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Lesson Plans
Is There Any Such Thing as a Just War?
Examining War and Morality
OverviewProcedure for teachersStudent Resources and Materials
Prep for Teachers

Prior to the teaching, bookmark all of the Web sites used in the lesson and create an Microsoft Word document with all of the Web sites as hyperlinks for students to access the sites. Make sure that your computer has the necessary media players to play the video clips, which are Shockwave, Real Video, and QuickTime. CUE the Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly videotape to the segment titled "Just War." The first image is that of black and white World War II-era airplanes.
When using media, provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, a specific task to complete and/or information to identify during or after viewing of video segments, Web sites, or other multimedia elements.
Introductory Activities: Setting the Stage

What is a "Just War?"

Step 1:

Explain to your students that the focus of the lesson will be on examining the morality and justification of wars. Ask your students to brainstorm a list of any armed conflicts that they know of, and record their answers. (Students may give responses such as: War on Terror in Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf War, the Vietnam War, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, the United States Civil War, and the United States Revolutionary War.) Once the students have listed the armed conflicts they know, discuss their examples. Solicit from the students what they know about these conflicts and how they feel about them.

Step 2:

Explain to your students that you will be looking at a video that examines war and morality. Distribute the “Graphic Organizer Response” sheet to your students. Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by asking them to record on their “Graphic Organizer Response” sheets what the Just War tradition is. Insert the video Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly: Religion, War, and Violence. START the video at the frame of the black and white World War II-era airplane and the 1940's war music. PAUSE the tape after the woman in the blue dress says "...neighbor love within the Christian tradition." CHECK for comprehension, making sure that students understand what was presented to them about a Just War. (Students are likely to respond by stating that it is Catholic doctrine that provides for the idea of moral wars that are necessary to protect people from the wrongdoings of aggressors.)

Provide the students with another FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, instructing them to record the reasons that a Just War in modern society can be problematic. PLAY the tape from the previous pause point. STOP the video when the priest says "...because both international law and the regime of the United Nations places a great emphasis on protecting the sovereignty of states." As a whole class, discuss the concepts of war, morality, and politics that are presented in the clip. (Students will most likely respond by stating that in modern times there are drastically different views about what qualifies as "moral," as well as that in an era of the United Nations, there are problems with impinging on the rights of sovereign states to govern and deal with problems in their own ways.) Review the vocabulary words used in the clip, such as sovereign, altruistic, and systematic.

One of the main concepts that students need to grasp from viewing these clips is how the Catholic Church saw its role within world affairs and world morality. Another concept that they need to understand is how modern politics, from the Cold War-era forward, are different from politics and foreign policies in the past, and why these changes have occurred. Depending on the prior knowledge that each student has, some of the references and ideas in this clip may be confusing, such as the references to St. Augustine or the Cold War. If the students seem to be confused while watching the clip, PAUSE the video and discuss that section with them. If, while discussing the clip after viewing, the students appear to have missed major concepts, REWIND the tape and watch portions of the clip again. Focus on discussing the concept of "Just War." Ask the students to define what they feel a Just War is. Do any of the armed conflicts they shared in the brainstorming activity, such as the Gulf War, the Vietnam Conflict, or the Kosovo Crisis, qualify as a Just War? Why or why not?

Step 3:

Explain to the students that you are going to view a video clip that explains what a Just War is, according to Catholic Doctrine (and subsequently, the definition accepted by most modern politicians). Provide the students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by asking them to record the five criteria for a Just War on their response sheets.

PLAY the tape from the frame where the man with the gray hair and the brown overcoat says, "For a war to be considered just..." STOP the tape when you hear the same man say, "... innocent civilians must never be targeted." (Note: The speaker lists the criteria rather quickly. It may be necessary to REWIND the video and show that clip again.)

When students have recorded their answers, review the five criteria and discuss them with the group. Do these criteria make sense? Do they agree with all the elements, or are there any elements that seem to be unreasonable or immoral? Now, based on the Catholic Church's definition of Just War and what they know about other armed conflicts, which of their brainstormed ideas qualify as a Just War? Why or why not?

Five Criteria for a Just War
  1. It must be aimed at stopping human rights abuses.
  2. It must be authorized by a legitimate governing body.
  3. There must be a reasonable certainty of success.
  4. The violence must be used as a last resort.
  5. The damages must be kept to a minimum and innocent civilians cannot be targeted.

Learning Activities

Step 1:

Explain to the students that you are going to study one example of what is commonly considered to be a Just War, but it is important that they have a historical context to understand the conflict. Ask the students to share their knowledge of Kosovo, Serbia, the KLA, Slobodan Milosovich, ethnic cleansing, etc. After you have discussed what they already know, ask students to log on to the BBC Yugoslavia Fact File at

Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by asking them to record one new fact from each of the pages of the timeline on their Response Sheet. They will be recording information about the role of Yugoslavia in World Wars I and II and the Cold War.

Step 2:

Once the students have a historical perspective on the conflict, explain to them that they will be reading about some of the atrocities that took place in Kosovo that lead to United Nations/United States intervention. Ask your students to log onto the Web site for the report Kosovo: As Seen, As Told at, a primary source document compiled by Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by assigning them to small groups, each responsible for a chapter of the report. Instruct them to read their chapter and then write a brief summary of it, including specific examples from the report to make their summary clear and complete. This summary should be recorded on their Response Sheet. Chapters 3-14 (12 chapters total) are the most applicable to this study. However, be advised that Chapter 7 of the report contains mature subject matter and strong language. It should only be assigned if you feel that you have students that are mature enough to handle this subject matter. If you do not feel that your students will be able to deal with this chapter, simply omit it from your study.

