What Constitutes a Just War?

A friend to Virginia for USA and a retired fighter pilot, General Mike Loh, has graciously allowed us to reprint his speech from 2014 on Just War Principles.

Is America’s justification for attacking and fighting other sovereign countries or transnational groups well-reasoned and moral?

Add to the conversation by responding in the Comments section.


These remarks were presented by retired US Air Force General Michael Loh to the Crown Colony Club of Williamsburg, Virginia on November 5, 2014.  They are solely the views and opinions of the author, and do not represent those of the Departments of Defense or State, or any other part of the U.S. government.

I want to talk about how America has gone to war in the past 25 years.  I have seen a gradual degradation of the rationale for going to war, putting pure politics ahead of sound military judgments, and an even greater misapplication of the way we have conducted wars during this time.

I will offer my opinions as to why this degradation and misapplication has evolved, and ideas for fixing them.

First, as you know, war is a horrible course of action, and should be a last resort after all other means; economic, diplomatic, sociological have been tried.  It is not just another foreign policy action, like a blockade or a sanction. War is the worst choice.

It is worst because we send our young into battle to kill.  We grant to their commanders and to them the authority and moral right, in fact, the orders to kill.  And we enter wars without knowing the outcomes precisely and their unintended consequences.

In the past, America has followed the acknowledged principles of a just war, both in the decision to go to war, and during the prosecution of a war.

Now, I am going to refer to them repeatedly, so let me tick off the six principles of a just war.  They originated with Augustine around 400 AD but have been adopted in one form or another by the western world, the USA, and our allies since then.  Some have been codified into the law of armed combat.  There are four that apply before combat (jus ad bello), then two more during combat (jus in bello).

Here they are: 1) Just Cause which is interpreted to mean hostile acts, direct attacks on us or allies by another country or rogue faction; 2) Last Resort; 3) Approval by Competent Authorities, 4) Having a High Probability of Winning; 5) Proportionality of Force; and 6) Discrimination in Targeting.  I will concentrate my remarks on the first four because these must be met before combat begins.  Proportionality and discrimination must be observed during combat.

Now, I want you to remember four dates: Jan 17, 1991; Oct 7, 2001, Mar 19, 2003; and August 8, 2014.  These are the dates marking the beginning of combat action by U.S. forces in Gulf War I, Afghanistan after 9/11, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the current air attacks on ISIS, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.  Let’s examine each one for its strategy and justification in light of Just War principles.

Recall the first Gulf War, Desert Storm.  On August 7, 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, set the oil fields on fire, raped and pillaged the Kuwaiti people, threatened to continue to invade Saudi Arabia, and seize control of all Persian Gulf oil fields.

At that time, I was the Air Force Vice Chief of Staff and was directly involved in the decisions and planning for the war.  In fact, General Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of U.S. Central Command, called me directly right after the invasion asking for assistance in putting together a full air campaign against Iraq.

President George H.W Bush (Bush 41) had a meeting on August 10 in the White House.  We all attended: Bush, VP Quayle, Secretary of Defense Cheney, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Colin Powell, National Security Adviser General Brent Scowcroft, and all the military service chiefs.

He gave clear orders.  You put together a military strategy and plan to deploy enough forces to win quickly and decisively.  Winning means extracting Iraq forces from Kuwait, destroying the Iraqi Republican Guard Armies, preventing attacks on Israel, and setting the Iraqi military back to zero for at least ten years.

These were clearly defined objectives with zero ambiguity.  They were specific tasks with a clearly defined concluding event, not abstract goals leading to endless conflict.

Bush 41 gave direct orders, “You military guys get me a winning plan; I’ll stay out of your hair.  but, you stay out of the politics: I’m having a tough enough time getting Congress on board and building a coalition of nations abroad.”

We did as he said and came back on October 10 with a fully developed air campaign but a ground campaign that still needed work.  General Powell insisted on moving the entire Army 5th Corps from Germany to Saudi before starting the war.  This took another three months. but it underscored our insistence on having overwhelming air and ground forces in order to win quickly.  President Bush agreed with Powell, and we added the huge 5th Corps to the forces ready to fight in Iraq.

And, we launched the war with a massive armada of fighters and bombers on January 17, 1991 beginning and an overwhelming air campaign with more than 1,100 attack sorties per day for the next 40 days.

Now, let’s ask ourselves: How did Desert Storm stack up against Just War principles?

Just cause?  Yes.  This was a direct attack against our ally and direct threat to other allies.  Last resort?  Yes. Saddam Hussein refused to abide U.N resolutions and invaded another country.  Competent Authority?  Yes.  The President, U.S. Congress, the United Nations and NATO all supported this action. High probability of success?  Yes.  We had specific objectives, a clearly defined concluding event – Exit Strategy – and the forces to win quickly and decisively with minimum casualties.  We clearly met all four Just War principles required to initiate this war.  Our troops had the confidence they needed to wage war with a clear, moral conscience.

We pounded Iraq with relentless airpower around the clock: 1,100 combat sorties per day, then four days of boots on the ground.” 

And, by the way, the war cost the U.S. almost nothing.  Our partners in the Middle East, primarily Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and Iraq paid the $54 billion cost of Desert Storm with oil revenues.

Then, to make it stick, we did not enter any sort of nation-building operation.  We set up and enforced no-fly zones north and south; Northern Watch out of Turkey, and Southern Watch out of Saudi Arabia.  Nothing militarily moved in the air or on the ground – no airplanes, helicopters, scuds, anti-aircraft missiles.  Nothing, for ten years, at low cost.  We kept Saddam Hussein hemmed in.

Let’s fast forward to the next date: October 7, 2001, 27 days after 9/11.  We attacked the perpetrators and terrorists of the 9/11 attacks.  We attacked Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the heart of their terrorist armies with airpower, some special forces on the ground and CIA operatives.  We quickly eliminated Al Qaeda facilities, infrastructure and leadership.  Airpower also destroyed the Taliban supporters and enablers of Al Qaeda, and their training camps throughout Afghanistan, in 75 days.  We destroyed every terrorist target and captured Kabul.  Airpower provided the muscle.  We flew 86 shooter sorties per day for two months.

Again, let’s ask ourselves.  Did this invasion meet Just war principles?  Just Cause?  Without a doubt.  We responded to direct hostile attacks against the U.S. homeland.  Last resort – absolutely.  We were directly attacked.  Competent authority – yes.  The President went to Congress which overwhelmingly agreed, and to the U.N. that also approved.  High probability of success –  yes.  We attacked only those that attacked us, with overwhelming force to insure winning quickly.  We attacked only Al Qaeda, not all Afghanistan.  President Bush said, “We will attack the terrorists responsible and those who harbor them, wherever they are.” This was clearly a Just War.

Let’s move to the next date: March 19, 2003:  We invade Iraq with massive airpower and massive ground forces; take Baghdad in six weeks.  Again, Airpower leads the way with 800 attack sorties per day! 

Was this a Just war?    Was it a just cause?  Well, not so fast.

The Bush Administration, led by Vice President Cheney, and other war-hawks on the political side of the administration wanted to link Al Qaeda; to Iraq and Iraq as the source of WMDs that Al Qaeda would then use against us and our allies.  This became a pretext for Cheney’s real cause, finishing off Saddam Hussein after letting him escape from Desert Storm and seeing Saddam thumb his nose at the U.S. and the U.N.  In my opinion, this was an unreasonable stretch of logic to connect the dots between 9/11, Al Qaeda, WMD and an imminent threat to U.S. from Iraq.

After Note:  From interview with Mr. Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation, November 9, 2014, former President George W. Bush said, “I went in there as a result of a very changed environment because of September the 11th.  The danger we were concerned about was that the weapons would be put into the hands of terrorist groups that would come and make the attacks of 9/11 pale in comparison.”

Recall General Colin Powell’s, now the Secretary of State, address at the UN on February 5, 2003, laying out the justification for invading Iraq.  Secretary Powell spent a full day at CIA headquarters going over the “evidence” justifying an invasion.  He took snippets of intelligence information gathered since September 11, magnified, amplified, and extrapolated the information to reason that we had moral justification to attack Iraq.  Here were his five main points of justification:

Al Qaeda was active in Iraq supporting the terrorist network that attacked us.  His sole evidence was the Al Qaeda leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who went from Baghdad to Prague to meet with other Al Qaeda operatives.  He took a single intercepted phone call from a soldier to his commander saying, “We have removed the bad stuff,” implying that chemical weapons had been moved from an upcoming inspection site.  This sole communication was never verified as having referred to Weapons of Mass Destruction.  Secretary Powell noted that Iraq had bought yellow cake from Nigeria, implying, therefore, it had an active nuclear weapons program.  And finally, he observed that Iraq had unmanned drones that could carry and dispense chemical weapons capable of 300 miles range of flight.  These drones could just have easily been crop-dusters, and the short range of flight was hardly a threat to the U.S. or our allies.  In retrospect, Secretary Powell sounded convincing but was basing his case on thin threads of evidence that were later proved inconclusive.

Nevertheless, Colin Powell had impeccable credibility.  He sounded convincing to willing ears eager to attack Iraq.  So, his speech carried the day for the Bush Administration, and garnered support for the invasion from our closest allies, including U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair. to congress.  But, in reality, Colin Powell was taking one for the team – winning one for the Gipper – stretching rationale beyond logical reasoning.

In hindsight, we should have stopped after the “Shock and Awe” phase.  In about three months, we controlled Baghdad.  We had Saddam Hussein on the run.  His regime was destroyed.  We found no WMDs after endless searches.  At that point, we should have ended combat, declared victory, withdrawn our combat forces and reestablished the No-Fly zones.

But no, we decide to nation-build.  We began an ill-advised counterinsurgency campaign to  reform Iraq into a more democratic, representative form of government.  We retained over 100,000 troops in the country to try to win their hearts and minds.  We threw our support to Nuri Al Maliki, a partisan Shia.  That’s when Operation Iraqi Freedom failed all four principles of entering a Just War.  American soldiers became unwelcome, unwanted occupiers, not noble nation-builders.

That’s when Iraq became an unjust war in my opinion.

And it got worse when Bush and Cheney decided to double down and adopt General David Petraeus’ authored Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual, and put him in charge of the 2007 surge of 30,000 more troops, swelling the troop number to 130,000 after sectarian civil war was tearing the country apart.

Petraeus succeeded partially with the help of the “Sunni awakening” in Anbar Province.  But, as time went on, in the end, counterinsurgency failed to convert Iraq.  Like the South Vietnamese, the Iraqi people have been unable to unite, build strong law enforcement and military forces, and govern themselves.

It is not the role of the U.S. military to rebuild nations.

In the meantime, we ignored Afghanistan.  So, just after his first Inauguration in January 2009, President Obama began a ten-month review –  a “Summit” – on Afghanistan.  The result: a surge with 21,000 more troops and, once again, General Petraeus to the rescue.  Again, more nation-building.

At the time, I thought Vice President Joe Biden had it right.  He urged a strategy of counter-terror for Afghanistan, not counterinsurgency.  Why?  Because we were after Al Qaeda, remember, wherever they congregated in the world.  Attacking Al Qaeda was justified because they caused 9/11.  Attacking Al Qaeda followed the principles of a Just War.  But, Al Qaeda had long since left Afghanistan for Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and northwest Africa.  But, we stayed in Afghanistan to nation-build.

That’s when Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom, became an unjust war in my opinion.  Again, as in Iraq after “Shock and Awe” phase, conducting combat operations, attempting to counter all insurgent uprisings, and reform the Afghan population to accept western-style democratic principles, failed the first four tests of a Just War.

And look at Afghanistan today.  Our marines are pulling out of Kandahar.  Afghanistan is a disaster.  The Taliban is as strong as the Afghan National Security Forces, morale in the ANSF is low, desertions exceed recruits, leadership in senior and middle ranks of the ANSF is lacking.  The poppy industry under the Taliban is thriving.  These funds support the Taliban.  The new government under Ashraf Ghani, who has replaced Hamid Karzai is weak. The 24,000 U.S troops still in Afghanistan will all be out by the end of 2016.  And then what?  Afghanistan will revert to govern itself as it always has under local tribal rule, not a federal government.  Afghanistan has become another nation-building failure.

And, to the point of my thesis, Operation Enduring Freedom has become, since 2003, after the initial attacks to defeat Al Qaeda in 2001 to avenge 9/11, an unjustified war.

Now, let’s turn our attention to August 8, 2014:  the date we opened fire with 24 Tomahawk missiles and fighter attacks against the Islamic State or ISIS.

Does this war meet just war criteria?

It is a Just Cause?  Well, it’s unclear because we haven’t had a serious debate about it yet.

Is it a Last resort?  If it is determined to be a just war, then it is a last resort because we cannot negotiate with radical Jihadists.

Has it been decided by competent authority?  No!  Obama has used the same authorization we used to enter Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2002, called the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) by Congress.  But, this authorization applies only to specific cases, specifically the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11, but not to be extrapolated to any case.

Do we have a high probability of success?  No!  President Obama has declared our strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS.”  This strategy is anything but one leading to a quick and decisive end game, the criteria for a high probability of success.  It is open-ended with insufficient forces to lead to a rapid and clearly defined concluding event.  It is immoral.  Even if the other principles of a Just War are met – which they aren’t – the way this war is being waged, with sporadic hit and misses air attacks and no clearly defined concluding event, this is an unjustified war.

Moreover, with an average of about nine sorties per day, not 1,100 like Desert Storm.  Not 86 per day like Afghanistan after 9/11.  Not 800 per day like “Shock and Awe” in Iraq 1, but 9 sorties per day – this is an immoral war.

So, this war against Jihadist extremists, no matter how much we detest their actions in Iraq, does not yet meet any of the criteria for entering just war.

One more point about the way this war is being fought.  Recently, our governing authorities have made it clear that we must wage war with zero, or near-zero, civilian casualties.  Down through the ages, and in all wars in which the U.S. has participated, we have, by direct order, avoided attacking non-combatants.  A law of warfare, and our deeply-held practice is to consider protected sites – hospitals, churches, schools off-limits for attacks unless they are used for active military purposes.  If they are, then we meticulously and scrupulously warn all inhabitants in the area of these targets well before attacks on these sites to allow non-combatants to evacuate the area away from these locations.  We take extraordinary precautions in accordance with the principle of discrimination, to avoid civilian casualties.  Nevertheless, if necessary to protect the lives of our troops, we will and do attack otherwise protected targets used by the enemy as active military facilities.  I conclude that the clamor over the deaths of non-combatants reveals the unjustified nature of these wars.  For, if the war is fully justified, and we take all precautions to avoid civilian targets, then the accidental killing of non-combatants is undesirable, but morally acceptable.

Let me conclude.  I believe our country is on a slippery slope in making decisions to go to war.  Our political leaders are much too cavalier and too eager to send American youth into mortal combat without first applying Just War principles and gaining the support of the American people, not all, but most Americans through their elected representatives, and not just the commander-in-chief.

So, let us recap recent wars.  Were they just or unjust?

Desert Storm in 1991:  Yes, all six principles met, both before and during combat.  It is the model for how to fully put into practice the principles of a just war.

Afghanistan after 9/11:  Yes, absolutely.  We were directly attacked.  We knew who did it (Al Qaeda).  We met all just war criteria.   And we defeated the enemy in Afghanistan.   But, once we decided to rebuild Afghanistan into a government more to our liking, it became an unjust war.

Iraq in 2003:  Yes, if Al Qaeda connection and WMDs destined for U.S. or our allies were proven.  They were not, but in the fog of war, I give this a “maybe.”  However, after we captured Baghdad, ousted Saddam Hussein and his cronies, and assured the world that there were no WMDs in Iraq, we should have declared victory and withdrawn our forces and reinstituted no-fly zones throughout Iraq as we had after Desert Storm.  Once we began the nation-building in Iraq, we failed just war principles.

ISIS/Islamic State in 2014:  No. No. No!  We are fighting an unjust, immoral war because none of the principles have yet been met.  This does not mean it could nor become just, but the way we are going about it today, it is unjust.

What, then, is the right military strategy for the U.S.?  I believe it should be a dual strategy of deterrence across the full spectrum of possible conflict and containment of radical Islam.

To be effective, as it was during the Cold War, deterrence requires capacity and will.  Containment requires a global set of allies and global basing and reach.   In order to deter, we must have a much stronger military.  Sequestration has hobbled all four services.  That must change.  And in order to deter, our political leadership must have the will to engage when a just war arises – not declare red lines and then bluff.  That creates the opposite of deterrence, an invitation to attack us or our allies.

But, most of all, our leaders need to think more critically, reason more logically, communicate more clearly, and decide more morally before declaring war on others.  And keep personal politics out of the decision.

For example, just because we detest Sharia Law and radical Islam, does not mean we automatically go to war over them. Our politicians have become too trigger-happy.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I am no shrinking violet, pacifist or isolationist.  I have seen combat up close, and I have sent other airmen into combat.  When we justify a war as we did in Desert Storm, I volunteer to lead the first wave into combat and fly and fight around the clock until we win.

But, we clearly need to reassess and improve our processes for going to war so that when we go to war it is morally justifiable, a noble cause with clear, specific objectives, a clearly defined concluding event, and the ability to win quickly and decisively.  Our warriors and commanders must be confident that they have the support of the country and that what they are doing is morally justifiable.  Then, go “all-in” to win quickly and decisively.

We owe our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines no less.

– John Michael Loh, General USAF, Retired.  Williamsburg VA, 05 November 2014.