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A 'just war'

To explore the concept of a ‘just war’.

by James Lamont

Suitable for Key Stage 4/5


To explore the concept of a ‘just war’.

Preparation and materials

  • You may need to adapt the references to Libya and Colonel Gadaffi.
  • You might want to download some typical pictures of modern warfare, or pictures coming from one of the areas where UK forces are peacekeeping or engaged in active combat.
  • It would be helpful to project the conditions for a just war as you run through them.


  1. The opening years of the twenty-first century have not been peaceful. The UK has been involved in two major wars and appears to be beginning a third. Fighting in two nations at once is now the norm. Our leaders tell us that the wars were begun because war was necessary and right. Although war is a terrible thing to be involved in, we have traditionally held that some wars need to be fought.
  2. A ‘just war’ must meet a set of conditions. These are:

    –    there must be a just cause, that is, the war must be a response to an act of evil or aggression, for example, to recapture land lost in an unjustified invasion;
    –   the just side must be clearly morally superior to the aggressor;
    –   the war must have been started by a legitimate and accepted leader or lawful authority – in practical terms, negating the right of illegitimate dictators to wage war – and that leader’s intentions must be sound;
    –   peaceful solutions must be attempted before the first shot is fired;
    –   there must be a reasonable chance of success, and, in order to evaluate this, the aims must be completely clear;
    –   a judgment has to be made that the war will not bring about more evils than those already being endured.
  3. The Second World War is often used as an example of a just war, from the allies’ point of view. For example:

    –   the war was begun as a response to Nazi aggression, in defence of democratic, sovereign nations;
    –   the clear moral superiority of the Allies was demonstrated powerfully in the captured prison camps of Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau;
    –   Britain and France attempted to deal with Hitler before going to war.
  4. However just the causes of war, the fighting of the war itself is also important:

    –   civilians should not be explicitly targeted (although in the modern era this is less straightforward, for example, when targeting munitions factories);
    –   any operation that is expected to cause mass civilian deaths should be discouraged, no matter what the potential military gain;
    –   once the enemy army is defeated, arms should be laid down and reprisals not taken against the defeated enemy nation.
  5. When tested against the second group of criteria, the Second World War seems a little less black and white.

    –   Bombing raids targeting civilians were part of the strategy of both sides. In the bombing of the German city of Dresden by the Allies in 1945, 25,000 people were killed. Most were not soldiers but civilians or refugees fleeing the encroaching front-line.
    –   In order to achieve victory in the East, the Allies had to work with Stalin, a dictator comparable to Hitler for his brutality.
    –   The capture of Berlin by the Soviet forces in 1945 clearly violated the final criterion is section 4: vengeful soldiers engaged in rape, pillage, looting and murder.
  6. This does not undo the necessity of the war. What it does say, perhaps, is that it is naïve to apply conditions of justice to something as inhuman and destructive as modern industrial warfare. This has implications for our ideas of just war.

    As fighter jets bomb Libya in a supposed moral intervention, there will inevitably be Libyan civilian casualties. While the case to stop Gadaffi from being able to carry out a cruel revenge against the Libyan people is strong, one must ask whether the moral case to intervene is great enough to undo the moral shame of civilian dead.
  7. One might be tempted to ask if the conditions for a just war can ever be met, given the destructive power of modern weapons. If so, the future looks bleak. Military power can be a force for good in the world, as there are still many instances of the strong oppressing the weak. The question is, at what point does a just intervention become just another war?

Time for reflection

Think about the wars that are taking place at the moment, which our own forces are involved in.
How is this action justified?

If you were Commander in Chief, what conditions would make you take up arms?

Now think about your own life and relationships.

Are you ‘at war’ with anyone at the moment?

Is this ‘war’ justified?

If not – how are you going to make peace?

In the silence, think about all those people caught up in wars at the moment:
the innocents – women, children, refugees, civilians.
How can we work to bring peace in our time?


‘War, what is it good for?’ by Edwin Starr (available to download)

Publication date: June 2011   (Vol.13 No.6)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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