Review of Jean Bethke Elshtain, Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World

[1] This book was a disappointment to me, and therefore a missed opportunity. It is a disappointment in the sense that those looking for a sustained and informative treatment of the struggle against terrorism illuminated by the just war tradition will be let down- a conclusion confirmed for me by both civilians and soldiers (one responsible for teaching the just war tradition to other soldiers), clergy and laity alike. In spite of what one might be led to think by the title, this book is not a sustained or substantive treatment of the just war tradition. Treatment of the tradition is brief and superficial; it is invoked more than it is engaged.

[2] It is a missed opportunity in the sense that with so many arguing that the new era of “asymmetrical” or “4th generation” warfare renders the just war tradition obsolete, would-be just warriors could really benefit from someone – especially someone with the acumen of Jean Bethke Elshtain – taking up the challenge Paul Ramsey posed to an earlier era. Ramsey proposed a need for articulating a vision that makes war morally possible, i.e., that helps us discern the kinds of people (soldier and civilian) we would have to be, and the kinds of institutions (religious, cultural, political, and military) we would require to confront terror within the parameters of the just war tradition. For more helpful beginnings in this regard, the reader might consider the likes of Oliver O’Donovan’s Just War Revisited or even Michael Walzer’s Arguing about War, which provides more helpful insight than the current work.

[3] The chapter devoted to “What Is a Just War?,” for example, does very little to unpack the tradition. In a very modest space of thirteen pages, ten pages are spent arguing that pacifism is wrong and recourse to war legitimate, two pages are devoted to dismissing realpolitik and crusades, and a one-sentence description of each of the ad bellum criteria is offered, while nothing is said of the in bello criteria. As such, what Elshtain offers here is on par with the rather superficial treatments of the tradition that abound in the editorial pages of both secular and religious media, as well as denominational social advocacy and public policy statements.

[4] The chapter entitled “Is the War against Terrorism Just?” offers in eleven pages only slightly more substance. The criterion of just cause is addressed in a page and a half, legitimate authority in a paragraph, last resort in two paragraphs, and probability of success in about the same. Roughly four pages are devoted to lauding the US’s efforts at discrimination in Afghanistan and a little less than a page to the issue of proportionality.

[5] That Elshtain’s treatment is rather shallow, however, does not mean that it is without its interesting moments. Consider, for example, her account of the genesis of the just war tradition in Christianity. She notes that when Augustine launched the tradition, it was not a deviation from, but an evolution of the life of the early church (51). This is the case, she says, because the early church was not predominately pacifist and because the Christian message, mainstream theologians, and Scripture proclaim that violence is sometimes a tragic necessity (54-5), that while even justified war is never desirable or good, it is sometimes preferable as a lesser evil (57).

[6] What is interesting in this account is not only the way Elshtain elides on-going debates concerning the nature and status of the early church’s peace witness and presents her conclusions as unchallenged facts, but the way she has conflated Augustine and Niebuhr, to the detriment of both. Augustine, as Paul Ramsey made clear, did not think of just war as a tragic necessity that amounted to a lesser evil. Augustine saw just war as a good that was an expression of loving both the innocent and the enemy neighbor. Moreover, Augustine recognized that just war was a break with the earliest Christian witness, a break attributed to the “mysterious difference of times,” understood by him and others in terms of the success of the Gospel in evangelizing kings and princes. In other words, Augustine is not the Niebuhrian that Elshtain paints him out to be. Likewise, Niebuhr is not the Augustinian that Elshtain paints him out to be. Niebuhr recognized that the tragic necessity of violence on behalf of justice was a break with the Gospel, that the Gospel did not teach that life was necessarily tragic and violent. What made life tragic and violent and necessarily implicated in “lesser evils,” according to Niebuhr, was humanity’s sinful nature. In other words, the Gospel is not a tragic message; rather the tragedy of life is a consequence of the paradoxical intersection of persistent sin with the non-tragic Gospel of nonresistant love.

