Just War Thinkers: From Cicero to the 21st Century

  • Published

Just War Thinkers: From Cicero to the 21st Century, ed. Daniel R. Brunstetter and Cian O’Driscoll. Routledge, 2018, 256 pp.


Just War Thinkers is a compilation of 19 essays on the Western just war tradition written by several of today’s prominent just war scholars and theorists. The editors intended for the book to serve as an introduction to the just war tradition, and accordingly the structure and style of the book lend themselves to learning how the scholarship around just war developed over time. The essays are ordered chronologically with each chapter focused on a particular thinker. From there each essay is further broken down in such a way as to provide the reader not just what a particular thinker wrote and its legacy, but also to provide context on the historical period and the state of the just war tradition at the time the thinker developed their ideas. The editors write, “The hope is that, by gaining a deeper knowledge of how just war ideas have developed over time, the reader will be in a better position to interrogate and perhaps, with critical insights gained from this foray into the history of ideas, even refine his or her own views on the rights and wrongs of warfare” (p. 2).

It is for this reason that Just War Thinkers is so much more than a mere introductory text. While each chapter has the ability to stand on its own, providing great insight into some of the most prominent, and obscure, just war thinkers, it is the ability of the editors to hold clear just war themes throughout the book that allows you to see how the international and military law surrounding warfare came to take its current form.

Most interesting was the choice by the editors to “recast” or rather to reinterpret Immanuel Kant from pacifist to just war theorist. Democratic Peace and other liberal theorists have long claimed Kant for their own, choosing to ignore his more bellicose assertions on defending the global federation he proposes in “Perpetual Peace.” Instead, in his chapter on Kant, Brian Orend chooses to go a different direction and proposes that in addition to discussing concepts which fall within the jus ad bellum and jus in bello categories, Kant’s scholarship serves as the first serious discussion of jus post bellum.

Equally thought provoking is Chris Brown’s handling of Michael Walzer, regarded among many of the lay public as a contemporary champion of just war. Brown begins his section on Walzer with the bold assertion that Walzer falls outside the scholarship of both the revisionist and traditionalist strands of just war. Brown describes Walzer’s approach to the tradition as a la carte, suggesting that while Walzer has separated himself from the Christian roots of just war, he has perhaps positioned himself to remain relevant to the new forms of warfare—asymmetric, hybrid, cyber—which promise to dominate the conflicts of tomorrow.

Indeed, examples such as Kant and Walzer abound in this book in which the authors and editors seemed to have made a conscious choice to allow the readers to challenge their academic preconceptions. This kind of practical and holistic awareness of scholarship is refreshing and a welcome reprieve from academic work that so often cherry-picks quotes and takes concepts out of historical context for the sake of keeping an ideological purity to their view. The editors point out that understanding how these principles evolved “can be very helpful when thinking about how they should be interpreted and applied in today’s world” (p. 4). As such, the book stands as a testament to the long history of just war and serves as a worthy read for anyone who invests the time.

I highly recommend Just War Thinkers to anyone who seriously wants to learn more about just war. The book is equally perfect for those who are in the initial stages of exploring just war and for the experienced just war scholar. The short, but in-depth, look into each just war thinker is a beautifully simple way of framing the development of the tradition and lends the book to being a reference point for future discussions.


Sean E. Thompson, Capt, USAF

"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."