On War and Justification

By Jonathan Martin


This essay serves as both a review of contemporary justification for war, as well as an analysis of said theories and their application in today’s society. When reviewing theories of war examples of recent armed conflict involving the United States Military are utilized to illustrate the times when wars were and weren’t considered to be justified. After identifying the theories of war and their implications the essay transitions to the analysis portion. This section deals with relativity of theories of war and their implications into present day perspectives on war. Specifically, the analysis is aimed at explaining which theories of war are most accurate and/or most helpful for the stability of society. Ultimately, this essay addresses the differences between two kinds of justifications and their respective implications.

In common language, the verb to justify is primarily used as a way of describing whether a particular action is good or bad. To justify something is to argue for a verdict; to provide evidence and/or information for a claim of a specific happenstance. Justification can be found throughout society as a means of explaining why people do what they do, particularly regarding a specific set of moral ethics. Among such elements of society is the act of war; a devastating affair which brings forth chaos and ruin. Depending on a person’s perspective war may or may not exist as a justifiable action. Thus, a division is at hand; the topic of War and Justification and their relation to the United States of America. This essay will review specific examples of war and their respective justifications, focusing primarily on two ideologies regarding those justifications. Additionally, both ideologies will be compared and contrasted using the examples provided. The goal of this analysis is to identify the validity of the justification of war, as well as its relevance to today’s society.

Before delving into the different theories of justification and war, it may be helpful to review a couple of instances where the United States was engaged in wartime operations. The first example will cover the factors surrounding the U.S involvement in the Vietnam war, the second focusing on Operation Enduring Freedom, while the last example will examine Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. The purpose will be to provide a descriptive background in order to relate different theories of justification.

The Vietnam War marks a controversial period of time in America’s civil and military history. Brought into the war under direction of the Truman Doctrine, the United States would go on to institute the use of the draft, anti-war protests would occur throughout the country, millions of civilians and service members would be killed, and the end result would be a communist regime in Vietnam. The Vietnam war, while embarked upon with the intention of preserving the free world, was eventually viewed as a colloquial disaster.

Moving forward to Operation Enduring Freedom, the circumstances regarding the United States involvement in this conflict are in direct contrast with that of the Vietnam war. In this case the United States was, as The New York Times put it, responding to a “Day of Terror” (Bumiller and Sangler, 2001). In the same column, then-President Bush is quoted Stating: “Make no mistake, the United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts” (Bumiller and Sangler, 2001). As opposed to the Vietnam War, Operation Enduring Freedom began with a clear and defined objective outlined by the Commander-in-Chief from day 1; to defeat those who terrorize the United States. Operation Enduring Freedom came to a close in December of 2014 following the defeat of the Taliban regime and deposition of al-Qaeda’s leadership personnel, successfully accomplishing the mission of vengeance which was established 13 years prior.

Similar in setting to its predecessor is Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. Established in January 2015 on the heels of Operation Enduring Freedom, this conflict sought to target those terrorist organizations responsible for plaguing the world community with acts of violence, particularly the self-proclaimed Islamic State. From the perspective of the U.S, this conflict differs from the purpose that Enduring Freedom was founded upon; namely the fact that the U.S. isn’t seeking to avenge an attack on its own soil. Instead, the goal of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, as outlined by then-President Obama, was to train and equip local national counterterrorism agencies in order to promote a self-sufficient model for dealing with threats (Kaplan, 2014). However, despite the largely non-combative role of the operation, U.S. lives have been continually lost in the line of duty with only minimal gains to show for their efforts. The ongoing operation continues to draw criticism for the prolonged involvement after over 30 of U.S. interdiction in the region. This is the kind of situation which leads individuals to consider the factors and conditions which make a war justified or unnecessary.

