Myth: War Is Just

Fact: None of the precepts of the venerable “just war theory” hold up under modern scrutiny, and its requirement that war be used only as a last resort is impossible in an age when nonviolent alternatives are proving themselves to be practically unlimited.

The idea that wars can sometimes, from at least one side, be deemed “just” is promoted in Western culture by just war theory, a set of ancient and imperialist dogmas that do not hold up to scrutiny.

Were a war to meet all the criteria of just war theory, in order to actually be just, it would also have to outweigh all the damage done by keeping the institution of war around. It would be no good finally having a just war if the preparations for wars and all the indisputably unjust wars motivated by those preparations did more damage than the just war did good. The institution of war, of course, generates the risk of nuclear apocalypse. It is the biggest cause of climate change. It is the biggest destroyer of the natural environment. It does far more damage through the diversion of funding away from human and environmental needs than through its violence. It is the only place where enough funding could be found to make a serious attempt to shift to sustainable practices. It is a leading cause of the erosion of civil liberties, and a leading generator of violence and hatred and bigotry in the surrounding culture. Militarism militarizes local police forces, as well as minds. A just war would have a heavy burden to outweigh.

But no just war is actually possible. Some just war theory criteria are purely rhetorical, cannot be measured at all, and cannot therefore be meaningfully met. These include “right intention,” “just cause,” and “proportionality.” Others are not moral factors at all. These include “publicly declared” and “waged by legitimate and competent authority.” Yet others are simply not possible for any war to meet. These include “last resort,” “reasonable prospect of success,” “noncombatants immune from attack,” “enemy soldiers respected as human beings,” and “prisoners of war treated as noncombatants.” Each criterion is discussed in David Swanson’s book War Is Never Just. Let’s discuss here only one, the most popular: “last resort,” excerpted from that book.

Last Resort

It is of course a step in the right direction when a culture moves from Theodore Roosevelt’s open desire for a new war for war’s sake, to the universal pretense that every war is and must be a last resort. This pretense is so universal now, that the U.S. public simply assumes it without even being told. A scholarly study recently found that the U.S. public believes that whenever the U.S. government proposes a war, it has already exhausted all other possibilities. When a sample group was asked if they supported a particular war, and a second group was asked if they supported that particular war after being told that all alternatives were no good, and a third group was asked if they supported that war even though there were good alternatives, the first two groups registered the same level of support, while support for war dropped off significantly in the third group. This led the researchers to the conclusion that if alternatives are not mentioned, people don’t assume they exist—rather, people assume they’ve already been tried.[i]

There have for years been major efforts in Washington, D.C., to start a war on Iran. Some of the greatest pressure has come in 2007 and 2015. If that war had been started at any point, it would no doubt have been described as a last resort, even though the choice of simply not starting that war has been chosen on numerous occasions. In 2013, the U.S. President told us of the urgent “last resort” need to launch a major bombing campaign on Syria. Then he reversed his decision, largely because of public resistance to it. It turned out the option of not bombing Syria was also available.

Imagine an alcoholic who managed every night to consume huge quantities of whiskey and who every morning swore that drinking whiskey had been his very last resort, he’d had no choice at all. Easy to imagine, no doubt. An addict will always justify himself, however nonsensically it has to be done. In fact alcohol withdrawal can sometimes cause seizures or death. But can war withdrawal do that? Imagine a world in which everyone believed every addict, including the war addict, and solemnly said to each other “He really had no other choice. He truly had tried everything else.” Not so plausible, is it? Almost unimaginable, in fact. And yet:

It is widely believed that the United States is at war in Syria as a last resort, even though:

  • The United States spent years sabotaging UN attempts at peace in Syria.[ii]
  • The United States dismissed out of hand a Russian peace proposal for Syria in 2012.[iii]
  • And when the United States claimed a bombing campaign was needed immediately as a “last resort” in 2013 but the U.S. public was wildly opposed, other options were pursued.

In 2015, numerous U.S. Congress Members argued that the nuclear deal with Iran needed to be rejected and Iran attacked as a last resort. No mention was made of Iran’s 2003 offer to negotiate away its nuclear program, an offer that had been quickly scorned by the United States.

