When is war the right choice?
When is war the right choice?

With scenes from the wars in Ukraine and Gaza filling our screens day after day, we don't need reminding that war is a terrible thing. But as well as stirring emotions of horror and compassion in us, the news from these places should also make us think, hard, about the ethics of war. Is it ever - can it ever - be right to go to war? What makes some wars justifiable and others not?

Some people are pacifists; that is, they believe war is wrong in all circumstances. However, pacifism is a hard doctrine to defend. War brings many evils, but it may be the only way of preventing a greater evil. Sometimes, war may be the right choice.

How do we decide when war is the right choice? Step forward just war theory. Just war theory sets out the generally accepted criteria for a 'just war', which are used as the basis of international law. For a war to be 'just', that is, ethically acceptable, all of the criteria below must be met. Think about them, understand them, and apply them to the wars you have studied in history, and to the wars going on around the world right now.

1. The war is the last resort

Problems: Who decides when it becomes the last resort? The other side may not be ready to talk now, but they might be in the future, when circumstances change. Even if there is no other solution to the problem that the war intends to resolve, might not living with the problem be a lesser evil than war?

2. The war is initiated by a legitimate authority

Problems: Who decides which authority is legitimate? What if the legitimate authority cannot be, or should not be, trusted? What happens when someone like Donald Trump is in charge of an army? What if the legitimate authority is clearly on the side of evil? Under the apartheid system in South Africa (1948 - 1991) the 'legitimate' authority was an openly racist government that systematically discriminated against the majority black population; the African National Congress, which fought against the apartheid system, was 'illegitimate'. Whose side would you have been on, the 'terrorists' fighting against apartheid, or the 'legitimate' racist government?

3. The war is fought in a just cause

Problems: Who decides what is a just cause? Look into history and you will see that in almost every war both sides have believed that justice (or God, or democracy, or human rights) is on their side, even though they can't both have been right. What if there is some justice on both sides? It is very rare in a conflict or disagreement that one side is 100% right and the other side 100% wrong. When does a war become justified? When the balance between just / unjust is at 51 / 49? 60 / 40? 75 / 25? Who decides?

4. There is a reasonable chance of success

Problems: How can you tell? No one can see into the future. No one ever went into a war expecting to lose it, but one side usually loses. How confident of success do you have to be to start a war? 50%? 75%? 90%? Might it actually be better not to take the risk, given the terrible consequences of war? To look at it another way, might there actually be some times when it is right to carry on fighting even when there is no chance of success? Wouldn't it have been better if Jews being rounded up to be sent to Auschwitz had fought back, even though they were hopelessly outnumbered?

5. The end result intended by the war is a good one

Problems: Who decides what is a good result? Even if it is a good result, will it justify the evil unleashed by the war? You may have good intentions, but war is such a messy and unpredictable business, it is highly likely that you will not fulfil them all. You may have to make compromises along the way which cancel out the goodness of the intention. Britain and the US fought the Second World War with the good intention of ridding Europe from Nazi dictatorship, but to do so they had to ally themselves with the Soviet Union, which ended up occupying half of Europe and imposing Communist dictatorships that were little better than the Nazi dictatorships they replaced.

6. The use of force is proportionate

Problems: Who decides what is proportionate? In the heat of battle and under the threat of death and destruction, how do you stop soldiers from overreacting? Can the taking of life really be reduced to this kind of cold analysis, as if you were making investment decisions for a business?

7. Non-combatants are protected

Problems: Is this always possible? What if an airstrip from which bombers are taking off to attack your country is in the middle of a city, and you cannot attack it without killing non-combatants? What if enemy fighters deliberately hide in civilian areas, or even schools or hospitals? Can you attack those places? Is it all right to bomb an armaments factory, even if the people working in it are not soldiers? Do they count as combatants because they are assisting the war? Are all citizens of a country you are at war with combatants if they do not resist their government?

Motions that go with this topic

1. This house would not allow British troops to be deployed outside British territory.

2. This house would forbid any military operations in which non-combatants might be killed.

3. This house would introduce a year's compulsory military service for all 18 year old men in the UK.

4. This house believes war is inevitable.

5. This house believes war is always wrong.

6. This house would be pacifist.

7. This house believes there is no such thing as a 'just war'.