Looking at the three examples of United States involvement in armed conflict, including information not addressed in this analysis, it is understandable that different factors have motivated the country to go to war. Likewise, it is also known that these acts of aggression have often been accompanied by incredible opposition from the national community. This divergence of opinion relating to the justification of war is what prompts the development of theories designed to justify a country’s participation in armed conflict. At its core, the debate of focus is: Is war necessary to create stability and by what, if any conditions? This is a field populated by two schools of thought: the idea that war is, under certain conditions, a justifiable prospect, and the idea that war cannot be justified categorically. For the purpose of this review the focus will be constrained to these two ideologies and their implications on justification.

The first theory of interest is, aptly named, the Just War Theory. As the name implies, the Just War Theory is comprised of a list of specific conditions and circumstances which justify war. This list of ‘guidelines’ was developed throughout history by a number of contributors to assure that certain steps were taken before resorting to warfare. A couple of the most notable contributors include: St. Augustine, St. Aquinas, Michael Walzer, and a number of other ancient and contemporary persons. Walzer’s take on Just War Theory, as summarized by Flint and Falah in the Third World Quarterly, can be described as follows: “A just war is one that is constructed as either a war of self-defense after being attacked, a war in the face of an imminent threat of attack, or a war in aid of a victim of someone else’s attack. In addition, a just war must not only have a just cause but be committed by a just authority with the right intent, in a manner proportional to the threat and as a last resort” (Flint & Falah, 2004; Walzer, 1992). The idea behind Just War Theory, as described by Flint & Falah, is that war requires specific conditions and appropriations to be made before engaging in combat. In other words, Just War Theory can be likened to a social contract between nations for what is mutually agreed upon as grounds for going to war. It should be kept in mind that Just War Theory is but one existing theory surrounding the idea of justified warfare, albeit the most prevalent by a substantial margin; due in part to the fact that it has been adopted by the majority of civilized nations.

In contrast to the Just War Theory, and justified war in general, is the idea of Absolute Pacifism. Normally, pacifism would simply refer to the avoidance of conflict in favor of tranquility. However, it should be noted that this general pacifism does not discount violence as a last resort to establishing peace. Conversely, the idea of Absolute Pacifism which dictates that violence should be avoided at all costs and any consideration nullified. This dramatic discourse follows that war, being a clash of violence, can never be justified through the perspective of the Absolute Pacifist. Michael Allen Fox, a retired philosopher at Queen’s University, served as the modern and logical proponent of Absolute Pacifism as it relates to warfare. In his book Understanding Peace, Fox suggests that a fundamental premise of morality is in stark conflict with the nature of warfare and consequently cannot be justified (Fox, 2013). This reasoning follows a larger trend among anti-war advocates that the costs of war are not worth the benefits. Only, in Fox’s line of thinking, even the slightest negation of human dignity is in violation of the fundamental understanding of morality that human life and welfare are of utmost importance (Fox, 2013). Accordingly, Absolute Pacifism serves as the premier counterargument to the justification of war in the modern world (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2018).

Between Just War Theory and Absolute Pacifism there seems to be quite the chasm. On one hand you have a justification for the death of millions, on the other you are forced to conclude that no violence is tolerable. As they are currently held by the general populace, these ideologies operate contrary to one another, prompting the question of whether they can be equally true or not; a question challenging the way that people ‘know’ the morality within the world. In addition to this problem is the way which both theories find their way into society. In some cases, it seems as though one ideology is enforced while the other is forgotten, and vice versa in another instance. Turning back to the examples of warfare participation by the United States, it is explainable that the Vietnam War was a time where Absolute Pacifism was operating throughout the general public. By contrast, one might have been hard-pressed to find an opponent to Just War Theory in the aftermath of 9/11. This stark difference implies a difference in both the nature of both conflicts, as well as the ideologies adopted during each time period. Currently, as Operation Freedom’s Sentinel continues to drag into the future, it is presumable that a growing percentage of the population will adopt a mindset closer to Absolute Pacifism. Based upon the fluid nature of a population’s knowledge pertaining to the justification of war, is it justifiable? is it not? Who is to say? Can both be true? Clearly, the divide between knowing the truth of Just War Theory and Absolute Pacifism is quite wide.

