This book review of Mark Hall and J. Daryl Charles’ America and the Just War Tradition first appeared in the Spring-Summer 2019 issue of Providence‘s print edition.
Over the past few decades, literature on the just war tradition has grown exponentially, both in depth and breadth, as each article and book contributes some unique perspective or provides a new approach to applying the just war criteria. In America and the Just War Tradition: A History of US Conflicts, Mark Hall, the Herbert Hoover Distinguished Professor of Politics at George Fox University, and J. Daryl Charles, the Acton Institute Affiliated Scholar in Theology & Ethics and a contributing editor for Providence, satisfy just war scholars on both accounts.
America and the Just War Tradition does not cover all conflicts throughout the country’s history, but it does cover a dozen of the most significant in terms of shaping the US as a nation—ranging from the American Revolutionary War to the ongoing War on Terror. Though the book does not address some notable conflicts, such as America’s wars with the Native Americans or the US-Somalia conflict in the early 1990s, the authors carefully chose the conflicts, and a volume that justly addresses every US conflict would be unwieldy in comparison with this text.
A different scholar authors each chapter, offering somewhat different perspectives, but this approach is a strength rather than an inhibitor of the book. In chapter one, Hall and Charles articulate that the same criteria will judge each conflict’s justness, and indeed this is fulfilled throughout the book. None of the chapters’ methods or conclusions contradict one another; rather, they seem to build on each other and provide the reader with a richer and more thorough understanding of both the just war tradition and US conflicts.
This book contributes to the just war tradition in at least two ways. Firstly, though America and the Just War Tradition is not a history book, each chapter takes into account—in a way and capacity unrivaled in just war literature—the historical context of each conflict. Secondly, when determining a conflict’s justness, scholars typically consider whether the war was entered justly (jus ad bellum) and whether warfare was justly conducted (jus in bello). Hall and Charles consider these facets of the just war tradition as well as justice after war (jus post bellum)—whether the war had just ends—which scholars have only begun to address in the past 15 years or so. Gary Bass’ 2004 article “Jus Post Bellum” in Philosophy and Public Affairs is a great, early treatment of the subject. Though addressing jus post bellum is not unique to Hall and Charles’ work, coupling such a thorough, historical view of US conflicts from beginning to end in order to determine whether a conflict had just ends is in fact uncommon and welcome.
Hall and Charles’ approach to studying these conflicts allows the authors and readers to look back on US conflicts in their historical context as a whole. This “bird’s eye view” helps the authors determine whether the decision to go to war, the way the war was conducted, and the war’s outcome and aftermath were just. Being decades and even centuries removed from these conflicts enables the authors to look at each conflict holistically, from its declaration to its eventual outcomes. Coupling the vantage point of modernity with the application of the just war tradition gives this book a perspective on US conflicts that just war literature has yet to address, until now.
Additionally, as in Charles’ The Just War Tradition: An Introduction (2012), Hall and Charles articulate why they chose to discuss the topic as the just war tradition instead of the just war theory. “We intentionally refer to the tradition of just war and not to ‘just war theory,’ since this way of thinking about war and peace is embedded prominently within the wider Western cultural heritage. A ‘tradition’ (from the latin traditio: a handing down) implies that a cumulative wisdom, in its development and refinement, accrues over time.” In short, just war is not something that the West is “trying out” to discover if it’s right for them; just war is a tried and true tradition in the West that developed over generations and will continue to develop as conflicts occur.
Hall and Charles are correct in identifying just war as a Western tradition and not merely a theory. This tradition nearly stretches as far back as Western civilization itself, from Cicero, to Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, Francisco Suárez, Francisco de Vitoria, and John Locke, to name a few. Moreover, though the just war tradition is not solely a Christian one, Christians and Christian philosophy have been key contributors to just war and its resilience as a Western tradition. Hall and Charles note this in their book as well, a work that coincidently advances the just war tradition considerably.
Whether one is a historian who hopes to learn more about America’s conflicts, a philosopher who works in ethics or political philosophy, or a soldier or veteran who enjoys military history, America and the Just War Tradition addresses each of these topics and audiences from a variety of authors in a range of disciplines. Those who care deeply about the moral future of America should study not only America’s past for its triumphs, but also for its failures, its experience as a bastion of justice and ethical leadership in the world, and its blunders. Americans should understand these aspects of their history through the lenses of morality and justice so that the US can be a global example of justice. This book has seriously undertaken this task, and for this reason it ought to accompany every bookshelf that earnestly concerns itself with the moral and military past and future of the United States.
Jimmy R. Lewis holds a BS in religion as well as an MA in philosophy from Liberty University. His master’s thesis (Divine Utilitarianism) is on God’s ethics, and he is hoping to turn this into a book within the next year or so. Jimmy is a writing fellow for America’s Future Foundation.