Israel’s current war with Hamas has claimed yet another casualty: As the violence between the Israeli army and Hamas militants has increased, the quality of discourse surrounding the conflict has suffered precipitously.
While the conflict has generated unprecedented media attention both in print and online, commentary ranges from largely the vitriolic to the confused and confusing. Most online observers made up their minds long ago and now simply talk past one another. As of this writing, the hashtags #GazaUnderAttack and #IsraelUnderFire have generated millions of parochial tweets, which tend to lay the blame squarely on the other side, and for whom little sympathy is granted.
Though more sober than their counterparts in the social media, the traditional media has fared little better. Most analysis simply remains too narrowly focused or too muddled to make sense of the troubling and complex events unfolding before us.
Now more than ever, thoughtful observers require a systematic framework with which to think about and discuss the ethics of war, a framework that balances competing rights rather than one that neglects one right for the other. Thankfully, such a framework exists.
The “just war” tradition is a body of political thought that draws on the theory and practice of international law, as well as on thousands of years of religious and philosophical writing. From St. Thomas Aquinas to Princeton’s Michael Walzer, just war theorists contend that a war cannot be considered “just” unless both the reason for going to war and the manner in which the war is fought are themselves just.
We must, therefore, separate the justification from the conduct of war. It is possible to have justice on your side at the beginning but quickly lose it over time, though the inverse is not true. If the motivation for war is illegitimate, good conduct cannot redeem a bad cause. The just war theory explores justification and motivations rather than outcomes and is not conditioned on the conduct of the other side. Justice is something of a moving target, which must be explored from multiple viewpoints and at various times during the life of a conflict.
What, then, are the just reasons — referred to in Latin as jus ad bellum — to go to war? These have varied historically, but the following are generally accepted:
First, war must be the last resort. Other avenues, such as diplomacy and sanctions, must be exhausted before the choice to use deadly force is made.