A glimpse and an ‘application’ of Saint Augustine’s just and unjust war concepts

By Dr Myint Zan

13 November 2020 is (to use the historic present tense) the 1666th birthday of Augustine of Hippo (13 November 354 Current Era, Thagaste. modern-day Algeria- 28 August 430, Hippo, modern-day Algeria).
Augustine was one of the more (not necessarily ‘most’) influential philosophers in the context of the post-classical (mainly ancient Greek and Roman) times.
In any case, he was one of the most influential Christian philosophers and theologians.
His influence among Christians world-wide is such that till the Catholic and other Christian mission schools were nationalized in Burma in the year 1964, there is (was) a school in Rangoon (now Yangon) named after him: Saint Augustine’s High School (Since 1964 State High School No.2 at Kamayut Township).
Saint Augustine wrote extensively in the Latin language on a variety of Christian theological subjects.
This note is not to mention- far less elaborate on- the postulates or polemics of Augustine regarding Christian theology but to briefly encapsulate and try to apply Augustine’s concepts of just and unjust wars.
Wars are almost as old as civilizations. If skirmish and battles between pre-civilization tribes and clans are taken into account, wars are older than civilizations.
‘Art of War’ of Sun Tzu and Military Strategy
In both Eastern and Western literature, The Art of War by Sun Tzu written in the 5th century Before the Current Era (BCE) is conceivably more well-known than Augustine’s ‘just war and unjust war concepts’. The classic work of Sun Tzu (circa 544 BCE-496 BCE) deals with military strategy and tactics.
Jus Ad Bellum and Jus in Bello
Augustine’s views on just wars and unjust wars were written over 800 years after Sun Tzu’s classic. It is unlikely that Augustine was aware of Sun Tzu’s work on military strategy. Augustine’s work in this particular genre is not about military strategy or tactics. The crux of Augustine’s work in this philosophical genre can perhaps be described in the Latin language as jus ad bellum (or ‘right to wage war’).
More than 1600 years ago Augustine did lay down a set of criteria to determine the legality or legitimacy or wars in terms of jus in bello. (The terms legality and legitimacy are not synonymous, perhaps Augustine might have referred to and applied both terms)
Jus ad bellum is different from jus in bello which is the conduct to be adhered by in warfare regarding both combatants and non-combatants and use of weapons, method of warfare whose ancient roots (at least on historical if not fully legal grounds) can be traced back to the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata of around 3000 years ago.
In the contemporary era jus in bello (conduct to be adhered to in international warfare) is governed and regulated by the four (different) Geneva Conventions of 1949. One hundred and ninety-four (194) countries and territories are parties to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, making it a truly universal international convention or the ‘biggest’ multilateral treaty.
Synopsis of Augustine’s Just War Concept
But back to Augustine’s concept of just war and unjust war. Augustine posits that in order for a war to be just (please note that being ‘just’ is not necessarily, not all the time anyway, synonymous with being ‘legal’)
the following four conditions should be fulfilled. I should add that Augustine apparently meant those criteria to be applicable as regards starting a war and not necessarily about defensive war or the right of self-defence in international law which is ‘enshrined’ in the Charter of the United Nations to which 193 States (countries) are parties to the UN Charter.
Augustine, in effect, stipulates that in order for a war to be considered just: first, the decision to go to war must be derived from the proper authority through the legitimate political and legal process
second, it must be for a just cause: sources indicate that whether a wrong or wrongs have been committed to the party initiating the war must be verified and determined first and whether waging of war is the appropriate response
third, right intention: is the war fought to ‘righting the wrongs’ that had been committed against the party that waged war and whether there was no other option apart from starting a war
fourth, war must be waged only as a last resort ‘after exhausting all peaceful remedies’ among the potential adversaries
I should again add that this arguable Augustinian concept of jus ad bellum is, to a considerable if not a great extent, being superseded by contemporary international law concepts regarding the use of force among countries even before the emergence of the United Nations Charter in 1945.
Still, using the above apparently Augustinian criteria let us have a brief look at a series of wars that occurred well over a thousand years after Augustine died.

