What are the conditions that must be met in order for a war to be considered just? Was the 2003 war the United States waged against Iraq just based on these criteria?

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pnrjulius eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are two basic criteria for a war to be justified under just war theory, which are usually given in Latin (for no reason I can think of other than to sound impressive): jus ad bellum, "justice toward war", and jus in bello, "justice within war".

Jus ad bellum requires that the reasons for war are justified. The usual standard is that the war must:

  1. have just cause,
  2. be a last resort,
  3. be declared by a proper authority,
  4. possess right intention,
  5. have a reasonable chance of success, and
  6. the end must be proportional to the means.


The Iraq War does not do very well on these criteria.

If Saddam Hussein had actually had weapons of mass destruction (particularly nuclear weapons, which are far more destructive than other weapons of mass destruction), that might have been just cause, but he didn't. US authorities did not have sufficiently reliable intelligence to believe he did.

The war doesn't seem to have been a last resort, as many US allies recommended other alternatives but the US government refused to take those alternatives.

It was almost declared by a proper authority — the US did seek a UN Security Council resolution, but the resolution was vetoed by France, who argued there were still better options available.

The war does seem to have possessed right intention; despite conspiracy theories to the contrary, I'm not aware of any credible historical evidence that the Bush Administration actually launched the war for personal gain or any other reason besides honestly trying to defeat Saddam Hussein's tyrannical regime and improve security in the Middle East.

Whether the war had a reasonable chance of success depends on what you mean by success. Simply defeating the Iraqi Army in combat and unseating Saddam Hussein was virtually guaranteed, and indeed happened almost immediately. The long-term goal of establishing a legitimate democratic government in its place and maintaining security in the Middle East was always a longshot, and the US did not have a particularly compelling plan for doing so at any point.

The ends do seem proportional to the means. Saddam Hussein was a murderous tyrant. If he really had access to weapons of mass destruction, he would have posed a serious threat to the lives of thousands if not millions of people in the region. It would be entirely reasonable to use full-scale military force to combat such a threat.

As a whole, then, the Iraq War does not seem justified in terms of justice toward war, jus ad bellum.

Jus in bello requires that the war itself be conducted justly. It has two basic criteria:

  1. Discrimination between legitimate combatants and innocent civilians
  2. Proportional and necessary force used to subdue enemy combatants


The Iraq War actually does quite well on these criteria, especially by historical standards. While US troops did kill thousands of people directly, and the war and its aftermath killed hundreds of thousands, these are actually remarkably small figures compared to past full-scale wars. US forces took care to use high-tech precision weapons, rather than the carpet bombing and napalm strikes deployed in Vietnam. US forces swiftly targeted key military infrastructure rather than seeking widespread destruction. They often tried to protect civilian populations from danger and avoided attacking densely-populated areas. The military even targeted buildings and facilities at night to minimize the number of people likely to be inside them.

It could be argued the military should have used even more careful discrimination, or the military force deployed was still heavier than necessary, but US military forces certainly did a lot better in Iraq than in Vietnam. A total failure of jus in bello would have been for the US to deploy some of its thousands of high-yield nuclear weapons; millions of Iraqis are alive today because they did not do that.

Therefore, I tentatively conclude that the Iraq War does actually satisfy the criteria for justice within war, jus in bello.