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Women Combatants and Just War Theory

“Those who espouse the Just War ethic must continually be ready to review the premise of the theory- the conviction that lethal force merits moral support.” At times throughout history certain advancements have caused ethicists to reconsider and revise their views on Just War. This includes military developments from the Trojan Horse to the catapult; the bayonet to nuclear bombs; chemical weapons to women as combatants.

by Cristina Richie[1]

“Those who espouse the Just War ethic must continually be ready to review the premise of the theory- the conviction that lethal force merits moral support.”[2] At times throughout history certain advancements have caused ethicists to reconsider and revise their views on Just War. This includes military developments from the Trojan Horse to the catapult; the bayonet to nuclear bombs; chemical weapons to women as combatants.

Early last year the United States lifted the ban on women being combatants in the armed forces. Now women are able to serve in more intense military roles and can earn the highest medals awarded for service in combat. Furthermore, since women are eligible to be combatants, if there were a need to enact the draft, then women could legally be conscripted. Of course, the new military policies have been met with less than enthusiasm by some. It is a moment, I would say, to review the historical support for just war.

To be sure, the Christian tradition of just war is not monolithic. From the irenic stance of Jesus’ admonition to “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39) and his words to Peter, “those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52), there has been a strong precedent for pacifism. The first Christians were therefore rightfully concerned about the ethics of war, especially when it was linked to emperor worship, as it was in the first centuries of Christianity. However, like any issue in the Church, there were apologists on both sides. Augustine was prominent among those that later Christians looked to for support of just war.

In his Reply to Faustus Augustine argues that it is acceptable for a Christians to be a soldier. His defense is both historical and theological. If we survey the Bible, men of God (e.g. figures like David, Cornelius and the Centurion) were warriors. And theologically we can interpret Jesus’ words to “turn the other cheek” as a disposition, not a literal command (Reply to Faustus, Book XXII, nos. 74 and 76).

At the same time, Christians cannot take war lightly and must understand and internalize the gravity of the situation. Augustine warns, “but, say they, the wise man will wage Just War… let every one, then, who thinks with pain on all these great evils, so horrible, so ruthless, acknowledge that this is misery” (City of God, Book XIX, ch. 7). War is therefore neither an unqualified good, nor an unqualified evil. Rather, it is a miserable necessity that may be waged under certain ethical standards. Tracing back to Augustine, there are three basic criteria of a Just War: legitimate authority, right/just intention, and just cause (Reply to Faustus, Book XXII, no. 75). Thomas Aquinas reiterates these three conditions in his Summa Theologica (IIa IIae, q.40, a. 1).

Legitimate authority often pertains to a leader of the people elected or enthroned, not a dictator or usurper. The leader must be legitimate as well as competent, i.e. not insane or uninformed. Legitimate authority can also be a governing body such as the United Nations.

Right or just intention is a little more ambiguous. Drew Christiansen clarifies the term by dubbing it “comparative justice.” He writes, this aspect “was important because people and States often have mixed motivations for going to war.”[3] The impetus for going to war, therefore cannot be trivial or outside the scope of jus ad bellum. Right intention orients the aim of war on a trajectory towards the good. Initiating war for ignoble purposes such as vengeance, a lust for land, or to enslave a people or group are unacceptable. This then leads to the third of the Augustinian triad: just cause.

Just cause can be defended from many angles. For Augustine a just cause for going to war was to secure peace; for Aquinas it was the common good. If these criteria are met, then the war can rightly be considered “just” and Christian compunction at conflict can be assuaged.

It is clear from this summary that women combatants do not challenge classic aspects of Just War theory. However, modern Just War theory offers three additional reasons to reconsider war.

Proportionality, reasonable hope of success, and last resort have been added to Just War theory in current discussions.[4] Proportionality can be thought of as a qualifier of just cause. It attempts to estimate the cost versus benefits of the effects of war before taking up arms. Reasonable hope of success objectively assesses if the goals of the war can be met with available resources in the particular situation. Last resort guarantees that all reasonable efforts have been tried to secure peace. This includes prevention, peace talks, negotiation and humanitarian aid. Last resort is where I see women combatants enter the dialogue about Just War theory.


Arguments against women on the frontlines of war range from gender essentialism (i.e. women inherently are not as strong/ brave/ competent to fight), to patriarchal chivalry (i.e. women need to be protected), to the sexualized male gaze (i.e. women will be a distraction). These of course are all based on false premises and foreign militaries have been sending women into combat for years. Yet the objections to women serving on the front lines may excavate something deeper, something that unsettles us about combat.

Until last year combat was certainly considered a miserable necessity of war for U.S. men, but it had not been a necessity for women. With the ban on combat lifted, the possibility for death, maiming, PTSD, disfiguration and P.O.W. capture became the same for men and women. This makes some civilians so uncomfortable that those against women in combat have argued the United States might hesitate to go to war with the new policy in effect.

But that hesitancy is, perhaps, the point of Augustine’s view of regret at the miserable necessity of war. It just took women entering the battlefield to remind us of it. Lifting of the ban on women in combat does not change the contours of Christian Just War theory in terms of principles- wars will still be a miserable necessity only to be engaged in for certain reasons. However, American Just War theorists may find that they feel more caution before going to war; they might reconsider if sending our daughters or sisters off to battle is really the last resort, or if something more can be done to diffuse the situation.

The “misery” of war might be perceived to have more magnitude if women can be horribly maimed and killed on the battlefield and therefore the necessity of war gets reevaluated. This turning point in military history has offered us an opportunity to reconsider Just War, and the supporting structures- like last resort- of the theory. Yet the simple, albeit controversial, addition of women into war should not be the cold water needed to shock us into reconsideration of how miserable war is.

The lives of women are not worth more than the lives of men, and the lives of Americans are not worth more than the lives of those that we may have to engage in war with in order to secure peace. Women entering greater combat roles and the possibility of a gender inclusive draft points back to the value of life and highlights how miserable—even if necessary—war really is, and how sparsely it should be utilized as a tool for peace. The last resort then looms large in our consciousness, recalling to mind the words of caution that Augustine gives us: “if any one thinks [on wars] without mental pain, this is a more miserable plight still, for he thinks himself happy because he has lost human feeling” (City of God, Book XIX, ch. 7). Women in combat may be what we need to keep the human feeling attached to war, miserable as it is.



Ms. Richie is an adjunct professor of religion and ethics in the Boston area. Her work has appeared in over a dozen peer-reviewed journals and magazines including Black Theology: An International Journal and the Chronicle of Higher Education. She is working on a PhD in theological ethics at Boston College.


[1] Thanks to Kenneth Himes, OFM for his careful readings and suggestions on this essay.

[2] J. Bryan Hehir, “Just War Theory in a Post-Cold War World,” Journal of Religious Ethics 20 (1992): 237-257, at 248.

[3] Drew Christiansen, “Whither the ‘Just War’?” America March 23, 2003: 7-11, at 8.

[4] Brian Orend, “Justice After War,” Ethics & International Affairs 16 no. 1 (2002): 43-56.

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