American thinkers initiated the recovery of the just war idea and its use in contemporary debate on ethics and the use of armed force, and they have been major contributors to the robust debate that has followed during the six decades since. But what has been lacking in this debate is a systematic effort to explore the relation of just war ideas to the whole corpus of the wars of the United States. This review focuses on a new book that does this, Just American Wars by Eric Patterson, a contributing editor of Providence.

Patterson’s book proceeds simultaneously along two different yet linked levels. On one level, he provides for each war a concentrated historical description that gives color, detail, and vividness to the conflict and its context, while at the same time his sources present particular ideas from just war tradition. The second level is Patterson’s moral analysis of the just war ideas raised in these historical capsules. His method in this is reminiscent of Michael Walzer’s use of historical cases in Just and Unjust Wars, where discussion of these cases served to identify and raise to view particular just war ideas, and also my own treatment of the American Civil War in Chapter IX of Just War Tradition and the Restraint of War. Yet Patterson goes beyond us in applying this method to provide a systematic examination of the presence and use of just war ideas across the whole corpus of the wars of the United States. In doing so, he shows how these ideas, part of the broad heritage of Western culture, have influenced American thinkers grappling with these wars. The result is not only a book about America’s wars; it is also a book about the ongoing moral effect of just war tradition on American values and behavior.

The purpose of examining how just war reasoning appears in the context of the wars of the United States defines the layout of the book and the way each of the wars is treated. His treatment of each war focuses on a particular aspect of just war reasoning, and accordingly he treats the wars not chronologically but rather in groups, ranging across different time periods and different national and international political circumstances, with the wars in each group chosen for how they illuminate the understanding and effect of the moral influence of just war.

The book has three parts, each focused on a different aspect of the just war idea: jus ad bellum, jus in bello, and the aspect on which Patterson has made a leading contribution, jus post bellum. Part I of the book, “The ethics of going to war,” includes chapters on the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and a conflict from an entirely different era, the Vietnam War. Part II, “The ethics of how war is fought,” includes a chapter on the Mexican War, with special focus on the siege of Veracruz, paired with a chapter entitled “Truman, Hiroshima, and contemporary nuclear issues: The intersection of jus ad bellum and jus in bello.” Part III, “Bringing war to a morally and politically satisfying end,” includes a chapter on the Spanish-American War focused on the work of the Taft Commission in Manila, another focused on the different concerns and policies of the Allies in shaping the treaties that ended World War I, and another examining the morality of victory in contemporary warfare. The final chapter of this section of the book bears the title, “Conclusion: Just war dilemmas since 9/1l,” reminding the reader that the conflicts of the post-9/11 period are still ongoing and awaiting a morally and politically satisfactory ending.

Patterson’s historical capsules are especially well crafted so as to draw readers into the context of the circumstances surrounding that war and the thinking of American leaders in the face of these circumstances. For each war he draws deeply on contemporaneous records, employing sources that not only provide vivid insights into that war but also have particular bearing on the element of just war tradition he is examining in relation to the war in focus. Some of his sources are relatively well-known, like President James Madison’s war address on June 1, 1812, which led to Congress’ issuing a formal declaration of war on June 12. Other sources, less familiar, give this book a special character and provide particularly apt expressions of just war ideas in the thinking of American leaders in those contexts.

