(Un)just war theory

Dear friends,

I’ve just finished watching the film American Sniper (yet another break from work while on the plane). I’d like to take this post to speak a bit about the ethics of war. I’m not sure if that term itself is actually a term that really makes sense, or one that makes sense to me. The term, I think, is very much an oxymoron.

A few weeks of a second-term module, Politics and Ethics, were devoted to discussing the ethics of war, so I had a bit of normative reading on the matter. We talked about topics from just war theory to the ethics of drone warfare. In the first week, I learned about two terms: jus in bello and jus ad bellum. To the best of my understanding, jus in bello is a framework of ethics that functions with the assumption that war is inevitable or that war is already happening. Jus ad bellum is the framework of ethics that functions in order to justify (or refuse) resorting to any type of war that could be avoided.

As US citizens, our lives are always affected by war. I grew up during one of the most potent US war involvements to date, sometimes avidly described as the “war on terrorism.” A few good friends of mine took their passions into the military, and my grandfather served as a marine. I remember sitting at a U-M football game, experiencing a phenomenon that is not uncommon in the United States; a decorated war veteran, who served as a pilot in Vietnam (I think) was brought out onto the field to be celebrated for his service, so to say “Look at all the worthy things this man has done for our country.” The entire stadium was cheering for this man, yet I was sitting there not really knowing what to do with myself. Do I cheer for this man who devoted his life to a cause that I fundamentally disagree with? He seemed to have done the selfless thing, to give up much of his life, to risk his life, in the name of protecting others (or so that’s the story I’m told).

There seem to be some conflicting ethics going on here. I think it’s a highly admirable thing to put yourself at the service of others, to sacrifice a bit of that oh-so-precious autonomy that we Americans love for the sake of making one’s life a little better. Solely within this framework, we can think that this war veteran was taking a severely high moral standing, one that is meant to be praised. The end goal? Protect his family, his loved ones, from the never-ending threat of the “other” making its way onto our precious land.

When we take a tool not even as strong as a toothpick and start to chisel away at this façade of reasoning, that façade falls away pretty easily and reveals to us what our desire to laud the veterans of this nation’s military really means. The simple idea, I think, is that war itself is intrinsically and inherently harmful, despite whatever moral reasoning we come up with to justify war. We simply have created the need for war because we ourselves have claimed undue power over the rest of the word, such that we need to protect such a fabricated power.

A simple truth is that Chris, the sniper, was killed by the very entity to which he devoted his life, and even more importantly he was killed in the very country he was trying to protect. As unfortunate any death is, Chris’ death is indicative of where the true problem lies (not with the ‘other’, or the terrorist, the killer, the murderer, the rapist): in the United States. It’s true, yes, we have people terrorising the world with their killing and exploiting of others, but it is a clear non sequitur to assume that the existence of an enemy creates the need for war. We only name these killers as ‘enemy’ because we wish to exert our dominance against the rest of the world, to bear our teeth in hopes of intimidating the god-forsaken uprisings of a voice that actually speaks for the people.

I think it’s easy to watch American Sniper and think that the movie is a glorification of war, that even though humans are massively affected by the war, emotionally and physically, this detriment is the price we have to pay for democracy and peace. The subtlety in Eastwood’s ending (not actually his, but history’s) can teach us a lesson. Democracy, peace, shelter, mutual connection, love, and justice come from altruism, collaboration, dialogue, and mutual understanding. We cannot instil peace or democracy, we cannot create a safe environment, with the establishment of a war that’s supposed to be the means to any sort of end I’ve listed.

Perhaps I’m taking too simple of an approach to this idea, but I see the use of war for the sake of protection and safety of people, no matter who they are or which country they belong to, resembles the use of fighting fire with fire. To quench conflict we must use the tools that are as consistently (yet subtly) powerful as the forces of water. Water does indeed take the past of least resistance, no?


