U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Heaviness of Just War

i-like-warThe National Catholic Reporter recently alerted us to the convening of a Vatican-sponsored conference on just war. The article noted it was the “first-ever conference to reevaluate just war theory,” suggesting that the Catholic Church has not rethought its centuries-old response to state-sponsored violence. I think most folks understand the general notion of just war, that it proscribes principles for getting into, fighting, and getting out of war. I don’t want to wade through hundreds of years of debates within the Catholic Church about how this doctrine has been applied. However, I do want to add a couple of points to the discussion.

First, as the organizers of this conference well-know, there has been a vigorous contest over interpreting and applying just war doctrine by American Catholics, from Dorothy Day and John C. Ford, S.J., in World War II, through Gordon Zahn in the early Cold War, the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference after Vietnam, and more recently Andrew Bacevich. This debate owes a debt to Pax Christi as well, for consistently advocating non-violent resolution to conflicts since 1945.

Second, the rub for changing the calculus of the just war doctrine is disentangling it from justifying rather than preventing war. Conference organizers declared: “After more than 1,500 years and repeated use of the just war criteria to sanction war rather than to prevent war, the Catholic Church, like many other Christian communities, is rereading the text of Jesus’ life and re-appropriating the Christian vocation of pro-active peacemaking.” But the prospect of upending the historical use of just war reveals the heaviness of the term.

What the organizers encounter in addressing just war is the dialectical relationship between why wars are fought and how wars are fought. Moreover, the immediate justification for engaging in war–an attack on the homeland, the imminent death of many people, a mortal threat to the material existence of a people–is often trumped by the existential purpose of a nation or group. In short, no matter how rational just war principles might seem they typically sound banal next to the heroic and historic pronouncements about why we must fight!

Michael Walzer remains a prominent expert on just war theory and in the latest edition of Just and Unjust Wars (2015), he responds to both the critics of his book and the promoters of the academic industry of just war theory by pointing out the significance of the collectivist power of war. “Patriotism and loyalty are, no doubt, often misguided, but they shouldn’t be incomprehensible,” he tells his critics. “Collectives like the state (or the army of the state) are indeed instrumental: they have no intrinsic value. But they make possible, and they defend, another collective, a community whose existence is of centrally important value to (most of) its members.” (340) Walzer reminds us that the default position of soldiers fighting for big concepts like “our freedom” is war not peace. See the image above that introduces this post from Chris Kyle, the idolized war hero. See further the people who made him into an idol.

With a nod to Peter Berger and his idea of “sacred canopy” creating social norms and beliefs out of language, just war can mean something very different to those who have been using to fight for a very long time. As Michael Ignatieff, among others, came very close to arguing at the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, it is America’s burden to be a better empire and empires are not made in peace.

20 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Ray, interesting essay. It would be helpful to most readers not familiar with just war doctrine to enumerate the criteria for determining a just war such as intention, comparative justice, and last resort. My study of just war concluded that the criteria is extremely flexible and if followed to the true spirit would actually make all war impossible. Even as absolute pacifism is also impossible. Good examples of the limits of human judgment in the face real evil. So, to support your point, yes, it has served to justify war rather than prevent it moving beyond Catholic circles. In light of history, it’s good to hear that Catholic thinkers are reconsidering the whole theory. The just war debate calls for a book. Is that your next book?

    • Yup that is the plan. I am writing a shortest book on the 1983 US Catholic Bishops letter The Challenge of Peace and then a longer project is one on just war.
      As for detailing the principles of just war, if they mattered I suppose my listing them might help but they would seem either arcane or laughable.

  2. Ray,
    Great post, and I wanted to comment simply to say that I greatly appreciate the concept of the “heaviness” of an idea. I’m really looking forward to your book!

    • Thanks Andy! Your comment gives me confidence to use that characterization next week.

    • Great biblio. There’s been a flurry of recent research on configurations and reconfigurations of the (*related topic*) Roman law of nations in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, such as Jeffrey Glover’s Paper Sovereigns and Daniel Lee’s Popular Sovereignty in Early Modern Constitutional Thought.

    • Thanks very, very much Patrick. Your bibliographies are just remarkable!

  3. Many thanks for the kind words and sentiment to Cory and Ray. I belatedly remembered a title I happen to have in my home library but failed to include: Reichberg, Gregory M., Henrik Syse, and Nicole M. Hartwell, eds. Religion, War, and Ethics: A Sourcebook of Textual Traditions. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

  4. James Turner Johnson’s 2014 book Sovereignty is, despite its title, more about the ‘just war tradition’ than sovereignty. I reviewed it in 2015 here:

    On another matter mentioned in the post, Michael Walzer has been saying much the same thing about “the community whose value is of central importance to (most of) its members” for decades. The repetition, whether one agrees or not, is perhaps getting a bit tiresome.

