Today we citizens of the United States celebrate Independence Day. As an American it is a good day. While my country is not perfect it isn’t bad for a sovereign State run by mere mortals. I’d much rather be here than North Korea or Iran. But as a Christian it is always difficult to celebrate something that had to be secured through the bloodshed of fellow humans, especially if it can be shown it doesn’t fall under the auspices of classical just war theory.

That is not to say that I think highly of just war theory, but at least it plugs the dam before there is even more destruction.

On Mondays I usually share some excerpt of thought from the ancient world. It has often been the case that I find worthwhile content in the writings of Cicero. Today I will appeal to this philosopher-politician once again.

What did Cicero say about what we call “just war”? In De Officiis I.11.34-35 he writes the following:

Then, too, in the case of a state in its external relations, the rights of war must be strictly observed. For since there are two ways of settling a dispute: first, by discussion; second; by physical force; and since the former is characteristic of man, the latter of the brute, we must resort to force only in case we may not avail ourselves of discussion. The only excuse, therefore, for going to war is that we may live in peace unharmed; and when the victory is won, we should spare those who have not been blood-thirsty and barbarous in their warfare. For instance, our forefathers actually admitted to full rights of citizenship the Tusculans, Acquians, Volscians, Sabines, and Hernicians, but they razed Carthage and Numantia to the ground. I wish they had not destroyed Corinth; but I believe they had some special reason for what they did — its convenient situation, probably — and feared that its very location might some day furnish a temptation to renew the war. In my opinion, at least, we should always strive to secure a peace that shall not admit of guile. And if my advice had been heeded on this point, we should still have at least some sort of constitutional government, if not the best in the world, whereas, as it is, we have none at all. Not only must we show consideration for those whom we have conquered by force of arms but we must also ensure protection to those who lay down their arms and throw themselves upon the mercy of our generals, even though the battering-ram has hammered at their walls. And among our countrymen justice has been observed so conscientiously in this direction, that those who have given promise of protection to states or nations subdued in war become, after the custom of our forefathers, the patrons of those states.

I am no scholar of U.S. history, but it doesn’t seem that our fight for independence qualifies in the eyes of Cicero. There was likely more time and space for discussion and “taxation without representation” hardly qualifies as something preventing peace. In that sense our nation was born by means of an unjust war.

In I.11.36 he adds, “As for war, humane laws touching it are drawn up in the fetial code of the Roman People under all the guarantees of religion; and from this it may be gathered that no war is just, unless it is entered upon after an official demand for satisfaction has been submitted or warning has been given and a formal declaration made.” We did do this.

In I.11.37 he says that anyone who is not legally a soldier (i.e. has taken an oath) should not participate in warfare. This disqualifies normal day-to-day citizens from participating in the war. In some sense it should protect them as well.

This is part of the reason why pacifist scoff as those who propose that this or that war may be a “just” war. If we look at Cicero’s writings, and later those of thinkers like Augustine or Aquinas, it would seem that modern warfare cannot be engaged justly. All wars in our world are unjust because the nature of modern warfare has intensified greatly. Unless, of course, we broaden the definition of just war to include even more causes for going to war, but you see where this leads.

What do you think of the War for Independence? Was it a “just” war?