Upon reviewing a number of instances where the United States participated in armed conflict, as well as their correlating ideologies, it seems as though knowledge between people is at odds. Just as it is impossible to say that two different solutions to a problem are equal, the same can be said of ideology. It appears as though these two perspectives of justification cannot coexist; war cannot be both justifiable and unjustifiable, nor can the ability to justify war nullify over time. Either position must be exclusively true, including across an infinite timeline, but not the both of them. The result of this conflict is a dilemma which plagues society’s justification of the use of warfare.

In order to identify whether war can or cannot be justified it is necessary to determine the ultimate goal of such a theory. That is, what is the purpose of establishing Just War Theory or Absolute Pacifism? It is possible to look at the roots of how and why both ideologies were founded, but that doesn’t seem to address their importance and why they are being discussed at all. Indubitably, by no significant stretch, it seems as though the purpose of either theory is one of stability. Just War Theory seeks to achieve stability through the use of war and its various justification methods. Absolute Pacifism strives for stability by avoiding violence and conflict in favor of rational discourse(a form of stability). Both methods make an attempt at some form of societal stability and understanding. However, the ‘how’ that is utilized by either method seems to be the source of conflict in arriving at stability.

Having clarified the dilemma of coexistence between Just War Theory and Absolute Pacifism, as well as the overall purpose of either theory, it is now time to formulate an argument in order to identify which theory accomplishes the goal of stability. Such an argument will include only information which is pertinent to discovering an answer. The structure of the argument will involve a comparison of consequences between Just War Theory and Absolute Pacifism. Subsequently, the differences will be accounted for prior to concluding the argument. As stated previously, the goal of this argument will be to determine which theory achieves its intended purpose of stability.

For starters, it is necessary to return to the specifics of Just War Theory in war and its implications on stability. As previously described, Just War Theory follows that war may be used upon meeting specific criteria; war can be employed until the original criteria cease to be met. Aside from the aforementioned criteria, war brings with it a loathe of consequences upon its participants. In describing his view of the Great War, Bertrand Russell painted a vivid picture of the cost of war by stating: “To begin with the most obvious evil: large numbers of young men, the most courageous and the most physically fit in their respective nations, are killed, bringing great sorrow to their friends, loss to the community, and gain only to themselves. Many others are maimed for life, some go mad, and others become nervous wrecks, mere useless and helpless derelicts. Of those who survive many will be brutalized and morally degraded by the fierce business of killing, which, however much it may be the soldier’s duty, must shock and often destroy the more humane instincts. As every truthful record of war shows, fear and hate let loose the wild beast in a not inconsiderable proportion of combatants, leading to strange cruelties, which must be faced, but not dwelt upon if sanity is to be preserved” (Russell, 1915). As Russell describes, the consequence of justified warfare is the inescapable fact that people will die in brutal fashion. What’s more is that those who are fortunate enough to live may exist in a maimed physical and mental state; a life devoid of comfort. Such is the consequences of armed conflict and justified war.

While it is true that the cost of war is steep, Russell, and millions of veterans tell us this, there is an additional narrative that Just War Theory implies regarding stability. In particular, the preservation of freedom and justice. This is best described using the lens of World War II when the Axis powers attempted to subjugate and exterminate entire civilizations. It is in this desperate hour that war was utilized as a means to protect the freedom and justice systems which promote stability. Because of the opposition encountered by the Axis powers in World War II their objective of global domination was squashed, inevitably saving millions of people and their respective values. As an example, World War II serves as an accurate depiction of Just War Theory in terms of the theory’s conditions and outcome. As can be seen with World War II, stability, while not perfect, was an outcome of the conflict as opposed to a worldwide dictatorship and ongoing violence.

By contrast, Absolute Pacifism seeks to accomplish stability with a policy of avoidance. Rather than engaging in conflict, Absolute Pacifism holds that violence must never be considered as a viable option. Instead, energy and resources should be directed towards diplomatic discourse. Initially, it seems as though Absolute Pacifism is the most direct path to accomplishing stability. However, there is a lingering problem that plagues Absolute Pacifism and its ability to succeed as a theory.

