In 2013 at the American Political Science Association’s annual meeting, Providence contributing editor Eric Patterson heard a panel discussion over whether the colonists were justified in fighting the British in the American War for Independence. To his surprise, many on the panel and in the audience believed the American revolutionaries were unjust, so he began to research and write a response explaining why these academics were wrong. Eventually, his work became the second chapter of Just American Wars: Ethical Dilemmas in US Military History (2019), a book that delves into how the just war tradition applies to different aspects of several wars the United States has fought, including why the country went to war, how it fought, and how well it pursued peace when the fighting ceased. Through his various case studies, Patterson demonstrates how exactly America fights wars differently than other countries.
Whereas others suggest the unique “American way of war” is essentially fighting with advanced technology and massive mobilization of manpower and other resources, Patterson contends in Just American Wars that the US is unique because of how it considers ethical and moral dilemmas when it fights. Particularly, the country’s democratic institutions force any politician who wishes to engage in a war to explain to voters, civil society, and other parts of the government why the war must be fought. While underappreciated, concepts from the just war tradition have grounded these debates. Patterson elaborates:
During every US conflict there has been robust public debate about whether or not to go to war in the first place, and after the decision has been made, debate continues on the ethics of how the war is fought. Moreover, the US is unique in the fact that even when it’s victorious, it prosecutes some of its own military personnel who have violated the laws of armed conflict. This simply was not the case in most polities over the past thousands of years.
As a recent case, he cites how in 2017 the US was the only country that took responsibility for collateral damage during its bombing campaigns against the Islamic State (ISIS), whereas other militaries implausibly claimed their airstrikes only killed combatants.
While Patterson does explain how the United States has been just in fighting various wars, he does not defend every war or suggest the military has not violated the just war tradition’s criteria of proportionality and discrimination. But he emphatically demonstrates that Americans should be proud of their country’s war ethics, starting with the American War for Independence.
Just American Wars begins with a discussion about why the colonists were justified to defend themselves against the British Empire, but the book does not flow chronologically. Instead, the conversation moves through the just war tradition’s concepts of jus ad bellum (ethics of going to war), jus in bello (ethics of fighting in war), and jus post bellum (ethics of ending war, a concept Patterson has developed throughout his academic career). The first section covers jus ad bellum topics including why the US was right to fight Britain in both 1775 and 1812 and why America was initially right to wage war in Vietnam, though presidents were wrong to continue the war to boost their reputations and vindicate national honor. (Regular Providence readers may be familiar with this argument, which appeared in Patterson’s article for the Winter 2018 issue of the print edition.) The jus in bello section is the shortest and covers the Mexican–American War—including the bombardment of Veracruz that killed civilians and how irregular troops like the Texas Rangers fought—and the justness of using nuclear weapons. The final section reviews jus post bellum dilemmas, including problems with President Woodrow Wilson’s plans for global order after the First World War. (Those who wish to hear more on these and other specific topics from the book can listen to your reviewer’s interview with Patterson on the Foreign Policy ProvCast in “Ep. 32: American Justness in War—From Independence, WWII, Vietnam, and Beyond,” available on ProvidenceMag.com.)
Patterson’s book covers very similar topics as America and the Just War Tradition: A History of US Conflicts (also published in 2019), edited by Mark Hall and J. Daryl Charles (another Providence contributing editor) and reviewed by Jimmy Lewis in these pages. But the two books’ content differs significantly. First, America and the Just War Tradition is an edited volume that includes various authors and different perspectives, while Just American Wars is written exclusively by Patterson. Moreover, Patterson does not cover every just war criterion for each war but instead focuses more narrowly in each chapter: when discussing the Mexican–American War, he does not thoroughly address whether the US should have fought Mexico, but he does cover how Americans fought in the war. The two books also draw different conclusions about whether the United States was just in different wars. One obvious difference is how John D. Roche in America and the Just War Tradition argues that the colonists were unjust to seek independence in the American Revolution while Patterson makes the opposite argument. (During a Providence/Institute on Religion & Democracy event in May 2019 in Washington, DC, Mark Hall explained why he sides with Patterson and disagrees with Roche.)
Raucous debates over the particulars of American wars are common in the foreign policy field, and yours truly remembers one he had with haughty Englishmen over the Revolution while we drank nips of whisky in a pub near my alma mater in Scotland. Indeed, Just American Wars will likely spark edifying debates among students who read the book together. But if readers assume the book’s primary purpose is continuing old discussions that are sometimes centuries-old, they may have spent too much time in ivory towers and will miss its greatest contribution. Patterson helps readers think through past events in such a way that will enable those in the government and military to make more ethical decisions. He has a keen appreciation for the stress real people endure while making critical decisions about war—whether they are working past midnight in the Pentagon, White House, Foggy Bottom, Langley, or the Hill, or they are literally in the trenches beside those fighting and dying.
Students may not realize the debates they have in the classroom can have real consequences later, but Just American Wars can direct their discussions and shape their thinking so that if forced to make critical decisions under stress, they will have a firm-enough ethical foundation to make wiser choices. In this way, Patterson’s work may continue the unique American way of war, to the world’s benefit.