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Correspondence: Just War Theory and the 2008–09 Gaza Invasion
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Just War Theory and the 2008–09 Gaza Invasion

To the Editors (Davis Brown writes):

Jerome Slater’s normative treatment of Israel in the 2008–09 Gaza War spotlights an often misunderstood domain of the security studies field: just war theory.1 This is a largely understudied area, given its normative framework of analysis in a field that historically is largely devoid of norms. My sense is that this journal may be becoming a forum for the reintroduction of this framework to the field, thanks to Slater’s article and Robert Pape’s call for a revised standard for humanitarian intervention.2 As a student of the ethics of war, I welcome this development. But precisely because just war theory is understudied, it is still highly prone to oversimplification and abuse. Slater regrettably engages in both in his attempt to apply it to the conduct of Israel in the Gaza War.

Just War Theory Oversimplified

Slater characterizes the two most important criteria of jus ad bellum, or the right to go to war, as “just cause” and “last resort” (p. 52). This claim is not supportable in the just war theory framework or literature. Rather, the three most important criteria, first articulated by Thomas Aquinas and more recently appropriately characterized by James Turner Johnson as “deontological,” are (1) proper authority, (2) just cause, and (3) right intent. Although self-defense is widely recognized among scholars as a just cause for war, the criterion is not defined as “moral purpose,” as Slater defines it (p. 52).3 Rather, for Israel to have had just cause in the Gaza War, it must have had some injury inflicted on it. The more difficult question in evaluating just cause today concerns the closely related criterion of proportionality of cause.4 An injury, once inflicted, must still be great enough to warrant the use of military force as an appropriate means of remediation.

Curiously, Slater overlooks the deontological criterion to which his factual presentation [End Page 160] is the most relevant: right intent. The original Thomist definition is that the true motivation for war must be the advancement of good or avoidance of evil; in its secular iteration, right intent means that the belligerent’s motivation must be genuinely to remediate the injury, not exact revenge or satisfy a lust for power. This criterion is considerably closer to Slater’s “moral purpose” argument. (The criterion of proper authority, that the belligerent be a state instead of a nonstate actor, is easily satisfied for Israel but not for Gaza, a matter that I take up momentarily.)

The criterion of last resort, which Slater claims is central to just war analysis, did not originate with Thomas Aquinas. Rather, it emerged later from several strands of moral thought: that peaceful resolution of disputes is preferable to war, that war should be undertaken only when necessary, and that there is a general presumption against war. Many ethicists of war would challenge Slater’s claim that “all... nonviolent means of achieving a just cause [must] have been tried and failed” (p. 52). There is always another potential solution in the distance that has not yet been considered, always a remote possibility that another round of talks will achieve a breakthrough, always the option of simply allowing the injury to go unredressed (which is often the immoral option). A requirement that every single peaceful solution be tried, no matter how futile or absurd, is unreasonable. For this reason, last resort is probably the most criticized of the just war criteria, and the most abused by critics of war and of particular wars.

Furthermore, last resort is among the criteria that are not widely regarded as central to the just war theory analysis. The peripheral, or “prudential” criteria as Johnson puts it, also include proportionality of cause and reasonable prospect of success. The first three deontological criteria are sine qua nons for justifying military force; the failure to satisfy any one of them delegitimizes the use of force. The same is not necessarily true for the prudential criteria.5 As to last resort, specifically, I and others...