[7] Why do these subtle distortions matter? Because it makes a difference for how we think about the kind of people we have to be, and the kinds of institutions and practices we should encourage if we are going to embrace just war as a form of Christian discipleship. Elshtain’s account of just war is one of resignation, and its thrust is that those who are reluctant to use force should get over it because there is no moral purity and responsibility entails getting your hands dirty. As a counsel of resignation, her account stands over against both Augustine and Niebuhr, who shared a hopefulness that is absent in this book. On the one hand, Augustine, like the mainstream of the Christian tradition, did not think Christians should resign themselves to dirty hands and lesser evils, and on the other, Niebuhr was always forthright enough to be clear that dirty hands and lesser evils, while a tragic part of this life afflicted by sin, were not in fact the Gospel or the message of the early church. Moreover, Niebuhr’s Jesus always remained “on the edge of history,” whereas for Elshtain, the peace of the Kingdom is banished from history (46-7).

[8] Admittedly, the difference I am attempting to articulate here between resignation and hopefulness is subtle, and, as is frequently the case when discussing such matters as habits and dispositions and character, is not as clear cut as considering a neat checklist of rules and principles. But insofar as living the just war as a form of Christian discipleship has traditionally entailed a thick account of right intent (much thicker than either modern secular legalistic or Elshtain’s scant treatment of that criterion suggest), this is an important difference. Concretely, it has something to do with the kinds of formation that might produce soldiers who will persist and go to significant risks to put a halt to the brutalizing of prisoners of war versus the kind of formation that may be inclined to excuse such treatment as just another instance of the dirty hands, tragic necessity, and lesser evils that are part and parcel of life in general, and even of a justified war, in particular. I am in no way implying that Elshtain would condone the mistreatment of prisoners during the on-going conflict in Iraq. I have no doubt that she would not. Below, however, I will consider aspects of her argument that are much more ambiguous with regard to violability of legal protections accorded prisoners in practice under certain circumstances.

[9] Other missed opportunities mark her treatment of the tradition as well. Take, for example, the criterion of “prospect of success” (62). She admits that she cannot pronounce with any degree of certainty that this criterion has been met and concludes that we will all be better off if the war is successful. Not only does this render suspect her clear and evident conclusion that the war on terror is indeed a just one (Would not such a recognition entail a much more circumspect and tentative conclusion regarding the campaign’s justness?), but it passes up an opportunity to investigate the particular challenges that resisting terrorism present to the just war tradition. Just warriors have raised serious questions about this criterion. Exactly how do we know when something as nebulous as a war on terrorism has been won or lost? How do we think about what is and is not rightly included under the umbrella “war against terrorism”? Is the recent conflict in Iraq properly understood as part of the same single war? There are important questions here about how one thinks about just wars as wars for limited and attainable ends, as wars addressing specific acts of injustice. These questions are heightened all the more by disputes over the nature of terrorism. For example, Elshtain appears to favor a definition of terrorism that turns on the violation of the criterion of discrimination, but this does not prevent her from citing (apparently approvingly) a passage that associates terrorism simply with violence that escapes state control (164). This represents a very different definition of terrorism, one that accords with a law enforcement official who said in a recent interview that peaceably protesting the state’s war on terror might be considered a form of terrorism. Unfortunately, Elshtain does not choose to delve into these questions.

[10] The criterion of right intent stands as another missed opportunity. She barely mentions the criterion, although in treating just cause she asserts that US involvement in Afghanistan is motivated by love for the Afghan people. Unfortunately her treatment of intent goes no further. Yet the criterion of right intent is rich with possibilities for assisting just warriors in reflecting on multiple disputed aspects of a/the war against terror. For example, in the just war tradition the criterion of right intent is a place where issues of character especially rise to the fore. Elshtain notes once in passing that character is pertinent to evaluating just war, but leaves this comment undeveloped. That character matters means that to the extent that just war is understood as a form of Christian discipleship, it cannot be rightly reduced to a legalistic checklist that anyone – regardless of character – can use to rationalize warfare. This is to say that as a form of Christian discipleship, war can only be just to the extent that it is a reflection of the just character of a people, to the extent that it arises out of a people’s ongoing commitment to justice for their neighbor in their everyday life. The criterion of right intent has the potential to address issues such as the obligations that just warriors accrue post bellum, the abuse of the tradition by its selective or cynical invocation, and how a would-be just warrior might begin to think about confessing and addressing their complicity with injustice even as they seek to wage war justly.