    I’ve read the original edition (1977) of Just and Unjust Wars, the text of which as far as I know Walzer has never changed; he’s simply added new postscripts and prefaces with each subsequent edition. I do not agree with everything he says in the book, and in particular I think he gives too much moral weight to state boundaries and too much emphasis to a community’s (putative) “common life”. Some (or many) of his historical judgments are also debatable (e.g. his treatment of the 1967 6-Day War has come in for particular criticism, though I’m not nec. saying the critics on that are right).

    All that said, the book is a fairly lucid statement of the central elements of just-war theory. I think it makes clear, among other things, that jus in bello (how war is fought) and jus ad bellum (the justification for starting a war) are quite separate. While some of the principles under these headings may be “arcane,” as Ray H. says above, I’m not at all sure they are “laughable,” nor am I sure the world would be better off if they did not exist. Btw some of Walzer’s subsequent writing in this area is collected in Arguing about War.

    My (admittedly ignorant) guess about the Vatican’s reappraisal of just-war theory is that it will result in a document running hundreds of pages that virtually no one will read except a few scholars (though I cd be wrong). There will be, no doubt, some kind of ‘executive summary’, which media reports will truncate further. Whether the whole exercise will actually mark an advance over the current state of debate/discussion in this area is, istm, an open question.

    • I found your critical appraisal of Sovereignty quite helpful. For Grotian territoriality, I usually explicate not only the distinction between a reciprocal law of arms, jus in bello, from jus ad bellum, but also the distinction between jure proprietatis and usufruct conditions speci?ed by the dominus (for Grotius, the patrimonium populi) in a transferal or even distribution of sovereignty, ala jus in re aliena.

      • Cory,
        Thanks. I can’t claim to be a Grotius expert (or anything esp. close to it), so I would have to do some further digging to understand exactly what you’re saying here — I’m sure it’s right, it’s just a bit cryptic for me. (Last time I really had to engage Grotius at all [beyond the linked bk review] was a first-yr grad seminar, and that was *a while* ago.)

      • p.s. to the extent you are getting here at a distinction between legal jurisdiction over a territory and ‘control’ or ‘possession’ of a territory (or right to ‘use’ — which I seem to recall is what usufruct is), that predates Grotius by a lot, though I’m not surprised that he addresses it. In parts of late-medieval and early-modern Europe, this notion of sovereignty as ‘divisible’ persists while a newer, more ‘unified’ model is emerging, and the result is, to put it colloquially, something of a mess.

      • I responded to your linked argument that “Grotius (drawing on some previous writers such as Vitoria) shifted ‘the locus of authority to wage just war…from the prince to the commonwealth,’ with the prince now seen as the polity’s agent or representative (p.82). Grotius also put more emphasis on defense, especially defense of the polity’s territory, as a justification for war (p.84). The political community’s right to defend itself is now seen as derivative of the individual right to self-defense, and the authority to act in the community’s defense is delegated from its members to the ruler…Here Johnson takes the traditional view of the Peace of Westphalia, i.e., he regards it as having laid the ground for the close connection between sovereignty and territory that has characterized the modern state system.” Please let me know if my comment requires further clarification.

        Also: in regards to your below comment, I prefer studies (or my own research) that explicate or substantiate rather than solely *apply* Grotian ideas in primary sources and historical linguistics. Citing the latter as secondary sources may or may not prove treacherous for historical publications.

    • Louis:
      Thanks as always for another great contribution here. Would you comment on how Walzer goes to great pains to criticize theorists who do not consult the realities of the battlefield as part of the calculus for any kind of just war theory. His point is that to imagine application of just war without contending with the fact that soldiers on all sides of a conflict believe their causes (if not all their actions) are just.

      • Ray,
        Thanks. Yes, I think one of Walzer’s strong(er) points is that he does try to root his theorizing in historical cases and battlefield situations and (to some extent) the concomitant emotions/beliefs, at least as he is able to reconstruct them from (usu. secondary) sources. But he’s not a historian by trade, and that among other things accounts for why his reconstructions are sometimes criticized.

  5. Cory:
    That quote from my review of Johnson’s book is *not* my argument; it is, rather, simply my summary of what Johnson says about Grotius.

    What Johnson says about Grotius may well be right; however, as I go on to point out, the standard or traditional view of the Peace of Westphalia that Johnson takes is very much a matter of debate these days.

    Daniel Philpott (who happens to be a defender of the traditional view) recently revised his entry on ‘sovereignty’ for the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and if you look at his reference list there you’ll find some of the relevant work (some of which you are no doubt already familiar with).

    • p.s. plus I’m sure much of it shows up in the relevant biblios by Patrick O’Donnell, which (as has already been said) are excellent.

    • Duly noted–you argue that Johnson contends, etc. Also, my comments do not take a position on the renewed Westphalic debates. Thanks for the refs in any case!

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