Just War and the Situation in Ukraine

Just War and the situation in Ukraine.


At this writing there are protests, verging on riots, taking place in Ukraine. The ostensible issue is that the President, Mr. Yanukovich, is seeking closer ties with Russia, while at least some of the people want closer ties with the European Union, and in particular, do not want closer ties with Russia. Protesters have seized government buildings in various parts of Ukraine, and are openly defying government forces in Kiev, the capital.

There have been suggestions that these protests might lead to civil war in Ukraine. This issue provides an opportunity, then, to see under what conditions would a revolution or civil war be justified. Even though the Just War Doctrine was originally developed for the case of war between nations, the same logic can be applied to domestic issues.

For revolution or civil war to be justified, then, the following conditions must be met:

  1. There is certain, grave, and prolonged violation of fundamental rights;
  2. All other means of redress have been exhausted;
  3. Such resistance will not provoke worse disorders;
  4. There is well-founded hope of success;
  5. It is impossible reasonably to foresee any better solution.

These are essentially translations of the Just War criteria to domestic situations. However, one criterion, present in the between-nations situation, is missing here. That is, the requirement that war be declared by competent authority. There can be no “competent authority” to call for a revolt. Only the people themselves, who retain the right to self-government, can have that authority. This doesn’t mean that a leader cannot arise who inspires the people to revolt, but it means that unless such a leader gains the following of the people, he becomes a criminal rather than a leader.

To borrow from Will Rogers, all I know (about the situation in Ukraine) is what I read in the papers. I do not know whether the protests there will escalate to revolution or civil war, nor at this point whether such escalation would be justified. However, these points should be kept in mind as the situation develops.

It would be particularly important to watch item 3 above. A revolution on the borders of Russia might be seized upon as justification for an invasion by Russian forces, ostensibly to “restore order,” but in actuality to make Ukraine again a province of “Greater Russia.” This might actually please Yanukovich, who is a Russophile, but would be a disaster for the people of Ukraine.

Back when an attack on Syria was a live  issue, I prepared a Just War analysis and distributed it to a few friends. By now it’s ancient history, but it may still be of interest to people. I’m posting it here for whatever interest it may now  have.

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A Just War analysis of a proposed attack on Syria.


There are eight specific criteria for judging the justice of a war, and the justice of actions within a war. Six of these deal with the justice of going to war (“waging a just war); the other two deal with the justice of actions within a war (“waging war justly”).

The first criterion is “just cause.” There are three classic just causes: to repel an attack, to retake what was taken unjustly, and to come to the aid of the victim of an unjust attack. Clearly the first two do not apply. We weren’t attacked, and we have nothing in Syria to take back. What about the third? Use of poison gas is an unjust attack, under international treaties going back to the 1920s. But who used that gas? Was it Assad? Was it the rebels? We need to know who committed the unjust attack before deciding it was a just cause for war.

The second criterion is “comparative justice.” This doesn’t mean that one side must be perfect, or the other side completely evil. It means only that one side must be more just than the other, and the degree of comparative justice limits the amount of force that may be used. If we intervene, we place ourselves “in the shoes” of the side we support. Which side in the Syrian civil war is more just? Assad? Al Qaeda? And whichever it is, by how much? Which side should we support?

The third criterion is “victory.” There are no guarantees in war, but there must be a reasonable chance of victory before engaging in war. Well, what is “victory” in this case? How will we define it? How will we know when it’s achieved? Until “victory” is defined satisfactorily, and we have a reasonable chance of obtaining it, we shouldn’t get involved. “Limited” strikes on “selected” objectives don’t define “victory.” We need to define what objective is to be achieved, not simply what targets are to be hit, and with what weapons.

The fourth criterion is “right intention.” As St. Augustine put it, just wars are not engaged in for greed or cruelty, but to obtain a just peace, to restrain evil, and to assist the good. What are our intentions with regard to the Syrian civil war? Would deposing Assad constitute a “just peace,” or would it be simply revenge on the part of the rebels? Without defining our intentions, the justice of this proposed intervention cannot be determined.