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An ostensible Augustinian analysis on waging war against the indigenous people of South America
On 12 October 1492 Christopher Columbus (1451-20 May 1506 Current Era) landed in what is now an island in the Bahamas and what later became part of the New World. This occurred over 1062 years after Augustine’s death in the year 430 Current Era.
Within several years and definitely within a decade or so of Columbus’s ‘discovery’ the conquest, the subjugation, the cruelties, the almost wiping out or at least ‘cancelling’ of many of the indigenous peoples in several regions of what was later come to be known as South America took place.
And they continued for about the next 100 to 200 years.
Would the learned Christian (Catholic) theologian approved of these wars based on his ostensible just war and unjust war theories as summarized above?
I might add that over 1600 years ago Augustine could not, would not have known about the existence of the two American continents not to say some of the Andean civilizations including the Mayan civilization that had existed long before Augustine’s time in the 4th and 5th century Current Era.
More than a millennium after the Catholic theologian’s death some of his fellow religionists had committed almost unspeakable atrocities against the indigenous people after the conquest of the (now) South Americas. It was through sheer greed and wickedness that these conquistadors (the then Spanish conquerors) committed widespread crimes against the indigenous peoples of South America. An excuse or ‘justification’ they gave for these cruelties and inhumane acts was that they wanted to ‘Christianize’ the ‘heathen’ people. To a very large almost ‘complete’ extent within a century or so after their arrival they had succeeded in doing just that.
Based on Augustine’s concept of just war and unjust war as summarized above, would Augustine have approved or not these historical (not ‘historic’) events?
Bartolomé de Las Casas, (1474 or 1484, – July 1566) a Spanish historian and Dominican priest during that era was among quite a few others who protested against the oppression and the brutalities that were inflicted on the indigenous peoples of South America. But hypothetically and more relevantly if Augustine were to ‘come back’ would he have approved of the continuous ‘war’ waged on the indigenous peoples of South America by the conquistadors?

Authorization by God to wage a ‘just war’?
A tutorial presentation was held on 13 November 2014 (1660th birthday of Augustine) at Multimedia University, Malacca, Malaysia in the subject of legal philosophy (which this writer taught). During the presentation, a student (reading from a web site) stated that if a ‘Divine Command’ was given by God to the legitimate authority’ then it could be (one factor) in asserting (arguably from an Augustinian perspective) that the waging of war is ‘just’.
Former United States president George W. Bush (born 6 July 1946) was one of the main proponents who waged ‘war against Iraq’ in March 2003. A few years after the Iraq war he apparently claimed that he was following ‘God’s orders’ to invade Iraq. As far as this writer can discern former President George W. Bush (born 6 July 1946) did not refer to Augustine’s just war/unjust war concept in his justification for the Iraq war of 2003.

Aims of World Philosophy Day
When, in 2002, the United Nations established (so to speak) World Philosophy Day one of its aims was (and is) ‘to foster philosophical analysis, research and studies on major contemporary issues, so as to respond more effectively to the challenges that are confronting humanity today’.
The scourge of Covid 19 is one of the major challenges’ confronting humanity today’. But the United Nations Charter in its preamble mentioned about preventing (if ‘we can’ I might add) the scourge of war. Augustine’s view on just and unjust wars is noted and recalled since the anniversary of his birthday also falls in the month of November coinciding with World Philosophy Day.
The book that Dr Myint Zan edited Legal Education and Legal Traditions: Selected Essays has recently published by springerlink.com.
He has also established Myint Zan Philosophy fellowship at one of his alma maters The Australian National University (ANU) a Myint Zan Fellowship in Philosophy for Early Career Researchers at ANU for the years 2018 to 2020. He also established a Myint Zan Philosophy of Science prize in perpetuity for undergraduate philosophy students at ANU.

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