Review of Just War Against Terror by Jean Bethke Elshtain


[1] Jean Bethke Elshtain opens Just War against Terror by asking a simple, but crucial question.  "What Happened on September 11?" is the title of the opening chapter, where she challenges her readers with two different interpretations of that terrible day in New York, Washington, D.C. and western Pennsylvania.  The first is Pope John Paul II's judgment that the day was an "unspeakable horror."  The second, contrasting view is that of Osama Bin Laden and Islamic terrorism.  Bin Laden described acts of cold-blooded murder and calculated mayhem as a "glorious deed."  Elshtain sets the tone for the book by refusing to grant both perspectives equal validity.  She firmly agrees with the Pope's version of events, and in doing so agrees C.S. Lewis's principle that we live in a moral universe.   This premise informs Elshtain's book and makes it vital reading.

[2] Although September 11th led to a moral clarity and wartime atmosphere possibly not seen in the United States since the bombing of Pearl Harbor 63 years ago, our unity and implicit agreement about the war on terror faded quickly in some cases.   Many American institutions, in particular the mainline Protestant churches, have seen their leadership unable or unwilling to make ethical distinctions between those who would defend us and those who would destroy us.  One chapter, "The Pulpit Responds to Terror," addresses a statement made by the U.S. Episcopal bishops on September 26, 2001, "calling for the United States to 'wage reconciliation.'"  Elshtain points out that "The bishops do not tell us with whom and precisely how this reconciliation should be waged, considering that the terrorists are not responsible political leaders with a legitimate mandate and they have not issued a set of negotiable political demands."  She contrasts the moral utopianism and political naiveté of the Episcopal bishops to Pope John Paul II's message that terrorism is a crime against humanity, and that fundamentalist terrorists are "radically opposed to belief in God."  John Paul concludes by stating "We acknowledge..the right and duty of a nation and the international community to use military force if necessary to defend the common good by protecting the innocent against mass terrorism."  By drawing a contrast between these religious leaders, Elshtain compels the reader to decide between radically different positions, and to take sides in a matter where there can be no reasonable compromise.

[3] To her credit, Elshtain goes beyond simply pointing out the flaws in anti-war arguments which postulate moral equivalency between the two sides.  In support of her views, she revisits classic texts and reasserts norms of just war, the functions of governments and nation-states, and the ethical justification for political and military action.  In the chapter "What Is a Just War?" Elshtain references Martin Luther, Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan, and St. Augustine.  Specifically, she asserts the case for just war:

The presupposition of just war thinking is that war can sometimes be an instrument of justice; that, indeed, war can help to put right a massive injustice or restore a right order where there is a disorder…Indeed, there are worse things than war.  The twentieth century showed us many of the worse things, including gulags and genocides.  The world would have been much better off if the violence of particular regimes had been confronted on the battlefield earlier; fewer lives would have been lost over the long run.

[4] This is moral reasoning of a high order, which challenges pacifists and anti-war activists to define precisely why avoiding war is preferable to the alternative in each specific case.  Although war everywhere, against every injustice, is neither plausible nor likely, confronting amoral, brutal states such as the Taliban's Afghanistan or Saddam Hussein's Iraq is a viable option in the just war tradition.  Elshtain helps provide a framework for reasoned debate on these crucial issues.

[5] One of the strengths of Just War against Terror is Elshtain's ability to address United States action, along with our coalition partners, against rogue states such as Afghanistan and Iraq.  Other writers have editorialized in both secular and religious journals that U.S. attacks violated the U.N. charter and principles of international law.  In "Taking Terrorists at Their Word," Elshtain cites a September 18, 2001 resolution passed by Congress giving President Bush "authority under the Constitution to take action to deter and prevent acts of international terrorism against the United States."  She argues that sovereign states such as the U.S., acting under the rule of law, have ample legal authority to defend themselves by passing laws such as the September 18, 2001 resolution and the Patriot Act.  In the same chapter, she puts the controversy over the Patriot Act and the authorization of military tribunals in historical context.  She points out that Presidents Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt both authorized military tribunals during wartime, and there is ample precedent for their use.  Elshtain cites Justice Robert Jackson's statement that "the Bill of Rights is not a suicide pact," in the course of explaining that the American tradition of rights and freedoms was not intended to protect terrorists whose goal is to subvert the domestic and international order.

[6] Although much of the book, especially "Taking Terrorists At Their Word", can be appreciated from a secular viewpoint, Elshtain buttresses her arguments by citing 20th century theologians, such as Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr.  Tillich and Niebuhr tackled the issue of just war in the context of both World War II and the Cold War that ensued.  Tillich specifically called out Germans in a series of broadcasts into the Nazi regime, urging them to resist the criminal and unjust regime which waged war in their name.  In doing so, Tillich drew distinctions between the Nazis and the democratic forces fighting them, in a memorable passage quoted by Elshtain:

It is a military necessary to bombard and to reduce places to rubble in which the enemy is entrenched.  It is a military necessity to destroy factories, bridges, and depots on a forced retreat.  But it is not a military necessity to make a wasteland out of a country, to drive the inhabitants before you, or to leave them for death.  It is not a necessity to wipe out the enemy nation….It is not a military necessity to massacre millions of women and children and old people, directly or indirectly...

