top of page
  • Writer's pictureRory Cox

Just War and the Importance of Self-Reflection



As in previous wars, the current conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza highlight a recurring vulnerability of the just war tradition when its ideas and language are deployed as political tools in the international arena. That is, regardless of the circumstances of any particular conflict, every warring party claims to fight for justice. Moreover, such claims are frequently used to justify military actions that can appear manifestly unjust.

  

[...] they were convinced of their own moral superiority. As a result, they developed terrifyingly permissive ius ad bellum (right to wage war) doctrines, which endowed their warfare with a kind of moral carte blanche.

This is not a new phenomenon. The impulse towards partisanship when interpreting the nature and possession of justice is arguably the original sin of just war thought. As I argue in Origins of the Just War: Military Ethics and Culture in the Ancient Near East, ancient civilizations such as the Egyptians, Assyrians, and Israelites all developed sophisticated doctrines of just war, and yet each was deeply chauvinistic in how they conceived who could possess justice. The effects of this were made worse by the fact that each of them leaned towards moral absolutism, painting war in black and white moral terms: the righteous (‘us’) versus the wicked (‘them’). As such, they were unwilling to see their enemies as anything other than morally reprehensible and always to blame for international disputes. In short, they were convinced of their own moral superiority. As a result, they developed terrifyingly permissive ius ad bellum (right to wage war) doctrines, which endowed their warfare with a kind of moral carte blanche. These theologically and ideologically infused ius ad bellum doctrines were so potent that they effectively prevented the development of any meaningful ius in bello norms. Ancient Near Eastern military conduct was brutal because there was no moral imperative to encourage restraint; sheer pragmatism provided the only reliable restraining hand.


To a large extent these concepts and practices reflected the deeply ideological roots of ancient Near Eastern just war doctrines, which evolved in the context of differing political theologies. What is common to them all is that the authority to wage war was divine in origin and was bestowed upon kings by the god(s). In every case, concepts of just war developed hand-in-hand with centralised political authority, so that the two can be seen as mutually supportive. It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that while concepts and doctrines of just war were highly developed, these ancient civilizations were simply not interested in assessing war in terms of moral or legal objectivity: that is, a detached analytical ability to judge, with as little prejudice as possible, whether they or their enemies had a superior claim to justice in any given dispute. It is not that these cultures were somehow incapable of such thought: we see evidence of ‘soul-searching’ by individuals in the realms of personal religion, for example, or texts critiquing domestic political failures. What we do not see, however, is the application of this self-reflective or self-critical impulse in the political arena of war. The propagandistic nature of much of our surviving evidence goes some way in explaining this: texts and images about war tended to be bombastic and jingoistic, and it would not have benefitted the war aims of kings to broach the possibility that their enemies could have a legitimate complaint.


[...] concepts of just war developed hand-in-hand with centralised political authority, so that the two can be seen as mutually supportive. It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that while concepts and doctrines of just war were highly developed, these ancient civilizations were simply not interested in assessing war in terms of moral or legal objectivity. 

There was one remarkable exception to this pattern of chauvinism and absolutism, and this exception stemmed from the Anatolian civilization of the Hittites. Coming to military and political prominence in the mid-second millennium BCE, the Hittites became one of the great military superpowers of the ancient Near East. As far as the early history of just war thought is concerned, they were exceptional in their willingness to admit error in the arena of international relations and to countenance the possibility that their political competitors and enemies could possess a legitimate grievance against them. For example, King Muršili II (reigned c. 1321 – c. 1295 BCE) admitted that his father had broken the terms of a peace treaty with Egypt, and accepted that the gods were ravaging Hatti with a devastating plague in punishment for this oath violation. A generation later, Hattušili III (reigned c. 1267 – c. 1237) wrote to the king of Ahhiyawa (that is, the king of Mycenae), admitting that his own youthful braggadocio had provoked the Ahhiyawan king into a conflict over the island of Cyprus. Hattušili III apologised for his actions and sought to re-establish peaceful relations. In both cases, Hittite kings were willing to admit that the Hittite state had erred (i.e. that the Hittite state had acted unjustly), and that their enemies had a legitimate grievance against them. It’s impossible to exaggerate how unusual this was: it would have been inconceivable for an Egyptian or Assyrian king to offer such an admission of guilt. Similarly, the originality and importance of this step in just war thought cannot be overstated: with it we see the first recognition that the possession of justice in war isn’t the monopoly of a single state or people.


Hittite kings were willing to admit that the Hittite state had erred (i.e. that the Hittite state had acted unjustly), and that their enemies had a legitimate grievance against them. It’s impossible to exaggerate how unusual this was: [...] with it we see the first recognition that the possession of justice in war isn’t the monopoly of a single state or people. 

 

This attitude was arguably rooted in Hittite culture itself. First, the Hittites were deeply legalistic, and it was natural for them to view war as a process of divine and mundane legal judgement. Before going to war, Hittite kings would ritually ‘present their case’ before the court of the gods, hoping to establish their just cause and secure divine favour. Second, the Hittites believed in the inheritability of sin, which passed from parent to child (including from king to king), and could only be forgiven by correcting the original error and appeasing the correct gods. As the ‘father’ of the kingdom, the crime of any one king (e.g. breaking a treaty oath) would result in the entire Hittite state and people being punished by the gods (e.g. by plague or military defeat), until appropriate action was taken to earn forgiveness. It was essential, therefore, to discover exactly what the original sin was that required penance, and this led to the forensic analysis of historical errors committed by the current or previous kings. Finally, the Hittites were entirely open to integrating new deities into their pantheon – so much so that Hatti became known as the ‘Land of the Thousand Gods’ – and this theological ‘openness’, for want of a better word, helped to mitigate the more severe theological absolutism that is evident in ancient Egyptian, Assyrian, and especially Israelite, thought. Unlike the Egyptians, Assyrians, or Israelites, there is no evidence that the Hittites understood their wars in terms of a cosmic battle of good against evil (a Chaoskampf); as such, they didn’t conceive war (even if only propagandistically) as a moral or theological zero-sum game, in which the annihilation of the enemy was a necessary and even desirable outcome.


The Hittites accepted the possibility that they could be wrong and their enemies could be right. This type of critical self-reflection, I would argue, is an essential component of the type of ethical analysis upon which sophisticated just war theory depends.

In sum, ancient Hittite just war thought contained the seeds for the first genuinely self-reflective analysis of war. The Hittites accepted the possibility that they could be wrong and their enemies could be right. This type of critical self-reflection, I would argue, is an essential component of the type of ethical analysis upon which sophisticated just war theory depends. It would be highly desirable to see more of it in the modern international arena: if it was possible almost 3,500 years ago, it should be possible today.


Rory Cox is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of St Andrews, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and an Associate Fellow of the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. His latest book is Origins of the Just War: Military Ethics and Culture in the Ancient Near East (Princeton, 2023).

 


Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Public Ethics Blog are solely those of the post Author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations.


Comments


bottom of page