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A Moral History of Americans at War

On this most recent Memorial Day weekend, I stood before the grave of Captain Brian Freeman at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego. Freeman had graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1999, branched armor, and had served in Afghanistan. He later became a member of the U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete Program, competing in bobsled and skeleton. He was recalled to active duty after his five year post-West Point commitment and was sent to Iraq as an Army Reserve civil affairs officer. Then on January 20th, 2007 Freeman was killed during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Captain Freeman, along with three others, were captured and murdered by Iraqi insurgents (twenty other American were killed as well during the preceding battle). He was 31 years old, leaving behind a wife and two young children.

A month or so before he was killed he told Senator Christopher Dodd (D-Conn) regarding Iraq

Senator, it’s nuts over there. Soldiers are being asked to do work we’re not trained to do. I’m doing work that the State Department people are far more prepared to do in fostering democracy, but they’re not allowed to come off the bases because it’s too dangerous there. It doesn’t make any sense. 

Freeman was fighting in a war that was supposedly won years earlier, against a different enemy than the original one, and did not die in combat per se, but was murdered.

How do we evaluate the moral situation that Captain Freeman found himself in while serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom? Do we retreat to a utopian pacifism and proclaim that all wars are immoral? Or is there an Aristotelian mean, i.e. are there guidelines in the Western Judeo-Christian tradition that speak to the justice of war? 

Mark David Hall and J. Daryl Charles’ America and the Just War Tradition: A History of U.S. Conflicts is a collection of articles on a dozen American conflicts from the Revolutionary War to both Gulf Wars and Afghanistan. This compilation of essays gives a historical and moral framework to understand what Freeman was doing in Karbala in January a dozen years ago (or what any of the millions of American servicemen were doing anywhere the United States has fought over the last 250 or so years). In particular,

  1. Did the United States have just reasons for being in Iraq (ius ad bellum, which in the traditional Thomist criteria consists of just cause, proper authority, and right intention)?
  2. Did the United States behave ethically during the execution of the war (ius in bello, where the “laws of war” stipulate conduct with discrimination and proportionality)?
  3. How did the United States act toward Iraq after the war (ius post bellum, which is a more recent addition to the Just War Tradition)?

The various aspects of the Just War Tradition continue to be in the news, to include the current high profile court martial of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher and President Donald Trump’s consideration of a proper response to Iran’s ongoing provocations.

My initial criticism of the book is with its subtitle, it should be A Moral History of U.S. Conflicts rather than merely A History of U.S. Conflicts. In the introductory chapter written by the editors Hall and Charles, and echoed in the excellent foreword by the peerless James Turner Johnson as well as the eleven other contributors, the Just War Tradition is a moral tradition that helps guide the leaders of a country on how to decide when to go to war, how to execute that war, and the responsibility to the foes after the war. As Hall and Charles point out, the concern with ius post bellum, while implicit in the Just War Tradition, is now made explicit and this tome does a service showing how one can evaluate this aspect of the Tradition. Hence, this book offers an outstanding practical initiation into the tradition of just war reasoning. Practical because each author leads us through their own engagement with the tradition with a particular American conflict. 

As Johnson states in the Forward, the introduction by the editors is well worth the price of the book since it not only gives an exposition on the Just War Tradition, but an overview of the 12 conflicts that are discussed over the next 11 chapters. Anyone with a serious interest in the moral history of America’s major conflicts will find the volume quite rewarding. The editors readily admit that they had to make hard choices about which conflicts to include in the book, and regret leaving out a number of conflicts (such as the pre-Revolutionary War belligerencies like the French-Indian War as well as the Manifest Destiny Wars against the American Indians), but they remain rightly hopeful that a second volume will remedy this situation; I too wish that this deserving volume does well enough to spawn a worthy sequel. The contributors themselves come from a wide variety of backgrounds (theology, philosophy, history, political science), but they all have in common the following: (a) an adherence to the just war tradition and (b) a moral-cum-historical analysis of American conflicts. In effect, the reader is given a series of paintings, where in each individual painting America may have struggled to adhere to any one of the three major elements of the Just War Tradition, but when the paintings are experienced together, the overarching trajectory is of a nation that consistently seeks justice and peace when it wages war.

The book offers a vital corrective through historical analysis of why the recent “presumption against war” is the incorrect way to think about Just War Theory, since the Just War Tradition has a “presumption against injustice.” As Turner points out in his brilliant 2005 article in First Things, “Just War, As It Was and Is,” the presumption against war is essentially a presumption against trusting lawful leaders of countries to make moral choices about peace and war, just and injustice. In other words, it is an admission of intellectual and moral defeat, born of the view that, in effect, war is so depraved and humans so incapable of making hard moral choices, that war can never be considered moral. But this is a disordered view of the Just War Tradition since it deprives us of moral agency, and surely as just war is possible, there is also unjust peace. To give a jurisprudence analogy: there is peace in a police state, but it is not a just peace. 