Once the students have finished reading the chapters in their small groups, have them return to the large group and share their findings with the rest of the class. Discuss the human rights violations that were documented in Kosovo. Was the reporting of this information objective or biased? Based on what they learned, do they feel it meets the criteria for a Just War?

Step 3:

Once the students understand the situation that existed in Kosovo, explain that they will watch a video clip about American involvement in the conflict. Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, instructing them to watch the clip and record, on their response sheets, President Clinton's reasoning for American intervention. PLAY the tape from the frame where there is a crowd of people standing by two security guard stations and the man speaking says, "In Kosovo, the forced expulsion of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians from their homes…" STOP the video after President Clinton says, "Ending this tragedy is a moral imperative." After they have watched the clip and recorded their answers, ask the students if they agree with sending American troops to Kosovo. Was it necessary to have outside involvement in the Kosovo crisis? Did we have a moral obligation to get involved, or did we unnecessarily send troops into a conflict that had nothing to do with us? Did our involvement, as well as the involvement of the United Nations, qualify as a Just War? Can this situation and the arguments for and against involvement be compared to other conflicts in the past? (Some students may feel strongly that we have a moral obligation to intervene on the part of those who are being oppressed, while others may feel that we have no place getting involved in another country's civil war.)

Step 4:

Once the students understand the pro-involvement point of view, they will learn about the opponents to American involvement. Ask students to log on to the Web site Voices of Dissent at, an audio clip of a story from NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, instructing them to listen to the audio clip and follow along in the transcript, and record four reasons people opposed the war in Kosovo on their Response Sheets.

Have students discuss the reasons that some people opposed action in Kosovo. Do they agree or disagree with those reasons? Why or why not? Based on the opposition opinions, can this still be considered a Just War? Why or why not? (Some people in the article are opposed to involvement because they feel that we did not have the right to intervene in their problems, and that we have to be able to take care of the issues in our own country before we try to fix things in another country. Others felt that there was no strategic way to win in the conflict.)

Cross-Curricilar Extensions

Step 1:

As a way of using their knowledge of the Just War theory, place students in role as a United Nations Committee that is charged with reviewing armed conflicts and determining if they were Just Wars or if they were inappropriate actions. Present to the students descriptions of the wars from the past, but do not let them know that these wars actually occurred. After you have given them the descriptor of an armed conflict, have them discuss whether or not it meets the criteria for a Just War, and regardless of whether it does or does not meet the criteria, should the war be fought anyway? Some examples of possible descriptors to use are:
  • A fledgling country has been continually harassed by a larger imperial nation. The established country has subjected the citizens of the smaller country to abuses such as unjust taxes, and illegal search and seizure. As the abuses of the citizens get worse, a faction of the smaller country worked to create a militia and ultimately began to fight against the imperial nation to win their freedom. (The United States Revolutionary War)

  • A small agrarian nation has been divided politically, with Communist forces occupying the northern part of the country and the non-communist forces occupying the southern part of the country. A civil war breaks out between the two sections, and many innocent people are killed, while others are used as pawns in the battles. A much larger and established country decides to intervene in this conflict on behalf of the non-communist regime. (The Vietnam Conflict)

  • After extensive economic devastation following a war, a large country is left in ruins. At this time of vulnerability, a leader with plans for world domination and ethnic cleansing comes to power in the devastated country. Over a period of several years, this dictator succeeds in rebuilding the country and begins to annex other countries as well, while building alliances with other ruthless rulers. He imposes his severe policies on those whom he has conquered, he ignores the sovereignty of other states, and tortures many of the people living in these countries. After trying to solve this conflict by a policy of appeasement, other countries band together to drive this dictator, and his allies, out of power. (World War II)
After the Committee members have discussed the armed conflicts and determined whether or not they were Just Wars, inform the students what the wars in question really were. Do their ideas about the conflict being just change at all? In the light of the historical context of these armed conflicts, is there a need to change the rules of Just War, or should they stay the same? Is there really any such thing as a Just War?

Cross-Curricilar Extensions

Examine other modern examples of armed conflicts in the world, such as those in Rwanda, Kashmir, and the Sudan. What is the history and nature of those conflicts? Should the United States or the United Nations intervene? Would such action qualify as a Just War? Create a chart that compares the different conflicts.

Create a timeline that explains United States Foreign Policy throughout the history of the country. During different eras, the government's stance on foreign policy has changed. There were periods of isolationism, and there were also periods when the United States took on a role as protector of the oppressed people in other nations. Compare these differing foreign policies, looking at how social and political factors contributed to each.

Examine how war affected the people living in Kosovo, socially, economically, and emotionally. The report from the OSCE includes many chapters with interviews and people living in Kosovo and how they were affected.

Create a table to understand the economic impact of the war in Kosovo.
War can affect a country's economy in both positive and negative ways. For the country that is invaded, there is often economic destruction. For the country that invades, there is often some sort of economic prosperity. What was the economic impact of the war in Kosovo? How did it affect Serbia, and how did it affect the United States?

Many other religions also have standards that they use to determine the morality of armed conflict. Examine these religions, such as Judaism, Islam, and Sri Lankan Buddhism. Compare their viewpoints on war with the Catholic doctrine of Just War.

Community Connections
  • Contact a local community center that works with immigrants who are refugees from war-torn countries. Try to gain a better understanding of the lives people lived while in these other countries, and how and why they moved to the United States.

  • Contact the organization Doctors without Borders. These doctors go into countries experiencing war and unrest, and they treat the people there without looking at their political affiliations. Learn more about their mission, and try to get information about their experiences in Kosovo.