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What is an Unjust War?

By Donn Saylor
Updated May 16, 2024
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In the study of the ethics of war, an unjust war is defined as any conflict in which one party attempts to enforce dominance on another party. This may be carried out for any number of reasons, including economic gain, power, ethnic cleansing, or religious differences. The theory of the unjust war is often contrasted with the just war theory laid out by Christian theologians.

The principle behind the unjust war is simple: no war is justified. According to this belief, there is never a reason for warfare or battle, and all conflict can be resolved through mutual diplomacy. War is considered an immoral act that can only be curtailed by the morality of individuals and societies willing to communicate, negotiate, and settle differences without the use of violence, physical conflict, and death.

Governments may endeavor to use a variety of reasons in order to carry out a war. These reasons, either real or fictional, are used to justify any attempts at dominance, be it an occupation, a full-scale attack, or a preemptive war. The law of war, sometimes referred to as the rules of war, may or may not come into play when deciding to go into a physical confrontation; the law of war presents justifiable reasons to start a war, and a leader may not always find his reasoning in these laws.

Since the time of Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero, both individuals and societies have tried to define exactly what constitutes a just war and an unjust war. In medieval times, Christian theologians took up the case in a major way and started some of the first moral investigations into and dialogue about justified and unjustified war. The guiding theory behind just war is that, while morally reprehensible, war is sometimes required to settle disputes.

Proponents of the unjust war theory, however, disagree. They feel that there is never a reason to go to war, and doing so is usually at the desires of leaders who are following their baser instincts. The late writer and academic Howard Zinn noted that many leaders feel war is not only "inevitable, but desirable." They feel, on some level, that war makes a country stronger and lends authority, respectability, and patriotic appeal.

Those who follow the principles of unjust war identify several key areas that illustrate precisely how unjustifiable war is. Issues like civilian and military deaths, the realities of terrorism, military defense budgets, and the insensibility of hasty attacks are among the most cited. Only when the events that precipitated these issues are remedied diplomatically, proponents argue, can war be avoided, and these points illuminate the very high cost of warfare.

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Discussion Comments

By Laotionne — On May 15, 2014

I agree that all war is unjust war, but I imagine there will always be wars. However, I can't say that for certain. After all, the world as a whole has come a long way since the days when war was pretty much seen as a sport and a rite of manhood. Some societies have advanced further than other of course.

By Drentel — On May 15, 2014

Most of us learn the basics of war and conflict at an early age. We know what is just and unjust. The first time I was picked on by a bully at school, I tried negotiation. When he still picked on me I decided I was justified in hitting him back when he pushed me. For me that was a justified action.

War between countries is much broader and loss of human life is devastating, so I'm not making light of war. However, the principles and rules that dictate relationships between countries are the same ones we learned on the playground at school.

That being said, we have about as much chance of eliminating wars (whether they are just or unjust) as we have of eliminating bullies and playground scuffles.

By Feryll — On May 14, 2014

I think the idea of trying to determine whether a war in a just war or an unjust war makes absolutely no sense. What difference does it make? This article mentions two types of people: those who believe war is a necessity and those who think war should never happen. So, whether or not you think a war is justified depends on which type of person you are.

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