[11] Finally, one could argue that Elshtain’s treatment of the just war tradition is (in spite of her stated hope) a step backwards in the contemporary effort to retrieve the just war tradition in Christian circles. Her argument on her own terms is thoroughly ideological and therefore not serious. Elshtain consistently dismisses criticisms of the war on terror on the grounds that critics deploy tired categories, distort and ignore facts, attack U.S. motives, and engage in easy criticism of the U.S. Each of these characteristics, according to Elshtain, is a sign that a work is ideological and not serious (75 and passim). The problem with such criteria is not simply that it is far from obvious why questioning motives and pointing out easy criticisms renders one ideological and not serious, but that Elshtain’s work is rife with the same moves.

[12] Consider, for example, her efforts to dismiss pacifism. Piecing together her account of Jesus and theological pacifism, it is clear that she is “deploying tired categories” and engaging in easy criticism. By this I mean that she is repeating Reinhold Niebuhr’s analysis and applying it to the weakest forms of pacifism (hence she is susceptible to the charge of “easy criticisms”) without any regard for developments in theological pacifism and its critics since Niebuhr. Thus she asserts that pacifism is a matter of withdrawing, of doing nothing in the face of evil, of ignoring the scriptural call for justice, of being simplistic and even “refusing to think theologically.” Granted there are pacifists guilty as charged. But why does she shy away from taking up theological pacifism at its strongest? She ignores, for example, the work of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas (who has not been silent about the war on terror), who have addressed Niebuhr’s criticisms in ways that, if not universally compelling, at least render simply reiterating Niebuhr problematic. That Elshtain limits herself to tired categories and easy targets diminishes the usefulness of her argument on behalf of just war against theological pacifism. Yet another missed opportunity.

[13] Although there are several instances of distorted interpretation, I will highlight one that is particularly blatant – her treatment of religious statements opposing the war. Elshtain excoriates a Pax Christi U.S.A. statement issued immediately after 9/11 on the grounds that it enjoins restraint on only one side in the conflict, labels all use of force as “despicable,” and equates a carefully discriminating response with “reckless retribution” (115-6). Not only is this critique self-contradictory (How can one enjoin restraint on only one side and at the same time denounce all force as despicable?), it defies the plain meaning of the text. The statement, by a US group addressed to the US, asks only the US to exercise restraint. But does Elshtain really think that Pax Christi is unconcerned about unrestrained violence by the terrorists? The statement denounces the unspeakable acts of violence that occurred on 9/11. Furthermore, what would it mean to ask a terrorist group to be restrained in its violence? Isn’t the proper charge to terrorists not “restraint” but cessation? A call for restraint directed at only one side is not so outlandish in this case. Likewise, her claim that the statement equates any forceful, discriminating response with “reckless retribution” defies the imagination. The statement does not call for the US to respond nonviolently but with “justice based on international law.” Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. In at least two other instances she interprets religious leaders’ statements as apologies for terror. The question is why Elshtain feels compelled to resort to this kind of tactic. It does not help us think through what are appropriate and faithful responses by churches and church leaders and others to such horrifically evil events.

[14] Elshtain criticizes opponents of the war on terror for failing to take terrorists at their word, for attributing to them all sorts of less malevolent intentions. In this regard, she rightly castigates those who used the events of 9/11 and the likes of Osama bin Laden as a megaphone for their own grievances, or those who may have confused Al Qaeda with an uprising of the poor and oppressed along the lines, say, of the way Latin American liberationists speak of Christian base communities (82, 86, 118-9). Yet even as she insists on taking the terrorists at their word, and as she dismisses those who might question American motives (91-4), she does not take opponents of the war at their word.

