Limited Force and the Fight for the Just War Tradition

  • Published

Limited Force and the Fight for the Just War Tradition by Christian Nikolaus Braun. Georgetown University Press, 2023, 243 pp.

Christian Nikolaus Braun, defense studies lecturer at King’s College London, offers a neoclassical approach to just war theory. Where ethicists of previous eras wrestled with how just war principles like proportionality or discrimination might lose their meaning given the scale and prospect of a hydrogen bomb dropped on a heavily populated city, Braun focuses his attention on targeted killing and limited air strikes, analyzing case studies from the US military’s application of force under the Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations. Following his reading of Thomas Aquinas, he reintroduces a melding of casuistry and virtue ethics and entertains right intention and retribution as meaningful moral criteria for the use of limited force.

In a sense, Limited Force and the Fight for the Just War Tradition is a lengthy footnote to a passage in Michael Walzer’s 2006 edition of Just and Unjust Wars that has proved controversial: “[Operation Iraqi Freedom] invites us to think about the use of force-short-of-war. . . . The argument about jus ad bellum needs to be extended . . . to jus ad vim. We urgently need a theory of just and unjust uses of force.”1 Though Braun criticizes Walzer, the “traditionalist,” for being reactionary and removed from the historical and explicitly Christian just war tradition, he also critiques “revisionist” responses to Walzer such as Jeff McMahan’s, for being too individualistic and abstract. He works to embed limited force in just war theory rather than seek a new framework.

Braun revives a Thomist approach to just war as a middle way between the traditionalist-revisionist gridlock of the last few decades. Ancient and medieval theologians could not have predicted nuclear war or intercontinental ballistic missiles, but in a geopolitical context that lacks a binary of total war versus comprehensive peace, where force is on a spectrum and is often employed by non-state actors, categories developed in the age of feudalism may find new life and application. To use Braun’s battlefield analogy—characterizing philosophical arguments as a “fight”—instead of trying to negotiate an armistice between two entrenched camps, Braun tries to enforce a much older treaty by carving out ground between these camps and claiming it for his own.

Some have criticized Braun for not discussing pacifist critiques more in depth, but given his interest in an in-house debate among just war theorists, it is understandable why he would not stray far into that territory.2 He does mention the recent look at “just peace” theory and refers the reader to other published engagement (113). Likewise it would be a mistake to flatly dismiss Braun as a hawk rather than a dove; Braun himself opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq (113) and does not support the death penalty domestically (145). Perhaps a more penetrating criticism would be that at key points Braun complicates at least as much as he clarifies, because the narrow scope of the work seems to hinder him from fully saying what he seems to intend to. Though he comments extensively on targeted killings and limited air strikes in the context of US foreign policy, it is difficult to see how his analysis would transfer to cyberwarfare, enforcement of no-fly zones, or economic blockades, especially when employed by regional governments rather than global superpowers. Though he maintains an elegant balance between consequential, deontological, and existential approaches to ethics, the work ends abruptly with an assertion that state actors also need to pay close attention to jus ante bellum/vis (right before war/force) and jus post bellum/vis (right after war/force) as they seek to counter non-state actors and work toward peace. These gaps cry out for an expanded look at other instances of limited force and their potential effects to stem or provoke conflict.

Additionally, while Braun shows that he is deeply aware of the risk of perpetual reprisals that result in a continual state of war, he does not really mitigate against this possibility. Right intention may indeed be the crucial difference between targeted killing and assassination, and retribution may better characterize current US application of limited force, but as the case studies demonstrate, life is messy. Even the best intentions of a head of state must be filtered through and informed by intelligence analysts, local commanders, and crews of weapons system operating half a world away, to say nothing of Congress or the voting public or the actions of an enemy. These realities are not exactly defeaters for Braun, but they remain complications.

The book may resound with two groups. First, Braun’s work is useful for those delving into the intricacies of just war theory as it has manifested in the Catholic Church, and how that differs from Walzer’s influential approach in recent decades.

Second, Braun’s approach may also find an enthusiastic audience in certain special operations communities that are continually reconceptualizing combat or deployment. His casuistical analysis comports with the conceptions of other military scholars who look at the moral realities of remote warfare and report that crew members and analysts very much consider themselves at war.3 Braun thinks of war as a multitude of concrete actions rather than as a state of affairs, and this means that the just use of force is not encased in its own separate moral framework, nor is it reduced to an extension of law enforcement or force-short-of-war.

Whether Braun’s hope that a neoclassical approach generates fruitful new discussions is ever realized, he succeeds in reminding his readers that for current debates about just war theory, as so often happens in philosophical discourse, the best way forward is several steps back.

Chaplain (Captain) Caleb Miller, USA


1 Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, 4th ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2006), xv.

2 K. R. Himes, “Book Review: Limited Force and the Fight for the Just War Tradition, by Christian Nikolaus Braun,” Theological Studies 84.4 (2023): 737.

3 Joseph Chapa, Is Remote Warfare Moral? (Washington, DC: Public Affairs, 2022); Wayne Phelps, On Killing Remotely: The Psychology of Killing with Drones (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2021).

"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."