National Endowment for the Humanities Enduring Questions Course

"Is There Such a Thing as a Just War?"

Dr. Christopher Bellitto, Associate Professor, Department of History, Kean University

This project is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities as part of its Enduring Questions Pilot Course Grant for the academic years 2010-2012.

Project Rationale

This project tackles a very uncomfortable question: “Is there such a thing as a just war?” Whether we are protecting ourselves, our families, our property, our countries or our ideas, taking up armed defense—be it a fist, a baseball bat, a gun, or a missile—raises ethical dilemmas. How far can I go to defend myself? Is it permissible to launch a first strike to knock out a threat? What if I hurt innocent people? If I protect a few of my own but kill many enemies, even civilians, is that acceptable since my first priority is my own safety? What do we do when our quest for peace and prosperity conflicts with another group’s quest for those same goals? Is my nation’s common good more important than my opponent’s? What do you do when fighting an enemy that is not a nation? What about our shared human bond? What are the human, economic, and moral costs of a war even when it is generally agreed to be “just”?

As examples, we could pursue the course question starting with the earliest Hebrew scriptures and the admonition, “Thou shalt not kill”—which is more properly rendered, “Thou shalt not murder” and that is a different matter entirely. We might proceed through the first five chapters of the Bhagavad Gita, beginning with Arjuna’s question, “Why should I fight?” and leading through his exploration of the advisability, permissibility, and possible sinfulness of battle. Homer’s Iliad, Herodotus’ Histories, and Thucydides’ Peloponnesian Wars demonstrate the roles of honor and national pride. Plato wondered about the common good, justice, and fairness; Aristotle concluded, “We make war that we may live in peace.” Cicero added civic duty, civil authority, and the law of nations (ius gentium) to just war ideas. The theologian Augustine of Hippo thought people could defend ideas and not just property, causing him to gather 1,500 years of development into the first code of just war theory, which entailed questions of intent, restraint, and leadership. Such questions were applied during the medieval crusades by Christians who then encountered the complex Islamic notion of jihad.  Hugo Grotius, the seventeenth-century Dutch legal theorist, synthesized international law and the notion of justified conflict during the Wars of Religion as dueling Catholics and Protestants invoked the same Christian God. Benjamin Franklin put it this way: “There never was a good war or a bad peace.” In the early nineteenth century, Prussia’s von Clausewitz said war was the continuation of diplomacy by other means. World War I was supposed to be the war to end all wars; students will be directed to ponder whether its failure to do so means it wasn’t a just war. And, in our own age, we are faced with nuclear and biological weapons in addition to terrorism.

The project’s goal is not to be presentist or directive; students will negotiate competing perspectives to gain broader historical, cross-cultural, and interdisciplinary contexts for today’s challenges. Students should leave the classroom seeing these issues through eyes that are not their own. Undergraduates from any major or level can draw on their own disciplines and personal backgrounds while encountering many others: history, politics, philosophy, military affairs, economics, sociology, psychology, diplomacy, law, and religion. The question forces us to take a global perspective, which can only help all of us in the future.