The consequences of Absolute Pacifism may not be readily apparent as it is not really a result of the theory, but a pre-existing condition of the world. This is, undoubtably, the problem of violence. It might not be hard to imagine a world free of violence and deception, but somehow, it seems as though this imagination cannot exist in the present reality. It seems as though violence is an inevitable part of humanity’s being. It could be said that immorality is likewise inevitable, but that would require an objective moral theory which is not currently the focus of this essay. As it is, violence and social unrest seem to be a hallmark of our existence. An article published in the Journal of medical ethics sought to clarify the nature of violence among humans. Titled, The Natural History of Violence, the article describes in detail how violence is driven by the intrinsic desire to survive and thrive (Russell & Russell, 1979). As such, it appears that violence exists, and will continue to exist, so long as humans have the desire to survive.

Based on this understanding of Just War Theory and Absolute Pacifism it is possible to deduct which theory of justification achieves its goal of stability. Just War Theory, while incapable of preventing violence on the whole, does succeed at providing a level of security and stability to those who use it. Conversely, Absolute Pacifism does quite the opposite. While Absolute Pacifism does nullify violence as a means to achieving stability, it does so on an unrealistic premise, that humans are capable of refraining from violence even when survival is at risk. Thus, Absolute Pacifism does act as a perfect theory, but an impractical one given the constraints of the current reality. Consequently, it can be stated the Just War Theory serves as the more accurate of the two theories in promoting stability throughout the world. One must conclude, just as John Stuart Mills did, that war is a terrible necessity. As he put it: “War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling, which thinks that nothing is worth war, is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so be the exertions of better men than himself.” (Mills, 1862). In effect, Mills summarizes the differences between the individual who adheres to Absolute Pacifism and Just War Theory. For Mills, war is justified due to the fact that it is a requisite to preserving the welfare and freedoms of a people. In other words, the stability of a community is dependent upon its citizens’ willingness to preserve it, even if it means resorting to violence and conflict. The Absolute Pacifist would rather see his own ideals protected (objecting to the use of violence) than the preservation of his countrymen and their values.

Justification is undoubtedly a complicated topic to address and, as has been discussed throughout this essay, carries with it a score of consequences. The justification of war in particular bears an extremely heavy burden in determining whether violence as a tool of promoting stability is valid. Recent conflicts have shown varying degrees of justification, all with a difference of justifiable conditions and results, some more justifiable than others. Nevertheless, the question of justification comes down to a decision between two theories, Just War Theory and Absolute Pacifism. As this essay has shown, it appears to be the case that war is indeed justified due to the nature of the present reality and the practical utility of war. So long as people exist, so will war.


  1. Bumiller, E., & Sanger, D. (2001). A DAY OF TERROR: THE PRESIDENT; A Somber Bush Says Terrorism Cannot Prevail. The New York Times. Retrieved From
  2. Flint, C., & Falah, G. (2004). How the United States Justified Its War on Terrorism: Prime Morality and the Construction of a ‘Just War’. Third World Quarterly. Retrieved From
  3. Fox, M. A. (2013). Two moral arguments against war. (pp. 125-154) Routledge. doi:10.4324/9781315880136-18 Kaplan, R. (2014). Obama will strike ISIS “wherever they exist,” including Syria. CBS NEWS. Retrieved From
  4. Mills, J. (1862). The Contest in America. Boston. Little, Brown, and company.
  5. Pacifism. (2018). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved From
  6. Russell, B. (1915). The Ethics of War. Drew University Retrieved From
  7. Russell, C., & Russell, W. M. (1979). The natural history of violence. Journal of medical ethics, 5(3), 108–116. doi:10.1136/jme.5.3.108
  8. Walzer, M. (1992). Just and unjust wars : a moral argument with historical illustrations. [New York] :Basic Books,

One Comment

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