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America and the Just War Tradition

A History of U.S. Conflicts


Edited by Mark David Hall and J. Daryl Charles


Notre Dame (Indiana): University of Notre Dame Press, 2019

Paperback. xvi+321 p. ISBN 978-0268105266. $35


Reviewed by Robert T. Jones

US Army Command & General Staff College

Fort Gordon, Georgia



Saint Augustine of Hippo. Thomas Aquinas. Hugo Grotius. Such historic figures are well familiar to students of Just War theory. These names and more resonate from the pages of America and the Just War Tradition : A History of U.S. Conflicts. This anthology, edited by Mark David Hall and J. Daryl Charles, examines the Just War tradition in the context of selected American wars. This edited volume features chapters from eleven different authors representing a variety of academic disciplines. The editors limited the scope of this work to a subset of wars occurring since the nation’s founding in 1776. Even so, space limitations required choices to be made. In the editor’s words, the volume covers only “America’s major, most notable wars” [30]. The conflicts included in this book are the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, American Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, the Korean Conflict, the Vietnam War, the Gulf Wars, and the War on Terror (including Afghanistan). The editor’s choices were certainly not easy, given the hundreds of U.S. military interventions large and small that have occurred in the relatively short history of the American nation. While some might take issue with the exclusion of certain conflicts, the wars included offer a fertile field to apply the elements of Just War thinking and draw reasoned conclusions.

The first chapter, “The Just War Tradition and America’s Wars,” is co-written by the editors and serves as an introduction to the main body of the book. In this chapter, the editors establish a firm foundation for the reader’s understanding by setting some parameters for consideration. The editors emphasize that this book concerns the tradition of Just War and not “Just War theory,” since this way of thinking about war and peace is embedded prominently within the wider Western cultural heritage [4]. This tradition in the context of Western civilization represents the accumulated wisdom of more than 2,000 years of cultural, political, and military history. The editors note the eclectic nature of this tradition, as including the domains of theology, philosophy, politics, international law, and military strategy [4]. This chapter also defines and offers examples of the three components of Just War thinking: Jus ad Bellum (just reasons for war), Jus in Bello (just conduct during war), and Jus post Bellum (justice after war). The editors offer a useful analysis and discussion of all three elements. For Jus ad Bellum, core criteria for going to war include just cause, proper authority, and right intention [9-17]. To regulate just conduct in war, the principles of discrimination and proportionality are the main components of Jus in Bello [19-22]. Justice after war (Jus post Bellum) is the newest element of Just War theory. The editors note that the past decade and a half has brought attention to this category [24-25]. The objective of Jus post Bellum proponents is to establish “a state or condition that is qualitatively better than what existed previously” [25]. In other words, it is not enough to simply win a just war, it is necessary to ensure post-war conditions minimize the possibility of future conflict. Three conditions associated with Jus post Bellum are the restoration of rights, victim compensation, and political and territorial sovereignty. Thus, the three components of Just War thinking provide the common frame of reference for the chapters that follow. The editors close the first chapter by reflecting on the meaning of America’s wars. This reflection is an acknowledgement that the degree to which American wars may be judged as “just” or “unjust,” or somewhere in between, will certainly be a matter of debate. In any event, the editors conclude that such debate will “advance the conversation about how Americans have thought and should think about war” [29].

The eleven chapters that make up the main body of the volume are arranged chronologically, beginning with the American Revolution and concluding with the War on Terror. Each conflict is viewed within its historical context and measured against the traditional Just War elements of Jus ad Bellum and Jus in Bello. Where appropriate, Jus post Bellum is also considered. Although each of the contributing authors approaches the topic from a variety of perspectives, all are careful to stay within the framework established by the editors. Each of the chapter case studies stands on its own merit but a thread of continuity ties them all together—a great strength of the book. Taken holistically, the book offers a fair and balanced look at American successes and failures with respect to the Just War tradition.

America and the Just War Tradition is a unique and welcome addition to the growing body of literature on this subject. The book effectively combines the historical context of each conflict with traditional Just War elements, enabling a more nuanced understanding of American wars. This work successfully achieves the editor’s stated aim to “subject the relative justness of major American military campaigns to moral scrutiny and to do so being attentive to historical context” [2]. This volume will be at home on the bookshelves of historians, theologians, philosophers, scholars of Just War, and even government professionals involved in setting policy and decision-makers at the highest levels.



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