Detailed Course Notes on War and Peace for students of the Edexcel syllabus

From the syllabus.

 a) The contribution of at least one religion to issues of war and peace, including the teaching of sacred text(s), the Just War Theory, including principles jus ad bellum, jus in bello and jus post bellum, reasons for and influences on the development of the theory, examples of wars, including contemporary conflicts that may be evaluated against the theory, special issues arising from nuclear war.

 b) Concepts of pacifism, including absolute, relative/selective and nuclear pacifism, the role of pacifist movements and pressure groups. The success of the Just War Theory as a theory and in practice, the practicality of pacifism in its different forms, perceived advantages of war such as technological development, relevance of religious contributions, success of named wars in achieving their goal.

With reference to the ideas of Augustine and Aquinas.



In terms of Divine Command Ethics, the New Testament seems to favour Pacifism – the view that violence is always wrong. Passages which suggest  that Jesus was possibly a pacifist are ::

‘If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also ‘ (Matthew 5:39) ; ‘Love your enemies ‘(Matthew 5:44);’Blessed are the peacemakers ‘ (Matthew 5:9); ‘ all who live by the sword will die by the sword.’ (Matthew 26:52).

BUT: 1) Christians who support Just War Theory argue that Jesus was referring to the behaviour of individuals not nations and that a different sort of morality is required for international conflict.

        2) Christians who believe in Liberation Theology feel that Christians have a duty to fight against unjust governments and leaders and are inspired to do so by the teaching in Luke 4v18 to ‘…set free the oppressed’.

        3) Christians who support the idea of Christian Realism believe that Jesus was teaching about how people should ideally behave in the future when God’s kingdom has finally been established and violence will no longer be needed. In the struggle to establish that kingdom Christians may need to use force.

        4) There are some other New Testament passages about Jesus (apart from Luke 4v18) which could be used to support violence and which suggest that Jesus may not have been a pacifist after all. For example, in John’s gospel Jesus uses a whip to drive out the moneychangers and dealers in sacrificial animals from the sacred Temple in Jerusalem. He also told his disciples that he ‘…came not to bring peace but a sword’ (Matt 10v34).

Just War Theory

The roots of this theory go back to Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine and Aquinas (who developed most of the major principles) though the theory has been commented on and developed by other Christian philosophers.

Principles of jus ad bellum (just recourse to war)

  • Last resort – all non-violent options must have been tried before force can be justified.
  • Just cause – the purpose of war is to put right a wrong that has been suffered and is frequently associated with acting in self-defence in response to an unprovoked military attack.
  • Legitimate authority – this is usually interpreted to mean that a war can only be started by a lawful government or sovereign state (perhaps in modern times the United Nations). Note: this seems to rule out civil war (which supporters of Liberation Theology may feel is acceptable).
  • Right intention – war must be fought on the basis of aims that are morally acceptable (which may or may not be the same as the just cause) rather than revenge or the desire to inflict harm.
  • Reasonable prospect of success – War should not be fought for a hopeless cause with little or no chance of victory.
  • Proportionality – any response should be measured in response to the attack e.g. a wholesale invasion may not be a justifiable response to a border incursion.

Principles of jus in bello (just conduct in war)Discrimination – force must be directed at military targets only, on the grounds that civilians or non-combatants are innocent. Civilian casualities are only acceptable if they are an accidental or unavoidable consequence of a deliberate attack on a legitimate target.

  • Proportionality – Overlapping with jus ad bellum, this principle holds that the force used must not be greater than that needed to achieve an acceptable military outcome.
  • Humanity/Discrimination – force must not be directed against enemy personnel if they are captured, wounded or under control (prisoners of war) and only the armed forces of the enemy should be targeted in zones of conflict.

Principles of jus post bellum (just conduct after the war)

This is a neglected aspect of Just War theory and refers to the restoration of peace and justice after the war. This could be brought about by – for example –  making sure that the citizens of the defeated country have access to clean water, food and electricity, and are allowed to vote for a new government and enjoy a free press, something known as Rights Vindication. People may therefore need educating about Human Rights and the police force of the country should be well-trained and free from corruption.

