Just War in Ukraine?

As the drums of war thunder let us not beat them unthinkingly

“Sing, O Muse, of the rage of Achilles…” So begins the Iliad. And ever since then the pattern, revealed to the keen reader, has been the same. We stir up passions. Passions beget war. As with the Greeks, so with the current war in Ukraine. The Iliad gives us knowledge of this process; but propaganda in every age remains blind to itself. Consider the endless stream of selfies and stories zipping around on social media meant to glorify, or justify the fighting going on, first by one side, then the other. Both use art to frame a posture which will end in blood. They are not the first to do so. Art singing to us of our outrage at the state of things. Of course Homer finishes the above quote: “…that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans.” Homer was honest about where such passions lead.

I write to my fellow Americans, whose rulers wield the largest military arsenal the world has ever seen. I can see our passions are being stirred up to a breaking point. We must stop and think, and encourage our rulers to do the same. Before it is too late and the worst has happened.

I write this as someone who recently wired money to help friends purchase the car they needed to get their family out of Ukraine in the lead-up to the war. I have many friends still in Ukraine and my heart breaks for them. But their situation is not necessarily our situation. As Christians we must acknowledge and accept violence as a means of evil but sometimes as a limited good; for us it is a means, never an end. The way a sick person accepts the knife of the surgeon. As Christians we look forward to a day when death is put to death and violence will be no more. Our Lord told us to turn the other cheek and to walk the extra mile. But we also recognize the right of the magistrate to wield the sword. Even though navigating this can be difficult, the Christian tradition has developed principles over the centuries as to what constitutes a just war, principles we would do well to consider. 

What follows is the theory of what is required of Christians in war, as laid out and developed by Augustine, Aquinas, and many other Christian thinkers, as they meditated on Scripture and on God’s creation. The links in this article are intended to educate the reader who has greater interest. But for the sake of brevity I will summarize this tradition of thinking. We can wage war as Christians but we have an obligation that it be just.

For a war to be just we must: 

  1. Have a just cause
  2. Seek war as a last resort 
  3. Declare war by a proper authority
  4. Have the right intention
  5. Have a reasonable chance of success 
  6. Seek an end proportional to the means used

For the people of Ukraine who are defending their government, their places of business, their homes, and even their very lives: to fight is unequivocally just, notwithstanding reasonable disagreement about the prudence of their fighting to the last as opposed to suing for peace. The cause is self-defense. War has come to them and is de facto a last resort. Their proper authority, President Zelensky, is not only commanding his men to fight, he is remaining with them as a good leader should. For all we can tell the intention of the Ukrainians is to maintain their way of life. If they can hold out they could succeed in holding on to significant portions of the country and returning to a time of peace. And this end is proportional to the means they are using to wage the war (i.e. they aren’t using nuclear weapons on Moscow, releasing engineered viruses, or killing Russian civilians).

However, what is just for Ukraine may not be just for the United States—and that is why I am pleading with American Christians to be a force that tempers our leaders’  headlong rush into another American war. How can this be so? How can the same action be just for one people and unjust for another? Is this moral relativism? 

What is just is not identical with what is good. Justice requires a conversation about roles, distributions, what is owed, and the like. What I owe my kids is not what you owe my kids. It is good that my children receive three square meals a day—justice requires that I provide those meals to them; justice does not require that a plumber in Bolivia do so or die trying. 

It is unjust for me to drive your car at my leisure. But it is perfectly just for you to drive your car at your leisure. Justice always requires textured attention to who is being asked to do or receive what. In this way justice is related to prudence. 

The question we must ask, then, is whether the  United States entering the war in Ukraine would be prudent and just as the facts currently stand. And further, whether the United States should rush into adopting a set of policies (e.g., increasingly harsher sanctions, funding and arming the opposition, special operations, etc.) that are reasonably likely to provide Russia with a casus belli against us. If we had a significant treaty obligation with Ukraine this would change the dynamics. But we have no such treaty. In fact, the possibility of signing such a treaty lies in no small part at the root of the current conflict. 

If we went to war would it truly be our last resort? We have not extinguished all available options. Russia insists that America must retract our statement from the 2008 Bucharest Summit “that [Ukraine and Georgia] will become members of NATO.” Keep in mind in 1990 our position, as then articulated to General Secretary Gorbachev, was that we would move the NATO alliance border “not one inch eastward” should the Soviet Union allow freedom for what was then East Germany. The Soviet Union eventually collapsed and we changed our policy and began expanding NATO’s border. 

Retracting the Bucharest statement might seem like capitulation to Putin. Whether or not it is necessary to retract this statement, it is not cowardly capitulation. It is wise diplomacy, a return to a policy that worked. Consider the alternative: beating the drums of a war of unimaginable devastation without even attempting to find a diplomatic solution that would be acceptable to the USA, Ukraine, and Russia. Some seem to have already decided that compromise of any sort is appeasement—that it is impossible. However, war, if necessary, must be the last resort. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine cannot be justified, but our refusing to tone down the overheated rhetoric and consider ways to find peace is also incredibly dangerous. 

Further, the justness of US involvement in Ukraine is by no means obvious: we almost certainly have no intention of declaring war on the Russian Federation by the proper authorities. Indeed, it isn’t clear that Americans even have agreement any longer on what would constitute proper authority: Congress (as the Constitution says?), the President (as has been our recent custom?), the UN Security Council (as we’ve promised in signing Article 51 of the UN Charter, a multinational treaty?). Perhaps this is a case where we should put our own house in order first. We may have the right intention, but do we have a reasonable chance of success? What would success look like in the event of a hot war between two nuclear powers? Annihilation? What is our end here?

Even limited involvement fails the first three points of the list above and is likely to lead to escalation. The history of wars show that they are rarely entered into knowing all that they will entail. We need only recall the cocksure swagger of our own Civil War, or of those who marched off to the trenches in WWI: “We’ll be home by Christmas!” The logic of war enters the combatants into a trend to the extremes. Inside the logic of war our intellect must bend to the necessity of war, our passions rule and we can no longer pause to think clearly. In war such a pause might mean death. War comes step by step. To prevent war requires stopping ourselves from fighting before we start.

War is essentially a duel, as Clausewitz has pointed out. Is this our duel? Is it impossible even to ask these questions without being labeled a pacifist, appeaser, or worse?

In the Iliad Menelaus is injured by the unjust behavior of Paris who kidnaps his wife. He  justly seeks restitution. But how many countless ills avoided, how much blood spared, if the whole of the great armies of Greece and Troy hadn’t been drawn in and the duel had been restricted to those two alone.

We can lament war even as we must wage it. But we must do so governed by God and His law, not as the ancient pagans were, governed by their passions, passions so strong they received the names of gods. Will Christians give heed to man-killing Ares and worship him with war? As the drums of war begin to thunder let Christians, at least, not beat them unthinkingly. We should do all in our power to seek peace. Let us expend our energies in charity to care for those suffering from the effects of this war. I pray we do so swiftly.

*Image Credit: Wunderstock

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Colin Redemer

Colin Redemer Colin Redemer is the Vice President of the Davenant Institute. He is a founder of the Davenant Hall graduate college and co-host of the weekly Ad Fontes Podcast.