The Magazine

Making War

From the November 3, 2003 issue: The triumph of just-war theory.

Nov 3, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 08 • By CHRISTOPHER LYNCH
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The Code of the Warrior

The Values and Ideals of Warrior Cultures Throughout History

by Shannon French

Rowman & Littlefield, 304 pp., $24.95

Just War Against Terror

The Burden of American Power in a Violent World

by Jean Bethke Elshtain

Basic, 208 pp., $23

When God Says War Is Right

The Christian's Perspective on When and How to Fight

by Darrell Cole

Waterbrook, 176 pp., $10.99

WHO WOULD HAVE PREDICTED that just-war theory would conquer American popular, political, and military culture so quickly? Before the First World War, this way of thinking was nowhere in the United States. Before the Second World War, it existed only among a handful of Catholic theorists speaking entirely to one another in journals with names like the New Scholasticism and the Modern Schoolman. Although just-war theory has its origins in a suggestion of St. Augustine's, it is in temperament, form, and matter, more typical of St. Thomas Aquinas: requiring careful distinctions among the causes, means, and ends involved when nation lifts up sword against nation. And "Thomistic" has never been the word to describe America.

So how come nearly everyone deploys the vocabulary and categories of just war these days? The theory is taught in the military academies and the most secular political-science departments. Many of the most dovish peace activists invoke it when they condemn the United States' failure to have "just cause" in the war with Iraq. The most hawkish advocates of regime change rely on it when they speak of "right intention." The argument about the role of the United Nations in Iraq essentially concerned the Thomistic question of "proper authority" for war-making. At the peak of the agitation before the invasion of Iraq, one could hardly pick up a newspaper without finding the distinction between jus ad bellum, justice in the reasons for going to war, and jus in bello, justice in the means used during a war, deployed somewhere on the op-ed page.

Out of its origins in Augustine and Thomas, and the philosophers of natural law and international relations in early modernity, and theorists of the last half century such as Paul Ramsey, just-war theory has somehow become our common intellectual language about war. With the wounds of September 11 still fresh, President Bush declared, "Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done"--in the full expectation that Americans, and even some Frenchmen, would grasp his meaning.

Of course, when the same theory is applied by both sides in a debate, one might ask what use it is. And it is primarily to address this question that a number of books on the topic have appeared over the last year--each an attempt to show the usefulness of just-war theory as a guide to moral, prudent statesmanship and a tool for the education of citizens.

Shannon French's "The Code of the Warrior," for instance, shows the theory is alive and well in our military schools. French teaches ethics at the Naval Academy, and she gives us a glimpse of how her students grapple with the moral tensions inherent in training for a profession that entails the deliberate killing of other human beings. "The Code of the Warrior" surveys and analyzes the literatures of a variety of "warrior cultures" and is, on the whole, a successful effort to explore the moral limits that soldiers place on their own conduct in battle. The work treats such classics as Homer's "Iliad" and the Knights of the Round Table, as well as several familiar but rarely studied figures such as the Japanese samurai and various Native American warrior tribes.

French's students seem to rise to the challenges she confronts them with. She begins by asking them to distinguish between a murderer and a soldier, then demands that they develop and deepen that distinction throughout the semester. The apparently grisly business of learning to "take only certain lives in certain ways, at certain times, and for certain reasons" issues in the recognition that they must hold themselves to an even higher moral standard than those of us who need never raise such urgent questions.

"The Code of the Warrior" is by no means flawless: Unnecessarily detailed plot summary, overlong quotation, and apparently arbitrary selection of sources sometimes tax the reader's patience. (Why, for instance, are Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius the places to turn to understand the ethics of Roman military conduct? Surely Julius Caesar and Tacitus have something to tell us as well.) These features, however, ensure that no cookie-cutter image of a "universal soldier" emerges from French's pages. Instead, we are confronted with an array of types that set demanding standards of moral seriousness in the face of life and death dilemmas.

French makes well her overall point that some restraints are necessary to keep honorable soldiers from becoming bestial killers, and she illustrates it with examples from many warrior codes. Unfortunately, the book does not treat the question of the relative value of these various codes, let alone the ultimate question of which is the best simply, rather than the best for individuals in this or that "culture." Yet perhaps French's own restraint on this theoretical question helps us recognize a lived experience that is a crucial precondition for such questioning: We hold our humanity cheap when we simply disregard the sometimes faint sense within that not everything is permitted. For this sense can give rise to another, the sense that some things may actually be required of us; from there one can begin to inquire in earnest as to just what those things might be.

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN'S "Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World" complements French's efforts well by providing a useful guide to determining what is permitted and required now of Americans, both in and out of uniform. Elshtain echoes the complaint made forty years ago by John Courtney Murray, assailing the American tendency to assume that there is no evil as long as there is peace, and no morality as soon as there is war. At the core of this assumption is the belief that peace is worth any moral price: Unless our security is directly threatened, we must not use war to thwart any evil, however heinous--and once at war, we must avail ourselves of any means, however terrible.

Elshtain reminds us of the extent to which the canons of just-war theory were not available to Americans even in the recent past. And this led, for instance, to both our delay in entering and our chosen means--particularly the incineration of tens of thousands of Japanese civilians--for fighting World War II. The conventional wisdom of Murray's times held to this amoral, all-or-nothing approach to international affairs. Even the subsequent failure of Vietnam seemed to confirm both that we should stay out of far-off conflicts and that, if compelled to fight, we should win by any means necessary.