Some of these less well-known sources are particularly striking, as two examples will illustrate. One is the source Patterson uses to mark just war reasoning in the framing of American thought leading up to the Revolution: the 1775 Declaration of the United Colonies on the Causes and Necessities of Taking Up Arms. Much less well-known than the Declaration of Independence adopted a year later, this source is particularly critical for its showing how the authors’ reasoning followed the categories of the just war tradition jus ad bellum while developing these categories in the political language of the time. Thus Patterson writes, “The Declaration begins with a question about legitimate authority: does God grant to government ‘unbounded power…never rightly resistible, however severe and oppressive’ or is it ‘instituted to promote the welfare of mankind’?” He comments that this points back to the “very foundation of just war tradition,” Romans 13; he might have added that it reflects the medieval and early modern discussions of tyranny and the responsibilities of sovereignty that formed part of the tradition. The Declaration next moves to the second traditional criterion, just cause, listing no fewer than ten offenses of Parliament that create just cause for resistance by force. “Our cause is just,” declare the colonists. “Our union is perfect.” Patterson observes that the document takes care to emphasize the colonists’ right intention (the third requirement of the traditional jus ad bellum), and finally, he draws attention to the Declaration’s claims for the colonies’ use of armed force in last resort, their intentionality to use force only proportionately to the evils suffered, and their reasonable likelihood of success. In short, the Declaration of the United Colonies on the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms clearly shows the influence of just war tradition, expressed in the language of the political discourse of the eighteenth century.

Another particularly striking example of Patterson’s choice of sources is provided by his discussion of the Mexican-American War. The chapter on this war comes in the section of the book on war-conduct and the just war requirements of proportionality and discrimination, to which Patterson adds a third he calls “commander’s intention.” The discussion makes clear why this category is needed for a full moral picture. The American forces were a mix of regulars and various kinds of irregular fighters—members of various militias, Texas Rangers, and other volunteers, none of whom had the same training or military discipline as the soldiers and officers in the regular army. This posed a critical problem, Patterson observes, for though the regular army forces adhered to military discipline that accorded with the laws and customs of war tracing to just war tradition, some of the irregulars engaged in behavior that violated both the customary laws of war and the underlying moral provisions of just war. “Commander’s intention” is Patterson’s way of dealing with this divided reality, leading him to focus particularly on “the key military statements made by U.S. generals in Mexico that demonstrate their intentions regarding the conduct of their troops as well as appropriate behavior toward enemy combatants, civilians, and private property.” The statements he singles out as particularly important are General Zachary Taylor’s General Order No. 30 on Respecting the Rights of Mexicans, issued in 1846, early in the conflict when the fighting was along the Texas-Mexico border, and General Winfield Scott’s more far-reaching General Order No. 20, issued in 1847 when the focus of the fighting had shifted to the areas occupied by American forces in Mexico proper. This latter general order, written throughout in the language of law, established martial law in the areas controlled by the American forces. It begins by observing that the existing rules for the US Army approved by Congress did not go far enough to deal with acts in the conflict zone that would be prosecuted as crimes if they occurred within the US or its organized territories. Then the order goes on to enumerate such crimes (“murder, injuries or mutilation, rape, assaults and malicious beatings, robbery, desecration of Churches, cemeteries or houses, and the destruction of public or private property…not ordered by a superior officer”) and specify trial and punishment for violators, whether they be members of the “columns, escorts, convoys, guards, and detachments” of the American forces or Mexican “inhabitant[s], denizen[s], or traveler[s].” Patterson observes, “Scott’s General Order No. 20 was circulated across the country and was a crucial tool for commanders for the rest of the war,” including the bombardment, capture, and occupation of Veracruz not long after the order was issued. It established the principles of discrimination (protection of noncombatant persons and their property) and proportionality in the conduct of both regulars and irregulars serving under the American flag as well as Mexican nationals in the areas controlled by US forces.

Patterson next extends his discussion of the conduct of this war to the bombardment and capture of Veracruz. This port city was the crucial gateway to the national capital, Mexico City, and the landing of the American expeditionary force there was dictated by the strategy of seeking to end the war rapidly, without major destruction and loss of life. Patterson details the choices open to General Scott, commander of the American forces before Veracruz: a traditional siege, closing off entry to and exit from the city, which would produce privation, starvation, and disease within the city with the ultimate aim of its surrender; a head-on attack by his forces, aiming at storming the walls and getting inside the city; and an artillery bombardment, breaching its defenses. Patterson considers what Scott knew well: in the malarial climate of the coast before Veracruz, his own army would be sorely damaged by disease during the long period of a conventional siege; given the defenses of the city, a direct attack by his forces would also produce many casualties, and bombardment of the city walls by his artillery would reduce the protective walls and either lead the military commander of the city to surrender or make it relatively easy to capture. He chose the last of the options before him.