The fifth criterion is “last resort.” Every REASONABLE alternative must have been tried first, before resorting to war. Have the “less than war” alternatives have been exhausted? Have they even been tried? Jumping to war without trying less-lethal alternatives first would be unjust.

The sixth criterion is “competent authority.” The person making the decision to go to war must have the authority to do so. Under the U.S. Constitution, Congress is the “competent authority” to declare war. The President does not have the authority to commit the country to a war. Even under the War Powers Act, the President must consult with Congress within sixty days after initiating hostile actions, and then only when the situation will not allow of a delay (i.e. repelling an attack). Just who is making this decision to go to war? And does that person or entity have the Constitutional authority to do so?

The seventh criterion is “discrimination.” Within a war, legitimate attacks must be against enemy military targets only. Intentionally attacking noncombatants violates “discrimination.” Just who or what are we proposing to attack in Syria? Would those targets satisfy “discrimination?” Until that is answered, we shouldn’t be supporting an intervention.

The eighth criterion is “proportion.” It applies in two ways.

First, it applies to the decision to go to war. Will the harm done by NOT GOING to war exceed the harm done by GOING to war? An aggressive tyranny can do a great deal of harm. Even a very costly war (in both treasure and lives) may be better than allowing the tyranny to continue its operations. Would our intervening in Syria be “proportionate?” How would the damage we do compare with the damage that would occur if we didn’t intervene? This includes not only physical damage and deaths, but the moral damage from allowing tyranny to continue its operations.

Second, proportion applies to actions within a war. Despite attempts to be discriminating in attacking military targets only, there is often some “collateral damage” to noncombatants. If the attack was genuinely discriminating, this collateral damage was unintended. The requirement of proportion means that the good accomplished by the attack on a legitimate target must not be outweighed by the collateral damage done to noncombatants or nonmilitary facilities. Just what targets are we proposing to attack? What good will be accomplished by striking them? How much collateral damage to noncombatants and nonmilitary facilities will occur? We need to resolve this before selecting targets and weapons.

Finally, I keep hearing that a “limited” and “selective” strike is intended to “send a message” to Assad. I served in-theater during the Vietnam War. I recall how Defense Secretary McNamara and President Johnson tried to “send a message” to the North Vietnamese with “limited” attacks and “bombing pauses.” It didn’t work. It merely proved that we weren’t serious. If we want to send a message, use Western Union. If we’re going to blow things up and kill people, it ought to be for some better reason than “sending a message.”


My grandson asked me to help him with information for a debate about Abraham Lincoln and the justice of the American Civil War. Here is what I put together for him. To my surprise, Lincoln came out looking better than I had expected.

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Lincoln and Just War

The Just War Doctrine is divided into two parts: jus ad bellam, or the justice of going to war, and jus in bello, or just conduct within war. Lincoln would be concerned primarily with jus ad bellam, since as Commander in Chief he would be involved in the decision to go to war. He would be involved only indirectly in jus in bello, since he was not actually doing the fighting. It would be his responsibility to issue orders about how the fighting was to be conducted, and to see that those orders would be obeyed. In fact he did commission a study on justifiable conduct in war, and made it an official Army regulation. However, the man whom he commissioned to do this tried to invent it all himself, with no recognition of any of the previous Just War thinking, and moreover it does not appear that Lincoln made any attempt to have those who disobeyed it punished.

Let’s look at the jus ad bellam, which Lincoln would have been directly concerned with.

Just Cause

The first part of jus ad bellam is just cause. Is there a just cause for going to war? Under Just War Doctrine, there are three just causes: repel an attack; retake what was unjustly taken; and aid the victim of an unjust attack.

