Just War Theory and the Reality of War


At ABC Religion and Ethics, philosopher Nolen Gertz has written a post titled “Gaza and Navel Gazing: Why Just War Theory is Making a Bad Situation Worse.” Gertz takes a critical look at the commentaries being made by just war theorists in relation to the current conflict in Gaza. In particular, Gertz addresses the limitations of just war theory when analyzing actual conflict.

I want to share two selections from that post.

Readers coming across these articles might take away from them a more rigorous vocabulary with which to discuss Gaza, but it is likely that their views on what is happening and, most importantly, their views on what should be happening in Gaza, would remain unchanged. Walzer, Kamm and McMahan all agree that Hamas is wrong in the way it has put civilians in danger and that, while Israel has a right to defend itself against Hamas, it is wrong for not doing enough to protect civilians from danger while defending itself.

In other words, these are the views that we have encountered over and over again on television and on social media, but now we are seeing them articulated and analysed more thoroughly.

My question, then, is this: Shouldn’t philosophers be able to bring more to an ethical dilemma than a highly intellectualized version of the debate that was already taking place before they intervened? The reason this is important is because philosophers have, from the very beginning of philosophy, been accused of doing nothing more than “navel gazing,” of asking and answering questions that are of interest only to other philosophers rather than providing any practical benefit to the world outside of philosophy. Or, as Karl Marx put it, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

The following gets at the problem of not only just war theory, but also most mainstream media commentary about the current conflict:

Double effect, proportionality, self-defence, much like the casualty and injury reports we see constantly popping up on the news and on social media, turn war into a numbers game. Hamas has launched X number of rockets, built Y number of tunnels into Israel, and the Israeli Defence Force has killed or harmed Z number of Palestinians. How one sees these numbers then becomes how one sees Gaza.

There is more to war than numbers. War is not “hell,” but it is also not a math problem. The job of philosophers should be to make a complex situation like Gaza more complex, not less. Reality is complex, and we can only deal with it to the extent that we appreciate, rather than hide from, complexity.

Gertz concludes with the following:

We make war easier to fight the less interested we become in complexity. It is for this reason that we cannot be satisfied with rocket counts and death tolls, with only ever asking of war questions of “How many?” but must instead ask, over and over again,“Why?”

This really sums up my frustration with how we discuss war in general. We too often treat it like a complex game of chess. When we focus of numbers and rules, that is essentially what we are doing.

Check out the entire article.

2 replies »

  1. “The job of philosophers should be to make a complex situation like Gaza more complex, not less. Reality is complex, and we can only deal with it to the extent that we appreciate, rather than hide from, complexity.” I really don’t understand what’s complex about the Israeli Palestinian conflict. One side wants the other dead. Think of it this way, if Israel did not have the weapons the do, Hamas would do to Israel was ISIS is doing to everyone in Iraq, killing them all.

  2. The situation is Gaza is a tragedy. As is always the case where conflict arises the innocent suffer. You might be interested to read about the effect that British Rock band ‘Marillion’s’ song about Gaza had on me this past weekend

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