The times have changed. Spurred by the terrorist attacks of September 11, and enabled by precision weaponry and a transforming military to use force with greater discrimination, we need to rise to corresponding heights of political and moral discernment. Elshtain captures the character of the challenge well: "The heavy burden being imposed on the United States does not require that the United States remain on hair-trigger alert at every moment. But it does oblige the United States to evaluate all claims and to make a determination as to whether it can intervene effectively and in a way that does more good than harm." We have the freedom and power to act. Elshtain raises the question of whether we will do so in a manner befitting a nation founded on the principles of the natural liberty and equality of all human beings.

By framing that question in the context of the justness of the overall war against militant Islamist terrorism, as opposed to this or that front in the overall war, Elshtain reminds us of the principles at stake. To that end, she notes two fateful historical differences between the contemporary West and the Arab Muslim world.

The traditional Christian distinction between spiritual and temporal power is foreign to Islam. This distinction played itself out in the West for centuries in struggles between the holy Roman emperor and the pope, and between the pope and the heads of numerous temporal states. To move beyond these struggles Enlightenment thinkers refashioned the biblical injunction to render unto God and Caesar what each is due, transforming it into the philosophical teaching of the separation of church and state. Politics was thus placed on secular foundations. Religion was allowed free rein within the spiritual realm, but secular authorities were to decide essentially political questions.

The many problems with this answer notwithstanding, Elshtain is right when she calls into question the view of our "declared enemies" that "a secular state necessarily equates to a secular society, hostile or indifferent to religion." Her related point, that crucial aspects of modern liberal democracy flow from such Christian principles as the dignity of the human person, is also on the mark. Yet we must also face the fact that while a secular state does not lead forthwith to a secular society, it nonetheless tends to tilt society ever more in that direction, so much so that one has reason to harbor concerns about the ultimate consequences of the principle of the separation of church and state, even while remaining grateful for the freedom and toleration it engenders.

Such concerns can be allayed in practice by showing that modern liberal democracy can provide, protect, and to some extent even foster the space in which human beings seek to satisfy their deepest religious longings. Absent such protection and fostering, we risk degenerating into what Elshtain aptly labels ideological secularism. Responsibility for this task falls to clergy and laity alike. At a moment such as ours, when recourse to arms is sure to con-tinue if we choose to shoulder the burden of American power, responsible believers and thoughtful nonbelievers must regain what George Weigel has called "moral clarity in time of war." The just-war tradition is a vital means to that end.

TO HELP REVIVE this tradition and situate it within the contemporary context is the aim of Darrell Cole's "When God Says War Is Right." Although written by a scholar, this is no scholarly disquisition. It is a short and accessible primer on just-war doctrine. Cole's simply stated and well-supported thesis is that at times it is not only permissible but morally imperative to go to war. In many cases, a just war justly fought is not a necessary evil but a moral necessity.

Contrary to the "presumption against violence" codified by the American Catholic bishops' 1983 "Challenge for Peace," Cole vigorously argues that "classic just-war doctrine as articulated by the Church does not view all use of force as evil; rather, it declares that war can actually be a positive act of love entirely consistent with the character of God. Love of God and neighbor impels Christians to seek a just peace for all, especially for their neighbors, and military force is sometimes an appropriate means for seeking that peace."

At the crux of the problem is the Christian enjoinder not to repay evil with evil. His key contention is that the use of military force that meets just-war criteria--reasonably interpreted--is as morally defensible as the force used by a police officer who tackles a fleeing thief or a parent who punishes an older brother for beating up his younger brother. And no less than the good cop or parent, a good soldier must cultivate virtues that can be considered their own reward as well as a positive good for the country he serves.

To be sure, matters of international relations are far more complex and terrible than these analogies suggest, but morally speaking they are the same. Cole insists that a host of circumstances must obtain for the use of force to be just: It must be carried out with discrimination and proportion in a just cause by a rightful authority convinced that no other means will suffice, and with a reasonable hope of success and the intent to do good. Yet he also insists that if they do in fact obtain all this, it would be unjust not to use force.

JOHN PAUL II HIMSELF, the most visible proponent of peace on the world stage, acknowledges that the duly constituted officers of sovereign states are the rightful authorities for deciding matters pertaining to their own security; and, contrary to countless newspaper headlines, he did not declare the war in Afghanistan or Iraq to be unjust. Whatever the pope's final position, it is safe to say that he has meditated well on the mysterious relationship between God's justice and His mercy. From his belief that his office compels him to make urgent pleas for mercy in international affairs, it does not follow that John Paul condemns as unjust a particular recourse to war. Even less does it follow that other religious authorities or persons of good will should simply mimic his pleas without regard to their stations, missions, and duties.

Much work remains to be done before America fully internalizes the canons of just war, but popular punditry's now-routine use of the theory and the flood of recent books on the topic suggest that a change in the nation's thinking has taken place.

The results should be fascinating to watch.

An assistant professor of political science at Carthage College, Christopher Lynch is the editor of "Machiavelli's Art of War" (University of Chicago Press).