, tried, convicted, and hanged for war crimes and crimes against humanity, victorious British, American, and Soviet architects of atrocity escaped similar fates. In WWII, there were around 74 million casualties but 60 million of them have been civilians, i.e., non-combat forces.
After 1945, national security became the most prominent value in international relations (IR) sought by governments. Contemporary Great Powers are spending vastly more resources on defense against real or anticipated enemies than they do on education, housing, and other domestic priorities. However, at the same time, they try to justify the military spending and wars fought by them within the concept of a Just War.
One of the most disputed topics with regard to the concept of war is the idea of a Just War – a war held to be founded on the principles of justice in principle caused and conducted in the name of humanity like, for instance, self-defense or protection of minority groups, etc.
That the Just War was a phenomenon is an inherent aspect of politics and foreign affairs is recognized even by Antique authors like classical Greek writers, as represented mostly by Thucydides and his famous History of the Peloponnesian War. In the Antique time, the early Christians have been pacifists and, in fact, practiced abstention from the policy in general. At that time, the authorities of the almighty Roman Empire, once converted to Christianity in the 4th century A.D., in fact, have been forced to reconcile the pacifist philosophy of Jesus Christ with the demands of everyday real politics, war, and power on the ground from Britain to Egypt. A Christian philosopher and theologian St. Augustine (354−430) argued in De Civitate Dei that day-to-day acceptance of political realities was inevitable for all Christians living in the fallen world of the Roman Empire. This topic was further developed by another Christian (Roman Catholic) philosopher and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225−1274), who made a distinction between Just and Unjust War by using two groups of criteria: 1) Jus ad bellum – the justice of the cause; and 2) Jus in bello – the justice of the conduct. By definition, Jus ad bellum is a just resource to war. It has to be based on certain principles that restrict the legitimate use of force. Jus in bello is the just conduct of war. It has to be founded on certain principles that stipulate how war should be fought.
These two elements of Just War theory – just cause and just conduct – continued later up today to dominate the debate over the concept of war. In the 20th century, just cause became narrowed to the issue of self-defense against aggression and helping the victims of aggression. Basically, the theoretical doctrine of just cause is concentrated on discrimination between combatants (soldiers) and non-combatants (civilians) and proportionality between the injustice suffered and the level of retaliation. However, the Total war, as both world wars have been, has strained, in effect, to the breaking point of the doctrine of Just War.
During the time of the Cold War, nuclear deterrence added an additional dimension to the debate for the reason that two opposite groups of thinkers became formed:
- The biggest number of political scientists and military experts on the concept of Just War have condemned nuclear war as Unjust War on several grounds: discrimination, proportionality, and no prospect of a successful outcome.
- However, some Christian thinkers considered the factor of deterrence: the threat to use nuclear weapons is morally acceptable. Some Roman Catholic clergy like the US Bishops have distinguished between 1) the mere possession of nuclear weapons, constituting a so-called existential deterrent (being acceptable); and 2) the real intention to use those weapons (being not acceptable).
In principle, the Just War theory is founded on the general idea that war can be justified and has to be understood and/or judged within the framework of fixed ethical criteria. In other words, a Just War is a war in which both final purpose and conduct meet certain ethical standards, and, therefore, can be (allegedly) treated as morally justified. Concerning such a definition of Just War, it is, basically, fluctuating between two theoretical extremes:
1) Realism, which is understanding war through the prism of realpolitik – the pursuit of power or self-interest.
2) Pacifism, which denies the existence of any war and violence which can be morally justified.
The Just War theory is, in fact, much more a topic of ethical and/or philosophical reflection and studies, rather than fixed political doctrine. Historically, the philosophical origins of the Just War theory go back to the Roman philosopher Cicero. However, it was first systematically developed by philosophers and theologians St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Francisco de Vitoria (1492−1546), and Hugo Grotius (1583−1645).
In the Just War theory, concerning the idea of Jus ad bellum, there are six basic principles to be respected regarding just resources for war:
- Last resort. It means that all sides have to try and exhaust all non-violent options (like diplomacy) before one of them decides to go to war in order that the use of force is going to be justified. This principle is, basically, the principle of necessity.
- Just cause. According to this principle, the purpose of war has to be to redress a wrong that has been suffered. Therefore, this principle is usually associated with the principle of self-defense as a response to a military attack (aggression). It is historically understood as the classic justification for war.