“Secession” started with the Confederate states seizing Federal forts, shipyards, and custom-houses. However, Lincoln did not respond to these seizures until after the armed attack on Fort Sumter. That attack clearly satisfied the first of the possible just causes. Retaking the forts etc. would satisfy the second just cause. It’s questionable whether gave much thought to freeing the slaves. His main concern was to preserve the Union. Hence I would argue that only the first two just  causes were satisfied. However, only one is needed; Lincoln had two.

Comparative Justice

The relative justice of the two sides is considered here. It is not necessary that one side be completely evil and the other to be completely angelic for the latter side to enter into a war. Being more just is sufficient. However, the degree of comparative justice puts a limit on how much force the more just side can use against the less just side. One of the primary reasons for Secession was to preserve the South’s “peculiar institution” of slavery. Here I think the North satisfied Comparative Justice , but once the war started, may have exceeded the justifiable limits of force.


It would be immoral to spill blood in vain. There must be a reasonable chance of victory before a leader can decide to go to war. Did the Union have a reasonable prospect of victory in 1860? As the war turned out, it was the industrial might of the North that in the long run prevailed, but it’s not clear that anyone at the time took this into account. People didn’t think in those terms back then. Another consideration was whether the Confederacy could obtain support from other nations, particularly England and France. Much of Lincoln’s diplomacy during the war was aimed at preventing such outside support going to the Confederacy. There was no certainty at the outset that this diplomacy would be successful. Probablility of victory? Yes, but looking back, I’d put it at not much better than 50-50 as seen by Lincoln.

Right Intention

This requirement states that the party intending to go to war must intend only to achieve a just peace. That is, the war may not be undertaken in pursuit of loot, slaves, territorial expansion, or some similar objective. In particular, Right Intention means that the belligerent must not take actions that will lead to lasting bitterness on the part of the defeated, nor actions that would prolong the war by being more harsh than necessary to achieve the Just Cause.

Lincoln stated that his objective was to restore the Union. However, the actions of Union troops in the South did in fact lead to lasting bitterness. My father was stationed in Virginia during WW II. One day, when he was home on leave, he said, “They’re still fighting the Civil War down there.” This was eighty years after Appomattox. Even today there are those in the South who will not use the term “Civil War,” but instead refer to the “War for Southern Independence,” or “The War of Northern Aggression.” Whether this level of bitterness could have been foreseen in 1860 can’t be known now. There is no doubt, however, that the war went well beyond “Right Intention,” despite Lincoln’s words about “binding up the wounds.” I think the war clearly failed on this criterion.

Last Resort

This criterion means that all reasonable means short of war must have been exhausted. Only if there is no alternative but to go to war in order to achieve the just cause can war be initiated. It’s worth noting that Brazil imported more African slaves than did North America, and the conditions of the slaves there were even harsher than those in the American South. Yet Brazil abolished slavery in 1888 without a war. This wasn’t without opposition, and the abolition ended the rule of the Portuguese Emperor in Brazil, as landowners who objected to the abolition of slavery overthrew the Emperor. However, the abolition of slavery was accomplished without a war, and without the lasting bitterness that the Civil War brought to the Union. Slaves might have been purchased and freed by the Federal Government. The growth of “free states” blocking the expansion of slavery might have put it on the road to extinction, especially as those states industrialized and became more prosperous than the slave states. Industrialization and slavery don’t go together very well. I think the war failed on this criterion as well.

Competent Authority

A just war must be declared by an authority competent to do so. Under the American Constitution, only Congress can declare war. Here I’ll have to draw a blank. I don’t know if Congress ever authorized military force to end Secession. Clearly Congress did appropriate funds with which to fight the war, so one might conclude that the decision to go to war was made by competent authority. Lincoln did not have that authority himself. He needed the authorization of Congress, whether explicit or implicit.


These are the criteria by which Lincoln’s activities must be judged. Overall I think Lincoln clearly failed on some of them, but satisfied others. However, he must satisfy all, or going to war is unjustified.