Just war

Divinity School professor Jean Bethke Elshtain considers the moral necessities of war.

By Ken Trainor
Photography by Dan Dry

Just-war theorist Jean Bethke Elshtain says the question isn’t whether to confront “systematic terroristic violence,” but how.

“War puts people in extreme situations,” says Jean Bethke Elshtain, the Divinity School’s Laura Spelman Rockefeller professor of social and political ethics. “It’s a human laboratory.” Do they react nobly and with decency? Or horrifically? “War raises all kinds of questions about courage and service to others,” she says. “I’ve always been interested in war as a human activity.”

Growing up, Elshtain would travel 12 miles to the theater nearest her hometown of Timnath, Colorado, to watch war movies and Westerns. She was still watching them when she went off to college at Colorado State. One of the most affecting was John Ford’s 1962 Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. In Just War Against Terror (Basic Books, 2003), she called the film “a parable on the use of force at the service of civic peace…in which the forces of violence are pitted against all those who want to settle, raise their families, and educate their children. The film does not glorify the antiviolent use of force but shows it instead to be a tragic necessity.”

What Elshtain didn’t know, watching for the first time as John Wayne’s rancher gunned down the villainous Liberty Valance to save a tenderfoot idealist and the democratic virtues he epitomized, was that she was starting down the path toward “just war theory.” As a philosophical doctrine, it is traceable to the fourth-century writings of St. Augustine, which Elshtain, a self-described “Lutheran leaning toward Catholic,” discovered as a young adult.

Since then, Elshtain, who also teaches in the political-science department and in the Committee on International Relations, has become a just-war scholar. In 1996 she edited a book of essays called Just War Theory (Oxford: Basil Blackwell), and she has explored the doctrine’s teachings in other volumes, including Women and War (Basic Books, 1987) and Augustine and the Limits of Politics (University of Notre Dame Press, 1996). Now, nearly a decade after 9/11, she is working on a book that follows up on some of her ideas in 2003’s Just War Against Terror.

As Elshtain wrote in that book, although just-war tradition never regards armed conflict as “desirable, or as any kind of social ‘good,’” it nevertheless “acknowledges that it may be better than the alternative.”

Just War Against Terror enumerated the complex criteria to determine whether force is justified and to keep its use within necessary limits: a war must prevent harm to innocents and be openly declared by a legitimate authority. It must be a response to unjust aggression against one’s own people or an innocent third party. It must be the last resort after all other options are exhausted. It must be embarked upon only with a reasonable chance of success and conducted in a fashion that protects noncombatants.

Most people agree that World War II was a “just” war, Elshtain says. After Vietnam, most just-war thinking focused narrowly on issues involving nuclear warfare. Then 9/11 brought the theory back into the limelight. In February 2002 Elshtain was one of 60 academics and intellectuals who issued “What We’re Fighting For: A Letter from America”: in essence, a defense of defending ourselves. She was one of three principal authors for the section on just war. Widely circulated through the Arab world, the letter led to the Malta Forum, an ongoing dialogue among international scholars.

Elshtain wrote Just War Against Terror before the Iraq invasion, and given the problematic entry into that conflict and the subsequent use of torture, one might think that the Iraq War didn’t fare well with just-war theorists. But that impression would be wrong.

“I get very irritated when people say Bush lied,” Elshtain says. He and his staff “weren’t lying. They were relying on evidence that turned out to be deeply flawed.” The situation defies a simple left-right calculation, she says. “These are very dense, thick issues.” With Iraq, she believes, those issues were as much humanitarian as preventive. “If you have a dictator savaging his own people, does the international community have any responsibility to do anything about that? The traditional answer was, ‘It’s terrible, but no, we don’t. State sovereignty prevents it.’ But that view has softened. Now it’s not whether it’s ever permissible, but how high do you set the bar?”

Even the just-war thinkers who came out against the war, Elshtain says, didn’t consider it open-and-shut. “Given the history of that regime, the violation of U.N. resolutions, the material breach of protocols at the end of the 1991 Gulf War—in international law, a material breach is a casus belli, a legitimate occasion for war—I can’t think of anyone who said no case could be made.” In retrospect, she adds, one might have argued against the war based on its low probability of success. “On the prudential side, maybe it didn’t look very doable.”

War-related issues have continued to escalate during the past two decades, Elshtain notes, citing the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the use of drones to attack suspected terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the urgent question of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. “Iran raises questions,” she says. “If they continue to ignore the international community, if they continue to develop nuclear weapons, if they continue to threaten to annihilate Israel, are you justified in taking preemptive action?”

Such questions led her to take up where Just War Against Terror left off. The new book’s working title is “Torture and Terror in a Time of Troubles,” and its 12 chapters are based on essays she has written on the subject since 2003. “The basic position,” she says, “hasn’t changed: the need to confront systematic terroristic violence against civilians, because that’s what terrorism is. The question is not, ‘Do you?’ but, ‘How does one do it?’”

Iraq figures in three chapters in the new book, which she hopes will be out by the end of this year. Overall, it examines “the use of force as an occasion for promoting a more just world than the one we’re in.” The project rose to the top of her to-do list “by default,” she says. “If we lived in less tumultuous times, I would write about it less. It’s a response to your world and the challenges it presents.”


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