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Book Review: Just War Thinking


In Just War Thinking, Eric Patterson sets out to revitalize Just War theory, which he believes has become a moribund intellectual project. Rather than a living and innovative body of theory, Patterson argues that Just War theory has decayed into a neo-pacificist “check list” for legitimating (or, more specifically, delegitimating) military intervention. In this he has the potential to make an interesting argument; unfortunately, he fails to make his case and runs into a lot of other problems along the way.

Michael Walzer established that, because of the damage that war invariably causes, likelihood of success is a key determinant for a just war. That is, even if a war would otherwise be considered just, if there is no likelihood that the war will succeed then it is impermissible to engage in the war. This prohibits, for example, a crusade on the part of Britain and France to liberate Finland from Soviet aggression in 1940, or a crusade on the part of the United States to liberate Tibet from China. Patterson refers to this as a novel and pacifistic innovation in just war theory, and wants to reject it. Unfortunately, he does so in less than a paragraph, which is deeply disappointing given the emphasis which he places on order, security, and the well-being of a state’s population. Fighting a hopeless war does not typically serve the principle of international order, nor does it make ones population more safe and secure. Indeed, a failed war has notably detrimental effects on both order and security, especially when such a war is waged against a regime that challenges either of those principles. This seems so obvious from Patterson’s priors that it’s unclear why he spends no time on it. Indeed, he even allows that the invasion of Iraq was “allowed” rather than “required” by just war theory, which rather puts the practical problems of the invasion at the forefront of consideration.

On several occasions Patterson questions modern Just War theory’s presumption against war. The ancient and medieval foundations of Just War theory, he claims, include no such presumption; even the pacifism of Christianity comes more from its history of resistance to the Roman state than to Biblical doctrine. I’m no theologian, but it strikes me that while both Augustine and Aquinas argued against pacifism, neither argued for war as a positive good; indeed, both seem to be quite clear on a preference for peace to war, which rather seems like a presumption against war. Moreover, it strikes me that on the specific question of the pacifism of Christianity, Patterson is also stretching beyond what the case will bear. Whatever might be said about the ability of Christian just war theory to justify any war that any sovereign ever felt the desire to execute, I don’t find the case that Christianity is neutral regarding massive state execution of violence compelling. I’m not the only one; Aquinas, Augustine, and Eric Patterson have each felt the need to confront interlocutors who argue on the basis of Scripture that organized state vs. state violence is prohibited by Christianity. Again, I’m not theologian, and I respect Aquinas and Augustine more than I respect Patterson, but it seems to me that these pacifist interlocutors have a pretty good case; moreover, it seems that the fact that if people repeatedly, over the course of twenty centuries, make the mistake (as Aquinas, Augustine, and Patterson would thus classify it) of interpreting Christianity in pacifist terms, then there must be some good reason as to why this is so, and this reason cannot be the result, as Patterson implies, of misguided late twentieth century academics.

In any case this is a curious argument, since Patterson is quite clearly trying to have it both ways; on the one hand he calls for a living and vital body of theory, and on the other he demands a return to (tendentiously described) theoretical foundations. Of course, the reasons for the presumption against war are fairly obvious. War has always been a destructive activity, and has become more so in the modern world. It is hardly pacifist to say that accomplishing a goal through peaceful means is preferable to accomplishing goals through war; as James Fearon notes, war always has ex ante costs. This is not to say that good things can’t be accomplished through war, but accomplishing such things by war will always be more costly than achieving them by negotiation. As such, unless one assigns a positive value to the fighting of war, negotiation will always be the preferred course for a rational actor, until it is clear that these efforts will fail. The only way around this is to assign a positive value to the fighting of war, and this is something that democratic societies don’t do; indeed, Patterson doesn’t bother to make the argument that war, in and of itself, has positive value.

Patterson also suggests that the ancients believed punishment and vengeance were legitimate under Just War doctrine. Again, it’s not terribly hard to understand why modern just war thought has rejected the idea of punishment and vengeance. In the context of the differentiation between authoritarian and democratic regimes, the idea of the latter punishing or taking vengeance upon the former for the sake of punishment alone is troubling. Modern war, even with precision-guided munitions, takes a terrible toll on civilian populations. We take for granted that the populations living under authoritarian regimes do so unwillingly; otherwise the regimes would not be authoritarian. Any effort to punish or take vengeance upon an authoritarian regime will, as an empirical matter, almost certainly result in more pain for the civilian population of the target than the regime itself. Punishing people for something that they haven’t done is not permissible under any moral or ethical system I’m familiar with.

Patterson makes much of the idea of “defense of international order” as legitimate casus belli. There is a kernel of compelling logic to this; international order has some value in that it allows states (and the inhabitants of said states) to pursue a number of legitimate ends without fear of violence, attack, or general disruption. International order, therefore, serves to make the lives of everyone better. However, there are several problems associated with placing such a high value on international order, such that a potential disruption provides cause for bombing and the rolling of tanks. The first problem is that there are multiple potential international orders, and some are clearly more “just” than others. To take an easy case, if the Japanese Empire had either prevailed in the Pacific War or successfully deterred US entry, it would have established an order of sorts in East Asia. This order would have had certain merits: various actors would have had dependable expectations of future economic conditions, enabling trade; the Japanese Army and Navy may have been able to largely prevent interstate war between the constituent elements of the Co-Prosperity Sphere; particularly foul groups such as the Khmer Rouge may have been prevented from coming to power (a stretch, but stay with me). This would have been a certain kind of order, and it would have presented some, perhaps even many or most, of the people of East Asia with certain benefits. However, it surely would not have been a just order, and it’s very difficult for me to understand how one could argue that a Japanese war in defense of such an order (against, say, a Vietnamese resistance movement) could be conceived of as just. Of course, Patterson doesn’t argue such specifically, but his argument seems to have the potential to lead to such a conclusion.

