Just War

Is war ever just war?

“The number of wars which have happened or will happen in the world will always be found to be in proportion to the number and weight of the causes, whether REAL or PRETENDED, which PROVOKE or INVITE them.”

~ John Jay, Federalist Paper No. 3, November 1787


The Founding Fathers were really against unnecessary involvement in foreign countries’ affairs, particularly in foreign wars.  They thought these situations were literally “entanglements” that once gotten into were extremely difficult from which to get out.  Much of modern American involvement in war has distinctly proven the wisdom of this attitude.  From Vietnam to Afghanistan, we have had a great deal of trouble extricating ourselves from the wars we found ourselves in, causing them to drag on for years at great cost, both in financial resources and American lives.  We have also made mistakes or found ourselves facing unexpected results when we meddled, even minorly, in the affairs of other nations embroiled in conflict.  If we were to ask what our founders intended, it might seem surprising to hear that they mostly expected us to remain at peace, uninvolved in the affairs and conflicts of the foreign nations around us.  They had no grand designs of spreading democracy to the globe, except by the light of example.  And they certainly had no pre-established “red” or other colored lines that signaled that the US should become involved in another nation’s business.

We might argue that had they witnessed genocide of the type and scale of the Holocaust, the founders might have issued an exception to the general “stay out of foreign entanglements” rule.  But even then, we should ask ourselves if that’s truly ever been a hard and fast standard for America.  We became involved in World War II, thereby alleviating the continuation of the Holocaust, only because we were attacked by Japan.  Our horror came afterwards.  And there have been modern genocides, particularly Darfur, which we have not averted, mostly because we had no other vital interests involved in doing so.  Even in our own lands, Native Americans were systematically removed from the equation, and we not only didn’t stop such massacres, our government perpetrated them!  This is certainly not an argument that we should allow genocide to occur or go unpunished, but rather, the painful truth that we are far from perfect.  And we are far from perfect judges of what is really going on in other nation’s affairs.  All the more reason that the extreme hesitancy, the desire to avoid war and conflict with other nations that the Founding Fathers advised, makes all the more sense.  How do we judge who and what is just, especially in war, when the cause and causes are not even our own?

At the end of the day, our founders’ principle of avoiding foreign entanglements was actually based in the same ideas that gave birth to the American Revolution and the freedoms we have to this day.  They believed that other peoples living in their own lands had the same right to choose their own destiny just as we did and do.  Sometimes choosing that destiny can be messy, violent, and exceedingly unpleasant.  Sometimes people die and their cause goes unfulfilled or is left to be taken up by later generations.  Would we be the nation we are today without having had to fight through our own Revolution, based on our own thoughts and ideals.  Would we be the same nation if other nations had stepped into our Civil War to alleviate or eliminate the massive death tolls from bloody battles and the years of military campaigns it took to settle the questions of slavery and secession?  People have to be free to fight their own battles and choose their own causes, whether those causes are just or not, or admired by us or not.  It is the only way they will ever truly own what happens to their own societies as a result.  The founders’ point was that we must let others find their own way, just as we have found ours.  America was never meant to be a judge, just an example.  A city on the hill.


Res Publica


Documentation without Representation:

John Jay, Federalist Paper No. 3, November 1787


Electronic text courtesy of the Avalon Project at Yale Law School

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