[15] The problem with all of this is not that she questions motives – the just war tradition rightly used entails an examination of motives (right intent), and just warriors recognize that the tradition can be cynically misused either to sanction an unjust war or condemn a just one. Moreover, there is no question that her claims apply to some opponents and academics and pacifists. The problem is her overly broad assertions all but foreclose the possibility that there could be principled critics of the war, even critics of the war on just war grounds. She paints with such little nuance that one has to work hard to remember that conscientious, principled people of conviction and faith could disagree regarding the justice of the war on terror. After all, the just war tradition is a tradition – an on-going argument – and not a theory that has been articulated and set in stone once and for all. In this regard, we might ask, why doesn’t she consider just war critics of the war on terror? Once again, we face a missed opportunity to further the understanding and usefulness of the just war tradition. A second and related problem is how her analysis rules out questioning the motives of proponents of the war while ruthlessly scrutinizing the motives of the critics. Why is one ideological and the other not? More importantly for just warriors, if motives cannot be scrutinized, then what are we to do with the criterion of right intent?


[16] I have argued that the book is not really about the just war tradition. The subtitle of the work comes closer to identifying the focus of the book – the burden of American power in a violent world. Yet, even this is not quite right, for only the last 25 pages of the book approach this topic in a sustained manner, and only the last 12 pages actually articulate America’s burden.

[17] More broadly conceived, Elshtain casts her work as a contribution to the clash of civilizations. Although Elshtain repeatedly states that the war is not directed against Islam, but against Islamist fundamentalism, it is clear that she sees the war as but one component in a much larger clash between the modern Christian West and an Islam that has not (yet) relinquished its anti-modernist impulses. Hence, she concludes a section addressing “the crisis in Islam” by appealing to Rushdie, who makes it plain that what is at stake is not just extremism but Islam itself: will it modernize/ Westernize or not? (137-8).

[18] The parameters of this clash are clear. The West has developed a liberal humanistic culture of universal human dignity and rights, political freedom, and solid economic development. All of this is underwritten by Christianity and Jesus, who initiated the separation of church and state, the spread of secularity, and the development of a “noncomprehensive religion” that rejects [absolutely?] moral absolutism (29-31, 133-4). It is worth mentioning that Elshtain recognizes that Christianity stands opposed not only to a comprehensive, law-based Islam but to Judaism so conceived as well (29-31). Furthermore, anticipating objections to this endorsement of secularity on the grounds that it marginalizes religion, she counters by pointing to America, where “over 90 percent . . . claim to believe in God” and 70 percent claim membership in a church, synagogue, or mosque (37).

[19] What renders this argument problematic is not merely the manner in which Elshtain skirts substantive contemporary debates concerning the character of American civil religion as well as the nature of Christianity and its relation to the invention of the secular, but that in the final analysis it appears that even this commitment to western humanistic modernity gives way to a more basic commitment – the preservation of American power. At first glance, this is an unlikely charge. After all, the book opens with a strong defense of the 1st amendment and freedom of religion (5, 23, 28) and throughout it is obvious that Elshtain is passionately and deeply invested in preserving the achievement that is the modern secular West.

[20] But there are cracks in this commitment. She cites approvingly the claim that the Bill of Rights is not a suicide pact (97, 172). She rejects “moral absolutism” (134) and dismisses the suggestion that “moral purity” might overrule prudential calculations (172). Finally, in articulating her allegiance to praiseworthy Western values, she makes a distinction between commitments “in principle” and “in practice,” and while insisting that commitment to values in principle is inviolable, she leaves room for the violation of values and right in practice (97, 172-3)

[21] In the end, we are left not with American values and principles – since they constitute no suicide pact, they must in practice (not in principle) give way when survival is on the line – but American power. Why? Because the international order depends on it (6-7 and passim). Therefore, we (America as well as the world) cannot let American power be undermined by such things as the Bill of Rights, or strictures regarding political prisoners (172), or moral purity when the very survival of that power is at stake.

[22] This amounts to a defense of an American imperialism; although it is clear that Elshtain is uncomfortable with the label “imperialism” and that the imperialism she envisions is a benign one erected on human dignity (166ff, 177). By means of a sort of secular election or providence, America has had this responsibility thrust upon it (151). It is called to lead the way in spreading a culture and polity of human dignity and “equal moral regard” (167-9).

[23] To be sure, that America has its share of shortcomings and failures is acknowledged. Elshtain does mention significant historical moral failures, but she minimizes their impact on how we are to think about bearing the burden of power by treating them as aberrations or chalking them up to errors in practice, where we have strayed from our longstanding and unwavering commitment to universal human dignity in principle. In the end, optimism is restrained by the admission that America is relatively, though not entirely, selfless (166, 169), that the US has failed by not intervening enough (6, 178), that in the 90s we became self-indulgent and lost our bearings (180).

[24] Many across the political and theological spectrum will likely find this effort to qualify her idealism and reassert a more realistic tone insufficient. To these persistent critics one might be tempted to defend Elshtain on the grounds that even someone of her intellectual stature cannot do everything in a single book. Yet in a book that purports to be about the burden of American power, certain omissions can fatally skew understanding of the challenge confronting a people who would seek justice in a violent world. Certain omissions can distort our grasp of the nature of the true burden of American power.

[25] For example, Elshtain leaves one with the unmistakable impression that the fundamental American shortcoming is that it is too timid in using its power to intervene around the world. She raises not a single question about the motive or form of that intervention. Indeed, she attacks challenges of American motives as a sure sign of ideology and dismisses or ignores challenges to the form of that intervention. In this book you will find no mention of US coddling of dictators and supporting repressive regimes, no mention of interference in democratic processes and hindering social justice, either in the past or in the present. It is simply taken for granted that the American foundation is universal justice, American motives relatively pure. Realism for Elshtain means recognizing only that America is a reluctant empire, reluctant to use its (generally benevolent) force as frequently as it ought to aid others.

[26] In a book that addresses the burden of American power, it is significant that the author does not ask what kind of people we would have to be in order to bear the burden of this power rightly. Probably it was not included because it would have no impact on her argument. It is clear that Elshtain assumes that we already are that kind of people, that we already have the institutions in place, that we are fundamentally committed to justice, that we can and have and do wield our power rightly. Thus all the criticisms that she could level are not leveled because in the end they are but aberrations that neither reflect nor impinge upon our fundamental if not entirely flawless virtue.

[27] In other words, the burden of American power exercised for universal rights and dignity does not entail stretching, challenging, or changing American character in any way, beyond perhaps reducing the influence of those Elshtain has criticized. All that is required is a stern exhortation to be more assertive, to do more of what we already do. And so in the final pages of the book, Elshtain shifts from defending American intervention to exhortation (169ff.). There she points out to reluctant imperialists that the benign imperialism she proposes, which is good for the world, is also good for us – that all that she has said is actually quite compatible with national and self- interest (178). Thus, Elshtain no doubt thinks that she has successfully warded off the charge of idealism because she has not called for relinquishing national or self-interest. Instead, she has demonstrated that American national interest is good for everyone.

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[28] That this book is not particularly helpful in thinking through the discipline of the just war tradition in the midst of terror and asymmetrical war is not its most significant shortcoming. Perhaps even more troubling is the shadow this casts over Elshtain’s work. As an avowed fan of her work, what I find most remarkable is that this book is surprisingly devoid of the realism that has characterized her earlier work, including – perhaps especially — her treatment of just war. She notes that an Augustinian realist is one who is suspicious of power (70), yet one will find no trace of that skepticism here. Indeed, quite the opposite is the case – skepticism toward American power and the war on terror is treated as ideological almost by definition. This is unfortunate, because it undercuts the power of the important criticisms that are rightly made (by her and others) of various critics of the war on terror. It is this departure from Augustinian realism that most clearly opens this book to charges of “ideology,” a critique Elshtain repeatedly levels against those with whom she disagrees, thus rendering this work the rhetorical mirror image of what she opposes.

Daniel M. Bell

Daniel M. Bell, Jr. is Professor of Theology and Ethics at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina, holds the General Hugh Shelton Chair of Ethics at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and is the author of Just War as Christian Discipleship: Recentering the Tradition in the Church Rather than the State.