- Legitimate authority. This principle is understood that lawful war can be conducted only by the legally constituted government (state’s authority) of a sovereign state, rather than a private individual or group (like a political movement). It means that the war in principle can be conducted only between sovereign states while all other „wars“ are going, in fact, to the category of military conflicts.
- Right intention. It requires that any war has to be conducted on the foundations of aims that are morally acceptable rather than revenge or the desire to inflict harm. Nevertheless, those morally acceptable aims of the war may or may not be the same as the just cause.
- Reasonable prospect of success. Accordingly, war has not to be conducted if the cause is, basically, hopeless, in which life is expended for no purpose or real benefit (for instance, the Phyric victory).
- Proportionality. This last principle of Jus ad bellum requires that warfare should result in more good than evil. In other words, any response to aggression should be measured and proportionate. For example, a wholesale invasion is not a justifiable response to a border incursion. From that viewpoint, for instance, the 2001 Afghanistan War was an unjustifiable response to the 9/11 attack. Nevertheless, the principle of proportionality is understood by many experts as macro-proportionality for the sake of distinguishing it from the Jus in bello
In the case of warfare, however, there are three principles to be respected concerning Jus in bello or just conduct in war:
- Discrimination. Accordingly, the force has to be directed only at military targets, on the very grounds that civilians (non-combatants) are innocent. The injury or death inflicted on the civilian population is, however, and therefore, acceptable only if they are the accidental and unavoidable victims of deliberate attacks on legitimate targets. This phenomenon in war is usually nowadays called collateral damage – unintended or incidental injury or damage caused during a military operation. In practice, nevertheless, the term is used as a cynical euphemism in order to justify war crimes (for instance, ethnic cleansing can be a euphemism for genocide).
- This principle in overlapping with Jus ad bellum holds that the force used must not be greater than that needed to achieve acceptable military aims, and must not be greater than the provoking cause.
- Humanity. It requires that any force or torture must not be directed ever against captured enemy personnel (prisoners of war), wounded, or being under control. This principle is a part of formalizing the so-called Laws of War. One of the pioneers of international law who drew up conditions for a Just War that remained influential until today was Francis Suarez (1548−1617), a Jesuit theologian and philosopher of law, and in particular international law, called the last of the great scholastics.
The opposite concept to the principles of Just War is the concept of hegemony. Hegemony is an opaque power relation relying more on leadership through consensus than coercion through force or its treat so domination is by the permeation of ideas. For instance, concepts of hegemony have been used to explain how, when the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class, other classes will willingly accept their inferior position as rights and power. Nevertheless, hegemonic is the adjective attached to the institution that possesses hegemony. It means that wars launched by such institutions (in fact, state authority) can be only hegemonic but not “just“.
Concerning IR, hegemon is a term used when the concept of hegemony is applied to the competition between nation-states: a hegemon is a hegemonic state. For example, during Cold War 1.0 (1949−1989), there were two competing hegemonic powers in international relations – the USA and the USSR. It was a period conventionally defined as running from the creation of NATO to the fall of the Berlin Wall, during which the globe was structured around a binary political geography that opposed US imperialism (a superior-inferior relationship in which one state controls the people and territory of another area) to Soviet communism. Although never reached an all-out military confrontation, this period did witness intense military, economic, political, and ideological rivalry between the superpowers and their allies. That was the time of limited war – a conflict fought for limited goals by limited means. In other words, a war fought for less than total destruction of the enemy and less than unconditional surrender. Even though the two superpowers possessed nuclear weapons, they did not use them in conflicts, and conflicts were kept isolated to specific locations (local wars).
However, the USA is understood after the Cold War 1.0 as the hyperpower hegemon in international relations and world politics (the competition for, and exercise of, power and authority in the international system) and, therefore, all wars fought by Washington after 1989 are considered to be “unjust“ or hegemonic wars (wars fought for the hegemonic position in International Relations by only hyperpower).
It can be anticipated that a war of attrition is as well as a kind of “unjust“ war regarding its technical nature. To remind ourselves, a war of attrition is a strategy that aims to defeat the opposition by wearing it out. Attrition can be costly in terms of men and materials. WWI is a classic example of a war of attrition but today the competition between NATO and Russia over Ukraine is, in fact, a war of attrition too.
© Vladislav B. Sotirovic 2024
Personal disclaimer: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution