Jus Ante Bellum

Classic just war theory concerns itself with jus ad bellum (just resort to war) and jus in bello (just conduct in war). Recently, theorists have also begun to write about jus post bellum, or the just resolution of a military conflict. I think that’s a helpful addition to the discussion.

I think it would also be helpful to think about jus ante bellum, or the ethics of preparation for war.

In an earlier era, there were two types of armed forces, standing armies and militias. Standing armies consisted of professional troops who were equipped and trained to deploy when necessary. Militia were more in the nature of, “Hey, grab your flintlock. Let’s go. There’s an emergency.”

Standing armies consume a large amount of society’s resources and come with a number of risks to both civil freedom and international peace. The early American distrust of standing armies is clearly evident in the U.S. Constitution. When you have a dominating military force at the ready, it is tempting to see it as the solution-of-choice for every conflict. A nation’s culture, economy and self-understanding can begin to revolve unhealthily around its armed forces, creating a misshapen society.

On the other hand, modern nation-state warfare depends on a manned, trained, equipped and ready force. A come-as-you are militia has no hope of stopping a modern military adversary, and it takes time to grow a capable, professional army. True, history has shown that a persistent militia can sometimes wear down a professional army through irregular warfare. It can, that is, if an invader only imposes itself lightly on an occupied territory. Totalitarian regimes which heavily impose their will on a population leave little space for an armed resistance to organize. In any case, “insurgency” as a strategy also comes at a great cost – physical and moral – to society. Would it not have been better to deter potential aggressors with a credible defense?

How does a nation’s military preparedness (or lack thereof) affect its international relationships and decision making? How does the military fit in with other instruments of national influence? What national defense strategy is envisioned by the nation? How does a nation envision employing its military force, and under what conditions? Does the nation’s military preparations increase the chance for peace by deterring aggression or does it make war more likely? When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When all you have is a mechanized military force, everything looks like a target.

What is the nation’s defense preparedness doing to society as a whole? What kind of society is it we’re defending, and what is it we are defending the nation against? What harms might military preparedness cause, and how do we mitigate them? How much defense spending is enough? How much is too much? What other social costs does military preparedness entail?

How do the warrior class and the nation’s citizens relate to each other? Should members of the military be professional soldiers, short-term volunteers or conscripts? What does the nation owe its warriors and what do warriors owe the nation?

Overall, is the existence of the military a positive or a negative for the nation and world? What ethical criteria are relevant for these and other jus ante bellum kinds of questions? Ultimately, how do we create a military force fulfills its just purpose for existence while minimizing the social and moral risks?

Although these are questions of national policy and strategy, they are also important to soldiers and prospective soldiers.

The recruitment and training of a professional standing army is an activity that takes place long before a nation fights any particular war or military operation. In the United States, citizens volunteer to serve in the armed forces, not to serve in a specific conflict. Once you raise your hand and put on the uniform, no one will ask you if you think your war is right or just. Just pick up your rifle, put on your rucksack and get in the truck.

Being a warrior is an honorable vocation when military service contributes, on balance, to the security and well-being of a society. Those who volunteer to serve in the armed forces need to be confident that the nation will employ them wisely, honorably and justly. That confidence begins with a coherent, ethical national military strategy.