Just War Theory

The Just war theory is incredibly interesting.  Its origins date from ancient history and has helped us view warfare in the 21st century.  It was by this theory that George Bell criticised and attacked Bomber Command in WW2.  I will be using Bell as an example when explaining the theory.  Mainly because I have studied this more and it will be easier for me to explain!  Yes I know, very lazy of me, but come on, it’s still a great example!  I will attempt to briefly explain what it is and what it means as well as explain the other theories around it.  Hopefully by reading this, you will get an understanding on how some people see warfare, or at least how they validate it.  So sit back, wrap up warm, just as I am right this minute, and enjoy!

The Theory that is used today comes from Augustine (C4) followed by Aquinas (C13), who were Christians.  The problem was that the New Testament taught a way of peace and love, not war and violence.  In fact before Augustine wrote down the theory (which he unlikely made himself) all fighting was seen as wrong, and soldiers were not baptised until they retired.  Therefore the Just war theory allowed war to be allowed in certain conditions.  There were

  • The Authority is Just
  • The Cause is Just
  • The Intention is Just

Now to George Bell, Bomber Command met all these conditions, however since the advent of gunpowder, a new condition had to be met, and this was.

  • The means are just: this indicates that the war must not involve civilian populations, and it must be proportionate, and only what is necessary to meet the cause.

Three more conditions were added afterwards throughout the centuries, these included

  • war is just only if it is the last resort after all else has failed
  • if the good to be achieved outweighs the evil done
  • if there is a reasonable hope that justice will be achieved by the war

Bomber Command according to Bell failed to meet the acquirement that the means were just, that as it involved civilian populations, that the strategy of area bombing was not just.

There are also variants of Just War theory, Just War with teeth and Just War without teeth.  In Without Teeth, categories are used to a point, for justification, but they are abandoned due to necessity.  With Teeth, is the classic view which I have explained above.  The classical approach is one which most theologians hold to, but it is hard to see it put to practice.  George Bell did, and so have bishops after him, perhaps it took one to stand up for others to follow.

Just War theory is the most commonly known and is once that many Christian preachers such as Bell use.  There are however, many more types of theories, and justifications, these include

  • Holy War,-although contested, and sometimes mixed with the Just War theory, The holy war concept according to Yoder ignores the JW restraining criteria of probable success and last resort, and indeed may downgrade the rights of the “infidel” enemy. And that it can be found in Marxist and Fascist ideology that one may call for a war of martyrdom that disregards the criterion of probable success, and overrules the human dignity of the adversary
  • Realism: explicitly denies that other parties’ rights can be fully respected. That the nation comes first before all things.
  • Rambo: Is accepting of violence, and is based on honour or manhood. Yoder explains that the focus of this honour position can be going against the odds and going down in flames as a hero or is can be the function that bloodshed can have in the liberation of former slaves. Yoder however states that. Value is located in the dignity of the heroic self; violence validates itself, and there is little care for moral standing.

These explanations are used by historians and/or theologians to try to justify warfare.  There is of course the pacifist’s approach, one in which links more with the Just War theory than any of the others.  However, Just War is the most popular theory, and is one that is commonly used and accepted.  Im sorry that this isn’t a particular long or thrilling blog post, I would be surprised if you have lasted till now, if you have then well done!  It’s an interesting theory that has played a big part in European and even World history.  Of course the question can be asked, Is any war Just?  Now that can start a whole new debate!


Yoder. J., How Many Ways Are There to Think Morally about War?, Journal of Law and Religion, Vol. 11, No. 1 (1994 – 1995), pp. 83-107

Moriarty. R., George Bell: a Bishop to remember, (Chichester Cathedral, 2008)



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