It is widely believed that the United States is killing people with drones as a last resort, even though in that minority of cases in which the United States knows the names of the people it is aiming for, many (and quite possibly all) of them could have been fairly easily arrested.[iv]

It was widely believed that the United States killed Osama bin Laden as a last resort, until those involved admitted that the “kill or capture” policy didn’t actually include any capture (arrest) option and that bin Laden had been unarmed when he was killed.[v]

It was widely believed the United States attacked Libya in 2011, overthrew its government, and fueled regional violence as a last resort, even though in March 2011 the African Union had a plan for peace in Libya but was prevented by NATO, through the creation of a “no fly zone” and the initiation of bombing, to travel to Libya to discuss it. In April, the African Union was able to discuss its plan with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and he expressed his agreement.[vi] NATO had obtained UN authorization to protect Libyans alleged to be in danger, but it had no authorization to continue bombing the country or to overthrow the government.

Virtually anyone who works for, and wishes to continue working for, a major U.S. media outlet says the United States attacked Iraq in 2003 as a last resort or sort of meant to, or something, even though:

  • The U.S. president had been concocting cockamamie schemes to get a war started.[vii]
  • The Iraqi government had approached the CIA’s Vincent Cannistraro with an offer to let U.S. troops search the entire country.[viii]
  • The Iraqi government offered to hold internationally monitored elections within two years.[ix]
  • The Iraqi government made an offer to Bush official Richard Perle to open the whole country to inspections, to turn over a suspect in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, to help fight terrorism, and to favor U.S. oil companies.[x]
  • The Iraqi president offered, in the account that the president of Spain was given by the U.S. president, to simply leave Iraq if he could keep $1 billion.[xi]
  • The United States always had the option of simply not starting another war.

Most everyone supposes that the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and has stayed there ever since as a series of “last resorts,” even though the Taliban repeatedly offered to turn bin Laden over to a third country to stand trial, al Qaeda has had no significant presence in Afghanistan for most of the duration of the war, and withdrawal has been an option at any time.[xii]

Many maintain that the United States went to war with Iraq in 1990-1991 as a “last resort,” even though the Iraqi government was willing to negotiate withdrawal from Kuwait without war and ultimately offered to simply withdraw from Kuwait within three weeks without conditions. The King of Jordan, the Pope, the President of France, the President of the Soviet Union, and many others urged such a peaceful settlement, but the White House insisted upon its “last resort.”[xiii]

Even setting aside general practices that increase hostility, provide weaponry, and empower militaristic governments, as well as fake negotiations intended to facilitate rather than avoid war, the history of U.S. war making can be traced back through the centuries as a story of an endless series of opportunities for peace carefully avoided at all costs.

Mexico was willing to negotiate the sale of its northern half, but the United States wanted to take it through an act of mass killing. Spain wanted the matter of the Maine to go to international arbitration, but the U.S. wanted war and empire. The Soviet Union proposed peace negotiations before the Korean War. The United States sabotaged peace proposals for Vietnam from the Vietnamese, the Soviets, and the French, relentlessly insisting on its “last resort” over any other option, from the day the Gulf of Tonkin incident mandated war despite never having actually occurred.[xiv]

If you look through enough wars, you’ll find nearly identical incidents used on one occasion as the excuse for a war and on another occasion as nothing of the sort. President George W. Bush proposed to U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair that getting a U2 airplane shot at could get them into a war they wanted.[xv] Yet when the Soviet Union shot down a U2 airplane, President Dwight Eisenhower started no war.

Yes, yes, yes, one might reply, hundreds of actual and unjust wars are not last resorts, even though their supporters claim that status for them. But a theoretical Just War would be a last resort. Would it? Would there really be no other option morally equivalent or superior? Allman and Winright quote Pope John Paul II on the “duty to disarm this aggressor if all other means have proven ineffective.” But is “disarm” really the equivalent of “bomb or invade”? We’ve seen wars launched supposedly to disarm, and the result has been more weapons than ever before. What about ceasing to arm as one possible method of disarming? What about an international arms embargo? What about economic and other incentives to disarm?

There was no moment when bombing Rwanda would have been a moral “last resort.” There was a moment when armed police might have helped, or cutting off a radio signal being used to provoke killings might have helped. There were many moments when unarmed peaceworkers would have helped. There was a moment when demanding accountability for the assassination of the president would have helped. There were three years before that when refraining from arming and funding Ugandan killers would have helped.

“Last resort” claims are usually pretty weak when one imagines traveling back in time to the moment of crisis, but dramatically weaker still if one just imagines traveling back a bit further. Many more people try to justify World War II than World War I, even though one of them could never have happened without the other or without the dumb manner of ending it, which led numerous observers at the time to predict World War II with significant accuracy. If attacking ISIS in Iraq now is somehow a “last resort” it is only because of the war that was escalated in 2003, which couldn’t have happened without the earlier Gulf War, which couldn’t have happened without arming and supporting Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war, and so on back through the centuries. Of course unjust causes of crises don’t render all new decisions unjust, but they suggest that someone with an idea other than more war should intervene in a destructive cycle of self-justifying crisis generation.

