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Air University Press

The Prism of Just War: Asian and Western Perspectives on the Just Use of Military Force

The Prism of Just War: Asian and Western Perspectives on the Just Use of Military Force, edited by Howard M. Hensel. Ashgate, 2010, 292 pp.

According to Sun Tzu’s Art of War, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt.” Prism of Just War tries to give the reader this understanding via three chapters on the Western conception of just war and six chapters covering the equivalent in Sunni, Shi’i, Hindu, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese thought. Each chapter is written by an expert on that group’s attitudes towards war. This is both the greatest strength and weakness of the book. Each chapter is thoroughly researched, but chapters vary widely in scope and quality. The topics covered are covered well, but Prism ignores some of the most challenging questions facing the just war theorist.

The material on Western perceptions will be familiar to any reader who has previously studied just war. This section presents the concepts of jus ad bello (when is it just to initiate war), jus in bellum (conduct in war), and jus post bellum (how should victors treat defeated enemies). Each concept is broken down into the specific requirements that must be met for a war to be considered just. The authors do not try to present their own analyses of how to apply these criteria in modern times, but instead present how the classicists of just war theory (e.g., Augustine and Aquinas) developed these criteria and applied them in their own times. This section focuses on the philosophy of war, ignoring how political leaders actually justified their wars.

The Western material occasionally challenges the reader’s perception of what makes a war just. Prism makes the unique comparison of communism’s war ideology to the traditional models of just war. Communist ideology not only condones wars to spread communism but considers it an obligation. As Castro stated, “It is the duty of every revolutionary to make the revolution. It is improper revolutionary behavior to sit at one’s doorstep.” This fear of expansionist war obviously drove the Western policy of containment during the Cold War.

Despite these insights, the section on Western ideals of just war has to be considered a failure due to its description of the historical Christian roots of just war theory. Christians were widely pacifist until the 4th century AD. According to the early church father Tertullian, “Under no circumstances should a true Christian draw the sword.” Despite extensive discussion of the Christian just war theorists, a single footnote is the only acknowledgement of this Christian pacifist challenge to just war theory. The reader unfamiliar with Christian pacifism will wrongly be led to believe that Christians have always adopted a just war position.

The chapters on Sunni, Shi’i, Hindu, and Chinese thought provide excellent overviews of Eastern historical foundations for justifying war. Each chapter analyzes the writings of ancient thinkers and how these writings influenced their ideas on war. These chapters compare the groups’ thoughts to Western just war theory and help the Western reader understand foreign concepts. Occasionally, however, it seems the authors are pointing out “flaws” in Eastern thought because these conceptions of just war do not value all the criteria associated with Western just war theory. Overall, the book does a good job pointing out where other groups have added additional criteria for a just war not found in Western thought. For example, Muslim writers have put more emphasis on how to divide the spoils of war, and Chinese have relied on the concept of righteous war.

The chapters on Sunni and Shi’i Islam are particularly apropos given the increasingly prominent role of Islam in international politics. Prism highlights the differences between these easily confused groups, but again a major omission haunts these chapters. The authors repeat the oft-heard refrain that Islam is a religion of peace, but they neither provide discussion to back this assertion nor deal with how Islam was initially founded and spread through Muhammad’s conquests of neighboring tribes. No other major religion was initially spread through military conquest, and a book that ignores this reality has not given Islamic thought on war a thorough treatment.

The chapters on Japanese and Korean thought are markedly different from previous chapters and are the best part of the book. Rather than focusing on historical aspects of just war theory, these chapters make predictions about how their attitudes toward just war will affect these countries attitudes towards US policy in the future. Prism argues that the Japanese believed their conduct in World War II—including the attack on Pearl Harbor—was just. That Japan was wrong is a deeply held American belief, and it is too rare that an author challenges society’s fundamental beliefs. Such challenges, however, are necessary for us to properly assess our beliefs. This discussion highlights the differences in Western and Eastern thought well.

Overall, Prism’s omissions overshadow the insights it provides. These omissions are not apparent to non-expert readers, who may walk away feeling they have a better understanding of just war than they actually do. The expert capable of identifying these shortcomings will likely learn something about foreign perspectives on war. Unfortunately, even for an expert, the book may not be worth its steep price.

Michael Izbicki

New London, CT

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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