The Pacifist Critique of the Just War Tradition

Authored by: Cheyney Ryan

The Routledge Handbook of Pacifism and Nonviolence

Print publication date:  February  2018
Online publication date:  February  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138194663
eBook ISBN: 9781315638751
Adobe ISBN:


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The just war tradition, commencing with Augustine, began as a critique of the “turn the other cheek” pacifism of the first Christians. Since then, the identities of both just war thinking and pacifism have involved their mutual critique. Grotius was responding to the pacifist Mennonites in writing the first treatise on the laws of war, De Indis. He aimed to chart a course between “two extremes,” that forbidding “all use of arms to the Christians” and that imposing no limits at all (Grotius 2012: 8). The codification of the laws of war in the late nineteenth century was a response to pacifist sentiments generated by Crimean and Franco-Prussian Wars. (One example is the Papal Postulatum of 1870, which attacked the “venal motives” of states with their large standing armies engaged in “hideous massacres.”) World War I caused substantial doubts about war itself, which were met in turn by institutional attempts to maintain war while limiting it. Post-1945 Cold War debates asked whether nuclear weapons had rendered traditional just war thinking obsolete. Contemporary debates date from the Vietnam War. Opposition to that war in the United States came principally from the pacifist community. The pacifist Martin Luther King, Jr. was the major opposition figure until his assassination in 1968. Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars (1977) appeared after the war but took inspiration from disagreement based on just war principles. Revisionist criticisms of Walzer have led in turn to skepticism about the just war framework itself, as it is been subjected to the demands of precision and coherence. The war on terrorism has prompted further discussion between pacifists and just war theorists.

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