The principles of Proportionality and Discrimination should then be observed through a peace settlement that is measured and reasonable. Discrimination is also necessary when it comes to identifying those who prosecuted the war in the first place on the defeated side. In other words, ordinary citizens should not be punished for the crimes of their own government. Punishment is therefore another jus post bellum principle: if the losing nation have committed acts that violate basic human rights (e.g. genocide, rape), then those who were responsible should be held accountable. The Nuremberg Trials are one example of this principle in operation. Compensation should also be paid by the losers to the victors but this burden should not necessarily fall on the general population (who may not all have participated in the violence or the war itself) nor should it be excessively punitive, as this may prevent the defeated country from getting back on its feet and it could obstruct the principle of Rights Vindication from doing its work with respect to the creation of a more open society. If the citizens are resentful, they may not embrace the freedoms they are now allowed to enjoy. Instead, the compensation might be paid by the losing government and/or the armed forces. Note that the Treaty of Versailles that was imposed on Germany after World War One was so excessively punitive that it is considered to have helped to nurture a level of resentment which eventually resulted in the rise of Fascism and Hitler coming to power.

Liberation Theology

This theology has been especially popular in Latin America. Some Christians have taken a non-violent approach to the oppression of ordinary people by corrupt and brutal governments and military dictatorships (e.g. Archbishop Oscar Romero (1917 – 1980) in El Salvador) but others have been prepared to use violence (e.g. Father Camilo Torres (1929-1966) in Columbia, who argued that a violent revolution against injustice was ‘obligatory’ i.e. something that Christians must do.

Christian Realism
This is a view promoted by Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). Niebuhr was influenced by Augustine’s theology of Original Sin and argued that human beings were too immoral and sinful to be rational and keep to principles like those outlined by Aquinas. He also thought that countries were even worse than individuals in their moral behaviour. Because of this Niebuhr thought that war was inevitable and he was opposed to both Natural Law and Just War Theory. He felt that in order to bring about the peaceful Kingdom of God that Jesus preached about, violence was a necessary evil. This is very different from both the classical Christian just war tradition and Christian pacifism which both insist that Christians ought not do evil so that good may come.

Christian Pacifism
Following Jesus’ pacifist outlook, many modern Christians believe that violence of any kind is wrong, especially in an age where nuclear or biochemical weapons might be used e.g. the Quakers and Christian supporters of CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament).
Pacifists have been criticised, however, for enjoying the benefits of soldiers fighting on their behalf and for not being willing to fight in self-defence.
Note: you do not have to be religious to be a pacifist. As an atheist, you could just believe that human life is sacred because it is the only one we are going to have.

Perceived advantages of war such as technological development, relevance of religious contributions

One perceived advantage of fighting a war might be if it prevents a much wider one. For example, arming Ukraine in its war with Russia could be justified on the grounds that doing so serves to deter President Putin from invading other neighbouring countries in an attempt to create a new Russian empire/ restore the older Soviet one.

The philosopher Nietzsche additionally argued that war brings out our best qualities (like courage), ones which will be necessary if mankind is to eventually cast off the shackles of a Christian morality that instils insipid values like meekness, and evolve into a race of strong-willed, fearless, free-spirited Übermenschen or ‘Supermen’.

As far as technological development is concerned, nuclear medicine and nuclear power have both resulted from the same research that produced nuclear weapons, while the invention of the domestic microwave oven came about as a spin-off from developments in radar technology that took place during World War 2. However, it could be argued that military spending only speeds up technological development. So it is not necessarily the case that we would be without certain beneficial inventions had this military research never taken place. Given the loss of life that inevitably results from the use of weapons of war, it also seems perverse to make the case that this is somehow offset by scientific advances that are of benefit to mankind as a whole.

Finally, the significant contributions made by Christians such as Augustine, Aquinas and others to secular Just War Theory have already been noted. It is also the case that religious leaders can serve as the conscience of a nation that engages in acts of war. For example, both the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, and his successor, Rowan Williams, spoke out against war with Iraq, while in 2002, US Catholic bishops signed a letter to President Bush stating that any “preemptive, unilateral use of military force to overthrow the government of Iraq” was unjustifiable at the present time. They came to this position by evaluating whether an attack against Iraq would satisfy the criteria for a Just War as defined by Catholic theology.

On the other hand, evangelical Christian leaders also invoked the theory to justify the invasion of Iraq (see below), which perhaps demonstrates that it is capable of being manipulated to serve and justify a prior agenda.

It is also the case that belligerent Holy Wars such as the Crusades, and acts of terrorism carried out by Salafi-Jihadists like the members of al-Qaeda and ISIS have been justified on religious grounds, which makes the overall ‘contribution’ of religion to this sphere of moral debate rather more suspect. Interestingly, both George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden felt that God wanted them to act as they did.

Simply being in possession of religious beliefs does not therefore guarantee that better moral decisions about war will be made as a consequence of holding such beliefs. For example, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, has expressed support for President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and blamed liberal Western values, especially gay pride parades, as a reason for that invasion, and met with a torrent of criticism for doing so, including being labelled as ‘Putin’s altar boy’ by Pope Francis.

