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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.