The second problem is that even granting that international order is worthwhile, and that its defense provides legitimate casus belli, Patterson fails to provide any intellectually plausible way of determining whether a particular threat to order justifies war, rather than sanction or condemnation. This is particularly critical in the case of the Iraq War, because it’s clear that much of international society did not believe that the Iraq of Saddam Hussein was sufficiently threatening to international order to legitimate a war of conquest. The mechanisms of international governance (and surely such mechanisms are necessary to reasonable conceptions of international order) utterly failed to determine that Iraq should be the target of war. Indeed, even if such institutions had been based on alliance between systems of government similar to the United States (thus asserting that China, as a non-democratic state, does not earn a seat at the the table), they still would have failed to render a verdict in favor of the war; France, Germany, most of the democracies of Latin America, Turkey, and Russia (the latter is a bit of a stretch, but Russia is still democratic enough to enjoy a seat at the table) all believed that Iraq did not pose a significant threat to international order. As such, “defense of international order” gets us nowhere in terms of the Iraq War (it gets us much farther in terms of Afghanistan) because the actors that constitute international order could not agree on the merits of the case. The only way that the argument makes sense is to link international order explicitly to the power and interest of the United States, such that whatever the US decides to do constitutes a defense of international order. This is more or less what Patterson ends up doing.

Finally, and to return briefly to Aquinas, Patterson doesn’t bother to evaluate the danger that the direct association of international order (and the right to wage war in its service) with the goals of US foreign policy. Aquinas, for example, made quite clear “that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil.” As we know from Locke, men (and by extension states) are poor judges in their own case; as such, it’s not obvious that the United States will invariably have rightful intention. Patterson’s reply would presumably be that each instance of the use of force on the part of the US can be evaluated by just war criteria, but the association of the United States with international order seems to carry with it a strong presumption of right on the part of the United States; this right comes not from any just cause, but rather simply from the reality of power. Might, through the assumption that international order has such a high value, really does make right in Patterson’s vision.

While much of Patterson’s argument is well-thought out, his discussion of WMD is ill-informed and deeply incoherent. Using an unsophisticated definition of weapons of mass destruction (any biological, chemical, or nuclear weapon) he argues that the threat of possession of such weapons on the part of a “rogue” state is sufficient for the launching of a just war. “Rogue” is similarly ill-defined, describing simply a state that regularly defies international consensus. Why Iraq fits this definition while the United States and Israel do not is unclear; there are plenty of good ways to distinguish the first from the second two, but Patterson doesn’t bother to describe the distinction in any detail. Patterson eschews any discussion of the likelihood of the use of WMD by such states; arguments that Iraq refrained from using WMD against the United States even in the midst of a general war is apparently not worth consideration, and the idea that a state like Iraq could be successfully contained similarly receives no attention.

Patterson discusses jus in bello and jus post bellum as well as jus ad bellum, but the latter two sections aren’t very interesting. Essentially, Patterson concludes (with allusion to the hopelessly flawed and intellectually sloppy “ticking time bomb” theorem) that pretty much every way in which the Bush administration has conducted the War on Terror is cool. He has some legitimate points on the difficulty that terrorists and certain guerrilla groups present for traditional conceptions of “civilian” and “military” targets, but doesn’t really introduce anything new to that conversation. Unfortunately, he conflates will to kill us with capacity to kill us; the former, rather than the latter, justifies the use of various means of destruction, while it seems to me that the latter is significantly the more important consideration.

In challenging proponents of the current configuration of just war theory, Patterson willfully conflates opposition to the Iraq War and opposition to the invasion of Afghanistan. There are legitimate arguments against both, of course, but the arguments are certainly different, and the former achieved a consistency of opposition in just war circles that the latter lacked. This means, of course, that modern just war theory is capable of discriminating between wars, which is to say that it can declare some wars just and others injust. The ability to make such a distinction means, pretty much by definition, that just war theory cannot be pacifist; if it were pacifist, then it would classify all wars as unjust. Patterson, by ignoring that the reaction to Afghanistan and Iraq (and Kosovo and Iraq I, for that matter) differed considerably, can simply denounce all of modern just war theory as pacifist, then move on to a new construction of the term. For the rest of us this should be, of course, insufficient.

Patterson is a smart guy; the book is well written, and informed by a deep knowledge of the literature on the subject. This makes it all the more unfortunate that he leaves holes in his case large enough to float an aircraft carrier through. There is, literally, no explanation for this other than the obvious; Patterson set out to write a book about how Just War theory validated the invasion of Iraq, and didn’t let things like “facts”, “logic” and “consistency” get in his way. I find this tragic, because I prefer not to assume intellectual dishonesty on the part of an author, and because Patterson manages to develop some pretty interesting ideas along the way. It’s not necessarily the case that any theory of Just War which legitimates the Iraq War must be wrong, but the bar is pretty high, and Patterson flat out ignores elements of his own argument that ought to cause him to lean strongly against intervention. I would allow that there is a certain merit in Patterson’s approach, because just war theory shouldn’t be simply about establishing a check list; rather, it should be a living body of theory that takes into account changes in both the political/technological environment and in modern moral understanding. However, I would argue that there is, in fact, such a living body of theory and community of theorists, that this body is not “biased” towards pacifism, and that this living, vital community of theorists rendered a verdict on the Iraq War that was only flawed insofar as Eric Patterson disagreed with the conclusion.

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