Cover Story

Discriminating force: Just war and counterinsurgency

In the wake of September 11, 2001, it was widely claimed that a new era of warfare was upon us, an era of asymmetrical conflict in which the order of nation-states was confronted with a transnational, decentralized enemy spread around the globe. One consequence of this development was that the relevance of the just war tradition was called into question.

The architects and advocates of this new way of war spoke of conducting “full spectrum” war in which distinctions between war and peace, combatant and noncombatant, were dissolved. Conferences and journals addressed “the failures of just war” and questioned the effectiveness and applicability of the traditional criteria of waging a just war: legitimate authority, right intention, just cause, last resort, reasonable chance of success, discrimination and proportionality.

The retreat of just war was also evident in theological circles as some abandoned “last resort” while others reduced “reasonable chance of success” to a matter of mere “hope” for success. Still others dismissed a rigorous use of discrimination as undermining the war on terror. The plight of just war in the era of terrorism is perhaps best summed up by a theologian who suggested that we need a new ethic war because the nature of combat and the weapons used today simply do not fit the old ethic.