Towards a Theory on the Use of Force Short of War – The Principles of Jus ad Vim

  • Anh Le

Student thesis: Phd


The film Eye in the Sky raises a number of interesting questions regarding the ethics of contemporary armed conflicts such as the ethics of autonomous weapon platforms, questions on proportionality and so on. The central plot depicts the tense discussion between Colonel Powell (played by Helen Mirren) and her bosses in a COBRA meeting. The primary issue concerns whether Colonel Powell can fire missiles from a drone to eliminate suspected terrorist targets in a safehouse in Nairobi. Doing so would eliminate the targets but would also likely kill Alia Mo’Allim, a young Kenya girl who was selling bread in the market next to the safehouse. By coercing her subordinates to manipulate the proportionality calculation to appear more favourable, Colonel Powell got her authorisation to fire the Hellfire missiles, killing the targets and Alia. The film ended as Lieutenant General Benson – who was sitting in the COBRA meeting – told a minister who berated the General for killing the girl to ‘never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war’. I want to draw attention to the final quote of General Benson: the idea that he thinks the operation was indeed an act of war, thereby justifying Alia’s death as just an unfortunate casualty of war. The strike was conducted against the terrorist group Al-Shabaab but they were on Kenyan soil, in the middle of Nairobi. But there was no doubt in General Benson’s mind that what just happened was an act of war, fought in Kenya who was (and is) a U.S. ally against a terrorist group originated from Somalia. This ‘war’ seems very different from the kind of wars that we often associated with large armies fighting on behalf of their respective states in designated lines of battle. My thesis takes issue with the conceptualisation of military operations described in this film as “war”. I argue that this kind of operation should be understood as belonging to the distinct category of “force short of war”, or vis and should be governed by a new framework that is called jus ad vim. The principles of jus ad vim are arrived at by recalibrating existing ad bellum principles to better fit the context and logic of vis. This thesis contributes to the existing Just War literature by delineating the principles of jus ad vim. This account of jus ad vim is theorised to impose a set of moral demands for when vis can be used, under what conditions and with what aims. Furthermore, I theorise the principles in a way that they can be accepted by decisionmakers who have to make the difficult decision to use vis – such as those sitting in the COBRA meeting in the film. The hope is that the principles can bridge the gap between the theory and practice of vis and demonstrate how ethical considerations can help guide action in the real-world.
Date of Award1 Aug 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorStephen De Wijze (Supervisor) & Liam Shields (Supervisor)


  • Just War, Military Ethics, Use of Force

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