[7] Tillich's service to just war theory, Elshtain argues, lies in how "he addresses the question of the obligations of whole nations and peoples and makes us think about what the world would look like if those who know no limits in their frenzy to destroy indiscriminately were given free rein."  Implicit in her argument is the idea that Christians who advocate non-judgmentalism and non-violence in the face of divisive, immoral violence practiced by terrorists are shirking their obligation to their fellow humans.  The pacifist ethos may have limited applicability within the context of societies such as India under British colonial rule, where Gandhi successfully brought about peaceful change.  As Elshtain reminds us, non-violence and a spirit of moral purity are useless against amoral societies such as Nazi Germany, who act outside the boundaries of civil society and international law.

[8] Elshtain also tackles the politically sensitive but vital topic of why Islam has not spoken out against organizations such as al Qaeda and individuals such as Osama bin Laden.    She postulates that the lack of central authority or texts other than the Qur'an have resulted in a theological void filled by extremists who lack credentials.  The chapter "The Problem With Peace" also addresses evasions of the issues by groups claiming to speak for Islam, who fail to condemn terrorism unequivocally.  Perhaps the most compelling passage is Elshtain quoting Salman Rushdie:

[9] "Why the routine anti-Semitism of the much-repeated Islamic slander that 'the Jews' arranged the hits on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon…For a vast number of believing Muslim men, 'Islam' stands, in a jumbled, half-examined way, not only for the fear of God - the fear more than the love, one suspects - but also for a cluster of customs, opinions and prejudices that include their dietary practices; the sequestration or near-sequestration of 'their' women; the sermons delivered by their mullahs of choice; a loathing of modern society, in general, riddled as it is with music, godlessness and sex; and a more particularized loathing (and fear) of the prospect that their own immediate surrounding could be taken over - 'Westoxicated' - by the liberal Western-style way of life."

[10] The author portrays this crisis within Islam as fundamental to the rise of hatred, jihad and terror, and portrays the views described and condemned by Rushdie as "self-exculpatory" and evasive of the true issues.  The lack of true debate within Islam, and inability to call out terrorism as contrary to religious values, has limited the war against terror in both a religious and ethical sense.

[11] In contrast to those within Islam who rationalize violence and terror, Elshtain writes of those who fight to normalize these nations and societies.  In an epilogue titled "Four Brave Women," she relates the stories of brave women, fighting at considerable risk, for justice within the Islamic world, from Algeria, Uzbekistan, Somalia and Iran.  Each woman is fighting for a stable, peaceful society with a framework of rules and civil order - the precise opposite of societies such as Saddam Hussein's Iraq or Osama bin Laden's Afghanistan.  Elshtain relates these specific stories of courage, individuals fighting tyranny in the tradition of a Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Vaclav Havel or Lech Walesa, to one of the book's themes.   She states that "violent groups faced by these women's countries represent a threat to the existence of a stable state - hence the possibility (there are no guarantees) of a relatively stable civic environment itself."  As Elshtain and others have concluded, a Hobbesian world of warlords, civil wars and vigilante action is rarely contained within a nation's border.  Hussein's Iraq twice invaded neighboring countries - Iran and Kuwait - while bin Laden's Afghanistan hosted terrorists who spawned the horrific 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.  In an interconnected world, societies and states which fail can bring death and destruction not only to their neighbors but nations around the globe.

[12] In an epilogue to the 2004 edition, Elshtain then addresses the vexing questions regarding the ongoing Iraq War.  She reviews the four conditions for a justified war, and addresses each.  Although some will disagree with the conclusions she draws, she makes her argument with moral seriousness combined with realism that characterizes many valid approaches to addressing such questions.  Some opponents of Elshtain's conclusion, namely that the Iraq war was justifiably pursued, will cite partisan disagreement in the United States and United Nations to support their arguments.  Although counter-arguments are welcome, showing disagreement within a democracy or group of democracies hardly proves that Elshtain is incorrect and the Iraq war was unjust from the outset.  History shows that leaders who call for just war, such as Lincoln in 1861 or Churchill in the 1930s, rarely find unanimity within their states or without.  The author addresses these questions with the same gravity as these statesmen, and helps set the tone for the ongoing discussion.

[13] Just War Against Terror is an important contribution to the ongoing debate concerning military action by the United States and its allies against rogue states and stateless purveyors of terror.  After three years of political debate, followed by war and nation-building, both sides often use hackneyed arguments and tired clichés to justify their positions.  In each chapter Elshtain asks the reader important questions, draws parallels to relevant historical examples and cites both religious and secular authorities.  Although her writing always considers both sides of the argument, she is forthright in her defense of just war against those who would destroy civil society, deny human rights and extend war on behalf of radical Islam around the world.  The best summary of her viewpoint is found in the appendix citing "What We're Fighting for," which states "Organized killers with global reach now threaten all of us.  In the name of universal human morality, and fully conscious of the restrictions and requirements of a just war, we support our government's, and our society's decision to use force of arms against them."  This is a compelling position, which its opponents will have to confront in all its dimensions in the continuing debate on the war on terror.

See Elshtain's response.

© October 2004
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 4, Issue 10