Ethics and the Use of Force: Just War in Historical Perspective

  • Published

Ethics and the Use of Force: Just War in Historical Perspective by James Turner Johnson. Ashgate, 2011, 174 pp.

In this time of wars and rumors of wars, where state and nonstate actors pursue weapons of mass destruction and commit atrocities against civilian populations, there is a pressing need for policymakers and advisors to understand and articulate what constitutes justified use of force. James Turner Johnson’s work can greatly contribute to that effort. He is a professor of religion at Rutgers and a prominent scholar of just war theory with many published works spanning nearly four decades. This book, primarily a compilation of his previous writings, represents his most recent thoughts on how the just war tradition, understood in its historical context, illuminates many of the international challenges of today. It is an insightful addition to the Ashgate series, “Justice, International Law, and Global Security,” edited by Howard Hensel of the Air War College.

Professor Johnson argues that a historical perspective is how one should judge contemporary appeals to the idea of just war—and not Western notions of just war only, but also the idea of jihad of the sword. Having developed in-depth studies of both traditions in previous works, he presents brief historical overviews of each and uses the historical basis of the just war tradition to evaluate contemporary views and problems.

His structure iincludes four parts. The first covers the history of both the just war and jihad of the sword traditions. Here Johnson leans primarily on Saint Augustine to examine the classic form of just war tradition. He then analyzes the mid-twentieth-century recovery of just war thinking in the writings of Paul Ramsey and US Catholic bishops, as well as critically engaged contemporary thematic issues. He explains the developments within war and warfare through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that led to some of the differing twentieth-century views. Johnson closes this section with particular emphasis on how contemporary uses of just war and jihad have significantly changed from their original conceptions, usually to the detriment of the original intent.

The second part details the influence of the just war tradition on international law through the writings of Hugo Grotius in the seventeenth century. Specifically, Johnson notes how Grotius used both history and the Christian concept of charity in his just war concept. Grotius' systematized just war theory, as Johnson highlights, became the basis for international law. He provides several cogent examples that demonstrate how international law could be improved by relying on more classical interpretations of legal concepts. Of particular interest, he notes the lack of clarity that comes with using the word civilian instead of noncombatant as the Geneva Convention of 1977 does. In counterinsurgency warfare, many combatants are civilians, and in the conventional sense some civilians perform combat roles which make them combatants and therefore legitimate targets. However, the language of international law does not capture this precision, and Johnson highlights the implications.

In the third part, Johnson tackles the challenges posed by realist philosophy in international relations. This argument highlights the conflicts that arise within theoretical realism when it becomes practical. Specifically, in examining the reasoning of both Hans Morgenthau and Reinhold Niebuhr, the founders of contemporary realism, Johnson notes how both had to adapt their theoretical realism to include normative ethical concepts when prescribing policies for decision makers. Since the just war tradition is historically a Christian concept, he also spent a full chapter distinguishing the tradition from the Christian realism of Niebuhr. He showed how Niebuhr only countered a thin straw man of the just war tradition and never replaced it with his own positive position on the justified use of force.

The final section uses historical concepts to address contemporary problems in war and warfare. Here Johnson addresses the contemporary emphasis on defense as the only justification for use of force versus the classic idea of justice. This is particularly relevant given the recent reintroduction of justice into use-of-force calculations in the principle of "responsibility to protect." He also addresses, once again, restraints on the use of force in the Geneva Conventions of 1977 compared with those of the classic just war tradition. He effectively shows that the conventions, while intending to increase protections for civilians, ironically, decreased them. Finally, Johnson addresses the classic principle of "the aim of peace" and notes the inherent difficulties in the contemporary ideas of peace as nonviolence compared to the classic concepts of peace as a just international order.

Throughout the book, Johnson primarily engages other Christian approaches to use-of-force decision making and leaves secular sources relatively untouched. It would certainly provide interesting insights if he were to critically engage some more recent international relations theories such as constructivism and offensive and defensive realism. Johnson's arguments individually are cogent and well organized, however there is some difficulty in knitting together the larger argument within his structure, primarily because the book is a compilation of previous works rather than a single cohesive argument. Johnson nevertheless presents a common theme throughout in demonstrating how historical concepts of just war provide a viable and beneficial means of evaluating contemporary issues in the use-of-force dialogue. Although the cost may be prohibitive, this book would be of particular interest to academics and advisors in the national security and international relations arenas, as well as to anyone who desires to advance their knowledge of the just war tradition.

Maj Robert P. Vicars IV 

US Army School of Advanced Military Studies 
US Army School of Advanced Military Studies US Army School of Advanced Military Studies 

"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."