Ironically enough, I wrote this entire note whilst sitting next to a man who works for the US air force. I wasn’t aware of this at the time, because he slept for most of the flight, but we ended up speaking a bit after filling out some UK landing cards. I’m not sure we reached a level of intimacy to the point that I could ask him about his thoughts on working in the US military, but I was also wondering if he had caught any of my writing while I was doing it. This is the real-life dilemma: Cliff seemed like a really down to earth, grounded, and reasonable person. He was socially aware of certain issues like racial justice and gentrification (just to name a couple), and was really keen on living abroad; he really enjoyed a year’s time in Korea and was looking forward to assimilating to UK culture. I’m not sure what he did exactly in the service, but I’m just wondering how much people who participate in war-centred institutions really confront the larger ethical issues at play. Maybe it’s an issue of turning oneself away from the ethics, of pushing those thoughts aside and doing what one needs in order to survive.

This brings me to some experiences I had in El Salvador. We were at a museum that focused on the civil war, especially on the relationship that young men in the Salvadoran military had with the larger aims  of the military and the subsequent atrocities of their actions. It was mentioned that, when looking into the eyes of a 15-year-old soldier, all one saw was raw fear, yet not hatred nor malice. What does this say of people who work for any country’s military? Is there a large disconnect between the individual moral frameworks used to help one decide to join the army, or does there exist a complete awareness of what one is doing, yet they are still pushed to work for the military due to other forces at play, perhaps like socioeconomic reasons or push factors?

This all needs considering, yet I think that if we get around to discovering what kind of motivations are truly at play here, I think we can make massive steps forward in any attempts to stifle the use of violence for the sake of creating peace.

2 thoughts on “(Un)just war theory

  1. Jeffrey,

    I’ve been meaning to respond to this post for months now. You don’t know me, as I started following this blog four years ago when a student I know was writing it. I just wanted to say how great it was for you to put out a forthright public statement about how you feel about war. These are troubled times we’re living in, when the simple act of kneeling during the National Anthem is being seen as a sign of disrespect to the military, despite the fact that it was a military veteran who suggested that gesture to Kaepernick. So to expose yourself to potentially harsh criticism seemed like a big deal in my book.

    The veneration of the military is certainly a bigger deal in America than it was in the country where I grew up, Jamaica. I suspect even the UK isn’t quite pro-military as America, despite the fact it was its naval power that kept the sun from setting on the British Empire. And sometimes veneration prevents legitimate criticism, such as why have the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan been the longest in this country’s history? Is the continuation of these wars in the national interest, and if so, are we doing enough to win them? There’s a reason Afghanistan is known as the graveyard of empires, as the British and more recently the Russians found out. But we can never get to the answers if we’re not even allowed to ask the questions…

    The other thing I wonder about is why we only say “Thank you for your service” to the military and the police. Shouldn’t we also thank public-school teachers? What about doctors? I feel there are more ways to serve one’s country than be in the military, and I wish we were allowed to acknowledge that in this country…

    Perhaps I’ve gotten off topic here, but my main point was to remark on how refreshing it is encounter someone who is unafraid to voice his opinions on the ethics of war, even when those opinions might differ from those of the American Public. Thank you…

    Sheldon Robertson
    (’89, Computer Engineering)
    p.s. When I lived in East Quad, AKA The Hippy Dorm, one of my more conservative acquaintances wrote on his room door’s memo board “I just turned 18! I’m now old enough to die for my country!” The response from some anonymous passerby was “But are you old enough to live for it?”


    1. Dear Sheldon,

      Thank you for this reply – it means a lot to know that any thoughts I’ve shared have come to make an impact that I may not have expected. It’s hard to judge what ought to be said on this platform or not, as it’s not necessarily my ‘personal’ blog, but one belonging both to the fellowship as well as myself. However, I think a lot of these issues just cannot be left untouched by thought, especially public thought that is published via this blog.

      I find that military service and war are such a hard concepts to discuss without toeing the edge of a cliff with only a few steps into a conversation. It’s difficult because people’s lives have been devoted to the military service, people have committed themselves to something ‘greater than themselves,’ and that act in and of itself seems to be commendable, at least to American standards. (However, juxtapose that to the equally strong ideal of American individualism and you reach a pretty funny paradox.) But I wanted to think further about why we commend those who have participated in military service – is it because they’ve committed themselves to something bigger than themselves (solely) or is this ‘thanking’ of their service done because they were strictly committed to the military and the defence of our nation?

