The Legitimacy of Revenge in War
The just war theory forms part of a rich tradition regulating the prosecution of wars. There is no doubt this tradition of ethical thought is helpful, as war is an activity that can rapidly degenerate into barbarism and chaos if neglected by ethical analysis. One of the criterion the just war theory stresses is right intention. This means that, for a war to be just, it must be waged with the right intention. For instance, a war waged with the intention of removing an oppressive political regime so as to liberate the people would be just with respect to its intention. A war, on the other hand, waged to simply accumulate more land or expand one’s empire would be unjust, even if it had the effect of toppling an evil dictator. A positive outcome of a war does not negate an unjust intention.
One of the intentions considered unjust in the just war theory tradition is revenge. It’s wrong to wage a war just to inflict punishment on people who have harmed one’s country. The people one attacks have to pose some imminent threat in order for military action to be justified. Revenge is frowned upon in the Christian tradition on both the international and the personal level. However, I’m not so sure the disapproval of revenge makes sense.
When one is harmed, part of the frustration that occurs as a result has to do, I think, with the fact that the perpetrator of the harm does not suffer and perhaps even enjoys having harmed you, and that the perpetrator deserves to suffer because of the wrongness of what he or she did. When an attacker walks away gleefully after having harmed you in some way, whatever loss one has already suffered—whether it’s a financial loss through a robbery or some bodily injury—is exacerbated. The desire for revenge is natural. Revenge represents a rectifying of an unfair situation. You, the victim, are suffering but innocent, while the perpetrator, who is culpable and deserving of suffering, is happy. Revenge addresses this problem by inflicting suffering on the perpetrator.
Why, then, is revenge frowned upon in the just war tradition? I want to challenge this tradition, with respect to its stance on revenge, with a brief thought experiment. Imagine there is a terrible terrorist attack on our country, similar to 9/11. These terrorists, though, have a code that requires them to commit only one terrorist act in their life. Let us say they think that only one terrorist act is needed to get into paradise after their death, and anyone who commits more than one terrorist act will go to hell. So, each of these terrorists, who have committed this awful crime that has taken the lives of so many innocent people, resolve never to commit another terrorist act. Just war theory, then, would seem to dictate that the prosecution of a war against these terrorists would be of questionable justice. They do not pose a threat any longer, so the only intention that could motivate acting against them would be desire for revenge. All things being equal, the country victimized by the terrorist attack can only try to repair itself after the attacks.
This doesn’t seem right, though. It seems the victimized country has a right to take out its rage and humiliation on the guilty terrorists through an act of retaliation. The arguments against such an act target possible consequences of revenge, not revenge itself. One argument is, of course, that revenge will only lead to more violence. But, this is not necessarily a result of revenge. Revenge might stifle violence by showing the power and sense of pride of the victimized country. Another argument holds that being motivated by revenge can cloud one’s judgment and lead to the dehumanization of the one’s enemy. But, again, this is not the necessary result of revenge because revenge can be taken in a very precise and restrained way.
In sum, it seems wrong to deny the victimized country in my thought experiment the right to retaliate against the terrorists. Of course, we could condemn the way in which this country waged its war of revenge, but not the fact that it sought vengeance itself.