Patterson’s argument is that among the available means this was at once the most proportionate and the most discriminating choice for Scott. Force protection has come to have a bad odor in some quarters today, but Patterson reasons that Scott had a moral responsibility to take his soldiers’ welfare into account. Scott’s command, whether regulars or irregulars, were barely removed from civilian life, where they would be protected by noncombatancy; mosquito-borne diseases would sicken and kill them just as they would the inhabitants of the city, civilians as well as the defending garrison. That is, argues Patterson, observing the moral requirements of just war in combat includes taking account of the effects of the environment on both combatants and noncombatants, not just the effects of one’s kinetic military actions. Among the choices before Scott, neither proportionality nor discrimination would be well served by a conventional siege of Veracruz, when disease would ravage both those in the city as well as those besieging it. In an attack on the city walls, the main casualties would be among the attacking and defending forces, but the losses would be large: discrimination might be served by this choice, but not proportionality. Finally, bombardment aimed at breaching the city walls might cause civilian casualties, but by the rule of double effect such casualties would not be intended, and quickly ending the siege this way would make for the least overall cost in lives, both American and Mexican, compared to the other courses before Scott. Patterson concludes that in just war terms, Scott’s choice was the best of his options.

Patterson’s analysis of this conflict shows the active influence of the moral tradition of just war on the thoughts and actions of the American commanders while also introducing concerns raised only infrequently in present-day discussions of the just war criteria for war-conduct. In these discussions discrimination tends to rule, with the crucial distinction being whether one is a soldier or a civilian. Patterson’s discussion of force protection introduces needed nuance to this way of morally reading a combat situation. Siege warfare introduces all kinds of realities needing more careful analysis: What is the moral status of civilians who choose to stay in a besieged city? Why are they there? Have they been forced to stay by the authorities? If they have chosen to stay voluntarily, what is their intent? What are the reasons they choose to stay? Whatever the answers for their being there, what is their function in regard to the city’s defense and its survival or capitulation to the besieging forces? All these are serious moral questions, and yet there is almost no discussion of sieges in contemporary just war thought and writing.

Space does not allow following Patterson’s treatment of the remaining American wars in this book, his choice of sources, or the just war ideas he identifies and explores in connection to these conflicts. But his discussions throughout are carefully developed and thought-provoking. While Patterson’s method brings new kinds of insights into the wars of America and the presence of just war ideas in their prosecution, necessarily his selectively targeted discussions leave some issues untreated. For example, much of the literature treating the Vietnam War has dealt with how it was fought, but in his chapter on this war Patterson focuses instead on issues related to the ethics of going to war. Similarly, his chapter on World War I focuses not on the beginnings of that war or the terrible destructiveness of how it was fought, but rather on the policies of Woodrow Wilson, Georges Clemenceau, and Lloyd George, viewed through the critical perspective of the three critical elements of jus post bellum as Patterson has developed them. One may imagine a similar criticism directed to Patterson’s handling of other wars.

Such a criticism, though, looks for a book with a different purpose than this one, and for a different result. As noted earlier, Patterson’s purpose in this book is not to provide a comprehensive analysis and overall judgment of all of the wars of the United States but rather to use these wars to identify and analyze the presence of just war reasoning among American leaders in those contexts. Though this is a book that examines all these wars, it is ultimately more a book about just war: specifically, the ongoing persistence of just war ideas through history, their use by Americans in times of crisis, and the effects of these ideas seen through America’s wars. As such, it serves to remind readers that just war reasoning is more than an abstract construct of philosophers, theologians, or lawyers to be imposed from outside on conflicts when they arise. Rather, it is an integral element in the underlying moral fabric on which American political community rests, ready to be accessed in times of crisis.