Even in the moment of crisis, is it really as urgent a crisis as war supporters claim? Is a clock really ticking here any more than in torture thought experiments? Allman and Winright suggest this list of alternatives to war that must have been exhausted for war to be a last resort: “smart sanctions, diplomatic efforts, third-party negotiations, or an ultimatum.”[xvi] That’s it? This list is to the full list of available alternatives what the National Public Radio show “All Things Considered” is to all things. They ought to rename it “Two Percent of Things Considered.” Later, Allman and Winright quote a claim that overthrowing governments is kinder than “containing” them. This argument, the authors maintain, challenges “pacifist and contemporary just war theorists alike.” It does? Which option were those two types supposedly favoring? “Containment”? That’s not a very peaceful approach and certainly not the only alternative to war.

If a nation were actually attacked and chose to fight back in defense, it would not have the time for sanctions and each of the other options listed. It wouldn’t even have time for academic support from Just War theorists. It would just find itself fighting back. The area for Just War theory to work in is, therefore, at least in great part, those wars that are something short of defensive, those wars that are “preemptive,” “preventive,” “protective,” etc.

The first step up from actually defensive is a war launched to prevent an imminent attack. The Obama Administration has, in recent years, redefined “imminent” to mean theoretically possible someday. They then claimed to be murdering with drones only people who constituted “an imminent and continuing threat to the United States.” Of course, if it were imminent under the usual definition, it wouldn’t be continuing, because it would happen.

Here is a critical passage from the Department of Justice “White Paper” defining “imminent”:

“[T]he condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”[xvii]

The George W. Bush Administration saw things in a similar way. The 2002 U.S. National Security Strategy states: “We recognize that our best defense is a good offense.”[xviii] Of course, this is false, as offensive wars stir up hostility. But it is also admirably honest.

Once we’re talking about non-defensive war proposals, about crises in which one has time for sanctions, diplomacy, and ultimatums, one also has time for all sorts of other things. Possibilities include: nonviolent (unarmed) civilian-based defense: announcing the organization of nonviolent resistance to any attempted occupation, global protests and demonstrations, disarmament proposals, unilateral disarmament declarations, gestures of friendship including aid, taking a dispute to arbitration or court, convening a truth and reconciliation commission, restorative dialogues, leadership by example through joining binding treaties or the International Criminal Court or through democratizing the United Nations, civilian diplomacy, cultural collaborations, and creative nonviolence of endless variety.

But what if we imagine an actually defensive war, either the much feared but ridiculously impossible invasion of the United States, or a U.S. war viewed from the other side? Was it just for the Vietnamese to fight back? Was it just for the Iraqis to fight back? Et cetera. (I mean this to include the scenario of an attack on the actual land of the United States, not an attack on, for example, U.S. troops in Syria. As I write, the United States government is threatening to “defend” its troops in Syria should the government of Syria “attack” them.)

The short answer to that question is that if the aggressor would have refrained, no defense would have been needed. Turning resistance to U.S. wars around into justification for further U.S. military spending is too twisted even for a K Street lobbyist.

The slightly longer answer is that it’s generally not the proper role for someone born and living in the United States to advise people living under U.S. bombs that they should experiment with nonviolent resistance.

But the right answer is a bit more difficult than either of those. It’s an answer that becomes clearer if we look at both foreign invasions and revolutions/civil wars. There are more of the latter to look at, and there are more strong examples to point to. But the purpose of theory, including Anti-Just-War theory, should be to help generate more real-world examples of superior outcomes, such as in the use of nonviolence against foreign invasions.

Studies like Erica Chenoweth’s have established that nonviolent resistance to tyranny is far more likely to succeed, and the success far more likely to be lasting, than with violent resistance.[xix] So if we look at something like the nonviolent revolution in Tunisia in 2011, we might find that it meets as many criteria as any other situation for a Just War, except that it wasn’t a war at all. One wouldn’t go back in time and argue for a strategy less likely to succeed but likely to cause a lot more pain and death. Perhaps doing so might constitute a Just War argument. Perhaps a Just War argument could even be made, anachronistically, for a 2011 U.S. “intervention” to bring democracy to Tunisia (apart from the United States’ obvious inability to do such a thing, and the guaranteed catastrophe that would have resulted). But once you’ve done a revolution without all the killing and dying, it can no longer makes sense to propose all the killing and dying—not if a thousand new Geneva Conventions were created, and no matter the imperfections of the nonviolent success.