In the contributors’ chapters on particular conflicts from the American Revolutionary War to the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they generally deftly discuss the historical context of the three Just War Criteria and offer judgements on the ius ad bellum, ius in bello, and ius post bellum. Hall and Charles mention in their introductory chapter that they do not agree, and in fact, strongly disagree with some of the conclusions by their contributors, but those authors remain in the volume since “they advance the conversation about how Americans have thought and should think about war” with historical and moral seriousness. Like Hall and Charles, I do not agree with all of the conclusions contained within, but in each case I found the analysis to be helpful in clarifying my own thoughts about each particular conflict and the Just War Tradition in general. Too often, especially with the Balkanization inherent in cable news and social media, we are not necessarily exposed to good arguments by those with whom we differ in opinion; so like the editors, I appreciate being challenged in beliefs about which of the conflicts can correctly be considered just.

Relatedly, as it rightly should, America and the Just War Tradition is correctly focused on the topic expressed in its title. However, as I was reading each chapter about the particular conflicts where the authors took pains to give the historical context for the moral evaluation of the conflict in question, I could not help but think of the current “Year Woke” of contemporary Leftism. (The French Jacobins had their Year 1 and the Cambodian Khmer Rouge had their Year 0.) Just as Maximilien Robespierre and Pol Pot wanted to erase all previous history and culture that did not fit their tyranny, so do contemporary Leftists. In the Year Woke, one cannot have a nuanced view of, say, Christopher Columbus or Thomas Jefferson, but one must reject the entirety of each man’s existence. The Church of Wokeness, with its ritual sacrifices upon the altar of identity politics, does not offer forgiveness, penance, or redemption as even the worst excesses of the Spanish Inquisition did, but only judgement and punishment. Thus, reading a book where each author works through the struggles of having both an objective morality and a subjective understanding of historical context is a welcome antidote to woke fanaticism.

Perhaps another reason that this heuristic of adjudicating the past with an objective morality coupled with subjective context is not done as often as it should is simply because it is hard work. As such, the effort put into moral analysis and historical research that the contributors to this book put into their articles is quite evident. I doubt that anyone other than the most serious of students of American history will not learn a number of fascinating and timely facts regarding the twelve conflicts under consideration in this book. When so-called arguments consist of social media strawman memes and the faux-scandalous use of late night talk show’s favorite four letter word, it is refreshing to read a work with moral seriousness and historical literacy. Thus, not only is this a work on the tradition of Just War Theory, but it is also unapologetically within the Western intellectual tradition.

The formulation of the three Just War Theory criteria do not inherently inform what one is to do after the moral analysis. That is, the individuals analyzing a potential military conflict need to be careful not to have “check-the-box” analysis of the three criteria, particularly ius ad bellum. Thus, while we should hold in respect the Just War Tradition qua Tradition, we must do so with a Burkean prudence. In other words, ius ad bellum determines whether there is justice of the war, but it is not a deontological requirement. Prudence must dictate whether a leader of a country will lead his nation to war, even if the cause is just. For example, supposing that one argues that the Second Gulf War was a just war, in the sense it was morally right for George W. Bush to order the invasion of Iraq with the support of the US Congress (by meeting the three criteria of ius ad bellum), it does not necessarily follow that Bush had to do so. In other words, does the determination of a just war morally require waging the war? While I believe the answer is no, a discussion of this would have been more than worthwhile. Further, this discussion emphasizes the importance that prudence plays in the moral evaluation of a conflict under the three criteria of ius ad bellum, ius in bello, and ius post bellum.

Captain Freedman’s death was a result of a clear violation of ius in bello on the side of the enemy (one does not kill prisoners-of-war), what of the country that he died for? Was the cause just? Like all West Point cadets, Freedman learned Just War Theory in the classroom and was trained regarding jus in bellum both in the classroom and the field. What was the moral character of America’s actions during the war? And finally, what does post-war Iraq look like? In the end, this superb volume by Hall and Charles gives us the tools that we need to evaluate the difficult questions surrounding a sovereign country’s decision to go to war. The least Americans can do for those who have died for this Country is to remember their sacrifice and to make as certain as we can that any future sacrifices are not in vain.

Reader Discussion

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on August 08, 2019 at 09:44:01 am

Thanks for this very fine essay / review.

I would add that, perhaps, it is the present preference for the "presumption against war" that may have engendered an overly restrictive application of ius in bello for US troops wherein we find JAG Officers having approval on target selection and rules of engagement.

Certainly a book to consider.

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.