The Invasion of Iraq 2003 – a Just War?

The Edexcel syllabus states that candidates should be able to assess ‘the success of the Just War Theory as a theory and in practice.’ Iraq is a good example in this respect as an illustration of a conflict that was perceived to be a Just War by the Bush administration but was a spectacular failure in terms of adherence to the actual principles of the theory.

In the preface to his book The Divine Supermarket, Malise Ruthven notes that influential members of the Christian Right with hawkish tendencies argued the case for a Just War in Iraq:

‘Richard Land, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, organized a round-robin letter stating that a preemptive strike against Iraq would be legitimate under Just War Theory. It was co-signed by several influential evangelical leaders…These powerful voices were instrumental in securing initial ‘Christian’ support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan before the prospects for outright military victory began to fade.’

Although fought to get rid of an evil dictator (Saddam Hussein) who was allegedly developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the head of the UN Inspection Team, Hans Blix, who was tasked with finding the weapons said that war was declared before he had a chance to complete the inspection process. And no WMD’s were ever found. So the war does not seem to have been fought as a Last Resort.  The invasion was itself was carried out by a coalition of governments (including the US and UK) it did not have the approval of the UN and therefore could be said to have broken the principle of Legitimate Authority in that possible respect. Critics of the war claimed that it had really been fought to secure Iraqi oil wealth, which means that the principles of Just Cause and Right intention were not observed. No links between Hussein’s Baathist administration and al-Qaeda were ever uncovered, which undermines the additional Just Cause for the invasion as being part of a wider war on terror. As Saddam Hussein had not attacked any of the countries who invaded Iraq, the principle of Proportionality was arguably not maintained. And as far as jus in bello is concerned, there were many civilian casualties, so Discrimination does not seem to have taken place. Additionally, Iraqi prisoners were found to have been subsequently mistreated and tortured by US soldiers, so that the principle of Humanity was not upheld. Given that the invasion was then followed by an occupation, insurgency and civil war, and eventually resulted in the rise of ISIS, events which also caused further civilian loss of life on a huge scale, the invasion of Iraq serves as an illustration – not of the failure of the theory to work in practice – but rather of what can happen when Just War maxims are not observed. Whoever estimated the chances for success to be high in advance of the war was also wrong about that, given what happened afterwards.

·         There is a concern that Realism (see the first bullet point on the right) might allow for acts of genocide, rape, torture, and the possible use of biochemical or nuclear weapons in order to win a war. The Just War principles at least prevent these kinds of excesses from taking place.
It allows those who declare and fight the war to be accountable to their citizens, so that they could be tried for war crimes if need be afterwards.
·         Just War theory could be said to be in tune with the reasons why the United Nations sometimes approves military action e.g. to defend innocent civilians or minorities from possible genocide.
·         Just War Theory has clear cut boundaries as to what is and is not morally acceptable, unlike Realism and Christian Realism.
·         It tries to protect the innocent victims of warfare.
·         The culture, traditions and laws of any defeated nation are respected.
·         It encourages those fighting the war to think about the moral consequences of their actions.
·         It places moral integrity above the pursuit of naked power.
It maintains the central importance of the dignity of each human being.

this theory has been criticised by believers in Realism/Realpolitik. Realists claim that policy in wartime and battlefield actions cannot or should not be guided by ideals and morals. This is because countries act to serve their own self-interests and will therefore ruthlessly exploit any weaknesses shown by an enemy. So the principle of going to war as a Last resort might mean that the enemy is allowed too much time to get stronger. For example, it could be argued that had the invasion of Iraq not taken place in 2003, Saddam Hussein could have gone on to develop weapons of mass destruction even if he was not already in possession of them .
·         Just War theorists disagree about which of the conditions for Jus ad Bellum is the most important. Should just cause take priority? Or is fighting as a Last resort to be preferred.
·         It is not clear what should happen if fighting for a just cause eventually means that unjust methods have to be used to fight for the cause e.g. the use of nuclear weapons if you are in danger of losing the war to an enemy that is undoubtedly evil who would massacre and enslave your own citizens if they won.
·         It is also unclear as to whether just cause should include the possibility of a pre-emptive attack as a form of self-defence. An example of this might be Israel bombing Iranian nuclear reactors to prevent them from being used to enrich weapons grade uranium.
·         It could be argued that there has never been a war in which the rules for a just war have been followed. For example, WW2 is thought of as being a justifiable war but civilians in the German city of Dresden were firebombed simply to terrorise them and atomic bombs were eventually dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.