Despite the relative scarcity of examples thus far of nonviolent resistance to foreign occupation, there are those already beginning to claim a pattern of success. Here’s Stephen Zunes:

“Nonviolent resistance has also successfully challenged foreign military occupation. During the first Palestinian intifada in the 1980s, much of the subjugated population effectively became self-governing entities through massive noncooperation and the creation of alternative institutions, forcing Israel to allow for the creation of the Palestine Authority and self-governance for most of the urban areas of the West Bank. Nonviolent resistance in the occupied Western Sahara has forced Morocco to offer an autonomy proposal which—while still falling well short of Morocco’s obligation to grant the Sahrawis their right of self-determination—at least acknowledges that the territory is not simply another part of Morocco.

“In the final years of German occupation of Denmark and Norway during WWII, the Nazis effectively no longer controlled the population. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia freed themselves from Soviet occupation through nonviolent resistance prior to the USSR’s collapse. In Lebanon, a nation ravaged by war for decades, thirty years of Syrian domination was ended through a large-scale, nonviolent uprising in 2005. And last year, Mariupol became the largest city to be liberated from control by Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine, not by bombings and artillery strikes by the Ukrainian military, but when thousands of unarmed steelworkers marched peacefully into occupied sections of its downtown area and drove out the armed separatists.”[xx]

One might look for potential in numerous examples of resistance to the Nazis, and in German resistance to the French invasion of the Ruhr in 1923, or perhaps in the one-time success of the Philippines and the ongoing success of Ecuador in evicting U.S. military bases, and of course the Gandhian example of booting the British out of India. But the far more numerous examples of nonviolent success over domestic tyranny also provide a guide toward future action.

To be morally right, nonviolent resistance to an actual attack need not appear more likely to succeed than a violent response. It only need appear somewhat close to as likely. Because if it succeeds it will do so with less harm, and its success will be more likely to last.

In the absence of an attack, while claims are being made that a war should be launched as a “last resort,” nonviolent solutions need only appear reasonably plausible. Even in that situation, they must be attempted before launching a war can be labeled a “last resort.” But because they are infinite in variety and can be tried over and over again, under the same logic, one will never actually reach the point at which attacking another country is a last resort.

If you could achieve that, a moral decision would still require that the imagined benefits of your war outweigh all the damage done by maintaining the institution of war.

See the Growing List of Successful Nonviolent Actions Used Instead of Wars.


[i] David Swanson, “Study Finds People Assume War Is Only Last Resort,”

[ii] Nicolas Davies, Alternet, “Armed Rebels and Middle-Eastern Power Plays: How the U.S. Is Helping to Kill Peace in Syria,”

[iii] Julian Borger and Bastien Inzaurralde, “West ‘ignored Russian offer in 2012 to have Syria’s Assad step aside,’”

[iv] Farea Al-muslimi testimony at Drone Wars Senate Committee Hearing,

[v] The Mirror, “Navy Seal Rob O’Neill who killed Osama bin Laden claims US had no intention of capturing terrorist,” See also: ABC News, “Osama Bin Laden Unarmed When Killed, White House Says,”


[vi] The Washington Post, “Gaddafi accepts road map for peace proposed by African leaders,”

[vii] See

[viii] Julian Borger in Washington, Brian Whitaker and Vikram Dodd, The Guardian, “Saddam’s desperate offers to stave off war,”

[ix] Julian Borger in Washington, Brian Whitaker and Vikram Dodd, The Guardian, “Saddam’s desperate offers to stave off war,”

[x] Julian Borger in Washington, Brian Whitaker and Vikram Dodd, The Guardian, “Saddam’s desperate offers to stave off war,”

[xi] Memo of meeting: and news report: Jason Webb, Reuters, “Bush thought Saddam was prepared to flee: report,”

[xii] Rory McCarthy, The Guardian, “New offer on Bin Laden,”

[xiii] Clyde Haberman, New York Times, “Pope Denounces the Gulf War as ‘Darkness’,”

[xiv] David Swanson, War Is A Lie,

[xv] White House Memo:

[xvi] Mark J. Allman & Tobias L. Winright, After the Smoke Clears: The Just War Tradition and Post War Justice (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2010) p. 43.

[xvii] Department of Justice White Paper,

[xviii] 2002 National Security Strategy,

[xix] Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (Columbia University Press, 2012).

[xx] Stephen Zunes, “Alternatives to War from the Bottom Up,”


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