(Captain's log): When should you fight a war?
That's a toughie, isn't it? Various people have various answers. There are, of course, certain pacifists who think that no one should ever fight a war because war is immoral. It's at least a consistent point of view but it has the drawback of not working in the real world. It turns out that pacifism doesn't scale; you can only successfully be a pacifist if you are surrounded by fellow citizens who aren't. (It's arguable that pacifists are "free riders".)
There are some who go to a different conclusion and think that war will eventually become obsolete because it will eventually be possible to settle all disagreements which previously led to war by other means, including negotiation and international arbitration. I guess the best that can be said for that is that it's unproved. I'm profoundly skeptical.
I think that most people who oppose war know, deep down, that there are cases where wars have to be fought, but they'd just as soon it not be this war (whatever particular war this war happens to be). As Captain Kirk put it, "We're killers, but we're not going to kill today." It's jam yesterday and jam tomorrow but never jam today.
So you'll see rhetoric from some people to the effect that "war should be a last resort". Fair enough, but that then begs the question: how do you know when you've exhausted all alternatives and that you've reached the last resort? When you probe more deeply, what you'll discover is that as a practical matter, people who say that will never acknowledge that you've reached the last resort. In other words, "war should be a last resort" effectively means "never engage in war".
The problem comes from attempting to decide whether an alternative is actually credible and has a chance of succeeding, or whether it's just a desperation move to stave off the inevitable. "Let's try to negotiate" is a good general rule, but when you're dealing with someone with whom you've negotiated in the past, who ignored the agreements you made, and who shows no sign of changing now, then negotiation ceases to be an alternative. But they'll call for new negotiations anyway, because they'll never acknowledge that negotiations are useless. To say that would be to accept that we'd reached the "last resort", and we never reach the last resort. We never fight wars.
Such people are in practice pacifists, but without openly acknowledging that fact.
In times past the question of when you should decide to make war resulted in certain Christian theoreticians coming up with the principle of "Just War", which required a certain set of conditions to be in place without all of which it was presumed that it was an unjust war. It also required certain limits on how a war was fought.
I gather that there are several subtly different sets of such rules. Here is one such:
A just war can only be waged as a last resort. All non-violent options must be exhausted before the use of force can be justified. A war is just only if it is waged by a legitimate authority. Even just causes cannot be served by actions taken by individuals or groups who do not constitute an authority sanctioned by whatever the society and outsiders to the society deem legitimate.
A just war can only be fought to redress a wrong suffered. For example, self-defense against an armed attack is always considered to be a just cause (although the justice of the cause is not sufficient--see point #4). Further, a just war can only be fought with "right" intentions: the only permissible objective of a just war is to redress the injury.
A war can only be just if it is fought with a reasonable chance of success. Deaths and injury incurred in a hopeless cause are not morally justifiable.
The ultimate goal of a just war is to re-establish peace. More specifically, the peace established after the war must be preferable to the peace that would have prevailed if the war had not been fought.
The violence used in the war must be proportional to the injury suffered. States are prohibited from using force not necessary to attain the limited objective of addressing the injury suffered. The weapons used in war must discriminate between combatants and non-combatants. Civilians are never permissible targets of war, and every effort must be taken to avoid killing civilians. The deaths of civilians are justified only if they are unavoidable victims of a deliberate attack on a military target.
This is a good example of the problem I have with this entire concept, because I totally disagree with this. I agree with none of it
It refers to "last resort", about which I've already talked. It says that wars should only take place waged by "legitimate authority", which denies the possibility of irregular revolutionary movements. (The question is how such a movement becomes "legitimate"; who decides that?)
In requiring that war only be fought to "redress a wrong suffered" it refuses to countenance the possibility of spoiling attacks, preemptive attacks intended to prevent another from attacking you. It says that the only permissible objective of just war is to redress the injury, which denies the use of war for many other objectives which have no