      Perhaps, when we consider other professions (like you mention) that also involve individuals committing to something ‘greater than themselves,’ we don’t really see the same honour given. Really, the only commending I see of doctors or teachers is a meagre discount in a retail store, or perhaps the occasional food basket delivered over the holidays from a well-off family who has been served by either the teacher or the doctor. These acts are not much in comparison to bringing a retired military officer out onto the field during a football halftime event, followed by the roaring of a crowd with the chanting, “USA! USA! USA!” Then again, society tends to thank some professions more in monetary means and bona-fide respect as opposed to the abandonment and neglect that many military personnel receive post-military involvement.

      I’m not really sure we tend to assign value in someone’s actions, they who have committed to something greater than themselves. I find it funny that you use the word “allowed” when wanting to commend these other professions for their commitment. The use of this word, as well as the inconsistency in treating those with seemingly similar motives of commitment, points towards a certain social norm or value that has been unequally placed on military service, so much so that I believe the service is over-praised. Willingness to die for one’s country is equated to being morally commendable, however we fail to question (as you say we must do) the actions and implied morals of the country for which we are dying. If someone has committed themselves to the military, and who has lived to tell the tale, that action in and of itself is surely not to be commended by default. Even if that act were to be commended by default, then we would be utterly failing to commend the millions of other actions that follow the same nature (regarding the professions you’ve mentioned).

      Reading your words really does strengthen my feelings about these thoughts, and I’m happy to know that someone is reading the ideas I’ve presented. I guess it’s just good reason to reiterate that I do not agree with putting so much moral respect on any veteran who has gone to war. The reason we respect a veteran is not because they went to war, but more for other actions that they carried out while in a war (which, I might add, they might have done regardless of the context in which they found themselves). I only see someone reading this reply with Senator McCain’s death in recent memory, but I highlight what I just said – Senator McCain’s moral character was not commended because he went to war. Perhaps he learned valuable lessons from war, but we do not know what lessons would have come from other actions had he not been involved in war, hence we cannot justify a current action with mere happenstance.

      Re: your comments about the UK, I might only add that many over here (especially in my social circles, so I could be a little biased) see war as an absolute *last* resort, if that. I think the world is coming into a new generation of leaders that are not as myopic as those who support ‘peace by violence’ ideals, and I thank you for supporting one’s opinion (of hopefully that of many) in moving the ideal of non-violence along. We might also think about the perspective of non-imperialist or colonialist countries, those who have often found themselves having been repeatedly exploited by nations with more powerful militaries (i.e. much of Central and South America). I would only guess that the ‘ideal’ of war is only seen as an ill to society, regardless of the situation.

      A friend mentioned to me, “What if you’re a country just minding your own business, and another country comes in to dominate you, and death is inevitable unless you start sacrificing the lives of your own through war?” Equally, “What if a genocide is happening within another country? How do you stop the genocide?” At first thought, I’m not sure I have a good answer to these questions. I might think about the difference between what I thought was morally commendable and what I thought was more naturally likely to happen. “I would die passively as testament to the cruelty of the other country, and hope that others notice my passive resistance.” But, more naturally, just as is natural reaction to put up one’s arms when they see something fly into their field of vision towards their face, I would put my arms up and perhaps ‘fight’ to merely protect myself. Or with a genocide, would I try and come in myself to stop the fighting? How would I stop the fighting?

      All of this is to say that we are looking here to justify violence with other means of violence, when I believe that other solutions exist outside the realm of violence and war. Despite being victim, at times, to our own nature, humans have also done some pretty surprisingly cool things regarding thought and technology, so I trust that my stance of “war is never the answer” could be proven true if we work hard enough.

      Regarding your last comment, in the postscript, I might think that many of us Americans do not reflect the maturity to live for our country and what our country currently stands for. Perhaps it’s easy to be quite myopic in this sense when living inside the nation itself, but once we are able to take a step past the surface level of what actions may seem to be (or what the morals behind those actions may be), we may only then be prepared to either still live for our country, or recognise the deep fault and choose to not live for our country.

      So, my apologies in getting a bit sidetracked, but I really appreciated your thoughts and I wanted to give them the most thought and devotion possible. Hopefully this response embodies a good reciprocation and appreciation for your words.

      Much peace,


      Liked by 1 person

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