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Ending Wars


One of the most often heard criticisms levelled at belligerents in policy circles and the press is that they should have ended the war earlier, or later, than they did. Thus, it is sometimes said of the US that they should have withdrawn their troops from Vietnam as soon as they realized in the course of 1968 that they would never succeed in overthrowing the Communists, instead of waiting until 1973. Likewise, the American administration was criticized by many for not withdrawing US troops from Iraq as soon as Saddam Hussein’s regime had collapsed; at the same time it was urged by others to maintain a military presence in Iraq and fight with insurgent forces until prospects for lasting peace and order were more secure. In a related vein, senior French military staff objected to their government’s decision, in 1961, to end the Franco-Algerian conflict, on the grounds that the French army, far from facing defeat, was in fact winning the war. And of course, whether or not sovereign political communities and terrorist groups at war with one another should stop fighting and instead engage in peace negotiations is an enduring question which many such actors currently face.1

In contrast with other areas of just war theory, there is hardly any work on the transition from war to peace, and more specifically on the ethics of war termina- tion.2 My aim, in this chapter, is to start filling that gap. To be clear: my point is [1] [2]

not that we need to add yet another, substantial set of principles to the other jura. As I noted in s.1.3, those labels are simply a convenient way to demarcate various phases in the initiation, conduct, and termination of a war, and do not have any deep conceptual or normative significance. Rather, my point is that the ethical issues raised by the termination of war warrant scrutiny—at the bar of the principles which govern the resort to, and conduct in, war.

Strictly speaking, a war is not legally ended until a peace treaty has been signed. Thus, the Second World War did not end on 8 May 1945 in the West and 15 August 1945 in the East—the days Germany and Japan respectively surrendered. Rather, the war between Germany and the Allies ended in 1990, when the Treaty on a Final Settlement with respect to Germany was signed by the relevant parties. The war between Japan and the US on the one hand and Japan and the USSR on the other hand ended with the conclusions of (respectively) the Treaty of San Francisco in 1952 and the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956. I shall scrutinize the ethics of peace agreements in ch. 4. In this chapter, meanwhile, I focus on the decision to seek peace terms and stop fighting or what I call ‘war exit’— though for stylistic convenience I shall sometimes use the phrase ‘to end the war’.

One might think that the normative issues raised by the cessation of hostilities are not significantly different from those raised by their beginning. For the claim that a belligerent is morally forbidden to go to war at t1 might seem to imply, without further ado, that it must end its (ex hypothesi) unjust war at t2. Likewise, the claim that a belligerent is morally permitted to go to war at t1 might seem to imply, without further ado, that it may continue to prosecute its (ex hypothesi) just war at t2 if it has not achieved victory yet. Finally, the claim that a belligerent is morally obliged to go to war at t1 might seem to imply, without further ado, that it must continue at t2. To quote from General Douglas MacArthur’s Farewell Address to the US Congress on 19 March 1951, ‘War’s very object is victory, not prolonged indecision. In war there is no substitute for victory’.3 If the war is just, if the victory is noble, then of course (it might seem) just belligerents may end it by continuing to fight until they are victorious. Often however, it does seem as if there is a substitute for victory, and a morally acceptable one to boot—to wit, ceasing hostilities under terms which fall short of obtaining redress for the wrongdoings which the just belligerent suffered, but which nevertheless minimize suffering on all sides and give the best hope for a lasting peace. As I shall argue throughout this chapter, the question of when belligerents may, or indeed must, end war cannot be settled solely by a verdict on the justness or unjustness of their war at t1.

The chapter proceeds as follows. In s.2.2, I examine the question of who has the authority to end the war and distinguish between different ways of doing so. In law on war termination, see Y. Dinstein, War, Aggression and Self-Defence, 3rd edn. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 33—5.

On a point of Latin terminology: Moellendorf speaks of jus ex bello, Rodin of jus terminatio. If Latin must be used, the former strikes me as more apposite, for it captures the notion of exit, which is only one aspect of the ending of war.

  • 3 There is a good recording and transcription of the speech at
  • (accessed on 13/01/2016).

s.2.3, I argue that a belligerent whose war is just at tl is nevertheless sometimes under a duty to end it at t2 even though it has not yet met its ends. In s.2.4, I argue, conversely, that a belligerent whose war is unjust at tl may sometimes continue to fight.

  • [1] For commentaries which reflect the two opposite views regarding Iraq described in this paragraph, see, e.g., articles by George Galloway and John Bolton in The Guardian (15 December 2011).For the view, articulated in 2011, that the US should withdraw from Afghanistan (at a time when theystill have thousands of ground troops there), see, e.g., R. W. Miller, ‘The Ethics of America’s AfghanWar’, Ethics & International Affairs 25 (2011): 103—32. For a brilliant review of some of the issueswhich leaders face when considering whether to end their war, see F. C. Ikle, Every War Must End, 2ndrevised edn. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005). For a thorough account of how terrorismcampaigns end, see A. K. Cronin, How Terrorism Ends—Understanding the Decline and Demise ofTerrorist Campaigns (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).
  • [2] With the following notable exceptions: Moellendorf, ‘Jus ex Bello’; D. Rodin, ‘Two EmergingIssues of Jus Post Bellum: War Termination and the Liability of Soldiers for Crimes of Aggression’, inC. Stahn and J. K. Kleffner (ed.), Jus Post Bellum—Towards a Law of Transition from Conflict to Peace(The Hague: T.M.C. Asser Press, 2008); D. McCready, ‘Ending the War Right: Jus Post Bellum andthe Just War Tradition’, Journal of Military Ethics 8 (2009): 66—78. See also the special issue of Ethicson war termination (vol. 125 (2015)). There is a tendency in some of the literature to merge the question of war termination with the question of post-war rules of conduct—of which McCreadys articleis a good example. I believe that this is a mistake, and thus agree with Moellendorf and Rodin that adifferent category (war exit) is needed. See also May, After War Ends, esp. 2—3 for a thoughtful discussion of the difficulties inherent in establishing when a war has ended. For a concise discussion of the
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