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.”