For hundreds of years, intellectuals have been arguing about just war theory, attempting to determine how best to use it in thinking about contemporary war. But war is not what it used to be, and it is entirely unclear that scholars who wrote about the topic before the advent even of machine guns, much less airplanes, missiles, and nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons can offer us much guidance or enlightenment. Yet many scholars interested in war continue to frame their arguments in the terms of just war theory, nearly always paying what they regard as the customary deference to its early expositors, or "fathers," as many writers fondly refer to them. In recent decades, Michael Walzer has made this practice seem incumbent on "serious" scholars of war; his Just and Unjust Wars has since its publication in 1977 (New York: Basic Books) largely shaped the contours of debate about war among philosophers and political scientists.
There are no signs that this trend will abate any time soon because budding academics interested in the morality of war are essentially taught that its study is synonymous with that of just war theory. Alfred North Whitehead once remarked that all of Western philosophy has been but footnotes to Plato, and it would seem that the bulk of the writings of philosophers of war over the past thirty years has amounted to footnotes to Walzer. In the latter case, however, this tendency would seem to be largely a consequence of the modern structure of academia, where departments are filled with job-seeking graduate students and tenure-seeking professors. The progressive homogenization of many values-focused disciplines evinces the intellectual effects of this highly politicized structure nowhere more dramatically than in philosophy.
A case in point, Larry May's recent edited collection, entitled not Just War Theory, but War, (1) begins with two chapters on the thought of sixteenth-century thinkers Francisco de Vitoria, Francisco Suarez, and Hugo Grotius, among others entirely ignorant of the practices that go by the name of war today. I do not deny that the work of such figures may have historical interest, but I am amazed by the amount of ink spilled and the number of trees felled in efforts to ascertain what sixteenth-century scholars thought about sixteenth-century war, which bears no resemblance to the practices carried out under the banner of just war theory today. In fact, I know of no other discipline--aside, of course, from history--that looks to thinkers who wrote five hundred (or more!) years ago for anything even approaching what might be regarded as knowledge about their discipline in the twenty-first century. What physicist, biologist, or economist looks to the sixteenth century for answers about the most pressing questions in his field today?
My complaint is not a mere expression of gratuitous irreverence; it involves a serious question: Have contemporary philosophers of war, trapped in a paradigm of the past, paralyzed themselves to the point of being incapable of contributing in any meaningful or constructive way to the resolution of the ever more vexing problems of contemporary war? Many scholars spend their time rehearsing the standard list of just war theory requirements and debating whether, according to their understanding of the list, this or that recent war (already waged) was just or unjust. This activity may be a fine way to while away one's hours, certainly no less noble than the occupation of a chess master or a professional poker player. Meanwhile, however, people continue tragically to be massacred on a regular basis while just war theorists sit around playing what is tantamount to an intellectual game.
Having duly honored Vitoria, Suarez, and Grotius in section one, sections two and three of May's volume treat, predictably enough, the topics of "initiating war" and "waging war"--or, as those "in the know" refer to them, jus ad bellum and jus in bello. That the Latin continues to be used, even though the vast majority of modern philosophers of war have no actual knowledge of that language beyond these sage-sounding expressions, merely underscores the extent to which they are arguing within a paradigm box established back in the good old days, when warriors were all men who fought men (not drone operators sitting comfortably in impenetrable, undisclosed places, thousands of miles from the scene of their assassinations) and scholars spoke Latin!
I do not mean to suggest that the just war theorists included in this volume are not without their occasional insights. In the opening chapter, Gregory M. Reichberg reminds us of the work of early political realist Thucydides, author of History of the Peloponnesian War, whose view Reichberg summarizes in these terms: "in the conduct of their external affairs, states ... only pay lip service to morality while in reality they (i.e., their leaders) are motivated solely by a calculation of basic interests." Nicholas Rengger recalls in his chapter, "Jus in Bello in Historical and Philosophical Perspective," that just war theory was originally an effort to "explain" why and how war was permissible for Christians, notwithstanding Jesus Christ's apparent prescription to "turn the other cheek" in the face of violent aggression.
Such insights make it disheartening, to say the least, that so many self-proclaimed just war theorists, following in what they take to be this grand tradition, should continue to direct their intellect and energies toward broadening the range of rationales for war available to belligerent leaders. Nothing can be clearer from history than that political leaders need no help whatsoever in figuring out ways to persuade their people to support their wars. Yet the gist of May's own chapter, "The Principle of Just Cause," as well as Jeffery McMahan's, "Aggression and Punishment," is to do precisely that. May ultimately argues for "a broader sense of what counts as just cause" (p. 66). McMahan takes himself to be boldly standing up against the now orthodox view that wars may not be punitive in nature, concluding that punishment can be a just cause for war, but that "just war can be punitive only when the aim of punishment is defense or deterrence." All of this, remarkably enough, in spite of McMahan's own astute observation that "states tend to seize any pretext that is available [for war]" (p. 77).
It would be one thing if the wise words of past thinkers had been used--even once--to stop a war. Instead, a sober look at the facts reveals that just war theory is used to rationalize, not to limit, and least of all to prohibit wars. In this regard, just war theory is rather like the doctor who takes credit for all of his patients who survive, while shirking any responsibility--by blaming uncontrollable fate--for those who die. I ask sincerely: What potential war did just war theory ever stop or limit? The sad truth is that, far from taming belligerent tendencies, just war theory has proven to have one clear and undeniable application: leaders who wish to wage war invoke the rhetoric of the just war paradigm--checking off the list …