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.