Eric Patterson, author of Just American Wars, spoke on Just War Thinking during Providence‘s annual National Security Conference in November 2019 at the Army Navy Club in Washington, DC. The following is a transcript of the lecture.

Good morning. My name is Eric Patterson. I’m affiliated with Regent University and delighted that so many Regent students are here today, as well as the Religious Freedom Institute here in Washington DC. Let me first start by saying thanks to Mark Tooley, Marc LiVecche, Robert… to the Marks and Philos and IRD an Providence. The work is vital. It’s work of reconciliation. It’s work of, uh, principle, of pragmatism to see the world as it is and be working towards a better future and the just war tradition, but also… I think about it was exactly. 

So I often hear from, from Christian young people, you know, how are we supposed to think about issues of war, peace, and security from a Christian perspective? Aren’t we supposed to turn the other cheek? Now I’ll tell you if you were a hostage, you really wouldn’t want the police to turn the other cheek. If you were a victim of genocide, you wouldn’t want the world turning the other cheek on your behalf. And there’s a lot of Biblical teaching. Here’s the good news. The bottom line is that in the Old Testament, the New Testament… In the Christian teaching, with people like Augustine and Aquinas and Luther and Calvin in the last few thousand years, we have a robust set of principles for thinking about war, peace, and security. 

And today I’m going to breeze through them in about 15 minutes, and then take questions and answers. Mark referenced that this year, just American wars… many of these principles and our application to dilemmas in military history are in this book. And the just war tradition started with two questions: When is it just, when is it moral to go to war? Jus ad bello And the second was, how can war be fought ethically? Jus in bellum. And over time we’ve added a third category, called jus post bellum. That has to do with how do we bring war to effective and enduring ends, and establish secure needs? 

The jus ad bellum part of this has three questions. The first one is it over three principles. Is the war being fought by legitimate political authority with a just cause, with right intentions, and Biblical principles? Let me start with the first one. Correct authority. The Bible has a lot to say about authority, most notably in Romans 13 but also in the Biblical books of the Old Testament and the wisdom literature. In Proverbs it talks about the kings counting cops, and so the idea of legitimate authority is very, very important. For Catholics, they have the principles of authority. For Protestants and everybody the principle is called severe sovereignty. And these are ways of fleshing out the notion that God has created natural institutions like the Church, like the family, land like the government. And each has a role. What’s the role of government? It’s to promote security and the common good.  

So authorities acting on the just cause with the right intention. That’s just cause. Augustine said that just cause is something like punishing wrongdoers, preventing wrongs, writing past wrongs. So certainly self-defense fits into those categories. Certainly stopping an attack. There are people that listen to that. And at the root of this, really, is this question: So how do we love my neighbor, right? And if my vocation is as a magistrate, as a judge, as a public official passing law enforcement, as a soldier, if that’s my vocation and our notion of calling is a Biblical concept. How do I love my neighbor in my role? And it is by promoting the common good and promoting common… that just war, legitimate authority, just cause, and right intention 

Christianity is very focused on right intention. In the Old Testament, we’re taught that God looks not on the outward appearance but on the… on the heart. And Jesus clearly said that sin is not one of these external things, but that it’s rooted first in the heart. So, a great contribution thinking about in war and security is intentions. Augustine famously said, you know, that the real evil of war is not dying because everyone dies and then there’s the judgement. The evil is when it’s motivated by rape, lust, vengeance, greed. The use of force can be motivated by something else; love of neighbor, love of country, trying to protect others. That’s the basis for, I think, tension. 

And this brings us to a distinction that’s very important. This is—write it down—there is a difference between force and violence. You can tell the difference… you can tell the difference between loving discipline by a parent and brutality. You can tell the difference between the legitimate use of force by the police and brutality. And you can tell the difference between brutality against a military such as torture or just their restrained use of force. Here’s the difference. Force is restrained. It is lawful. It is in the hands of legitimate authority. And that’s quite different than violence, which is motivated by vengeance or hatred or lust that’s unrestrained, that dehumanizes the other. That’s… that’s an important distinction, because we want the public officials… we want the military to be acting within restrained force and be motivated by the right things and not wrong.  

Now over time, we’ve added some pragmatic things to this, and the prudential thing there, the practical wisdom. Count the costs such that, is there a good likelihood of success, and having tried recently other forms before we go to war such as diplomacy, we call that the last resort. So these principles of building to war are rooted in the Christian tradition and they’re very useful too. 

The second category is jus in bello. And jus in bello is about how war is fought and there’s… and militaries operate on a principle called military necessity, and it’s the idea that… that on the battlefield, the soldiers can use whatever… whatever tools and tactics that are the rules of the world that are not unlawful to achieve their objective. So what restrains the two principles? One is proportionality and the other is distinction. Distinction is the idea that we can discriminate or make choices. We can distinguish between combatants and non-combatants, between private property and legitimate targets like military bases. We can make those distinctions, and that… that it’s a moral category to make those distinctions.  

The second is proportionality. And this is the idea that… that we’re going to use just enough force, it’s called economy of force, to achieve our objectives. And that there’s no reason as good stewards, another Biblical principle, there’s no reason to use unnecessary force to achieve a battlefield objective. So if we need to take out a sniper, we don’t drop a nuclear bomb, right? That would be ridiculous. Let me illustrate for you briefly jus ad bellum’s development in the American context. First of all, the war of 1812, was it just to go to war against Britain in 1812? I can remember the great history. No. But why did we go to war? As President Madison in the summer of 1812 wrote an address that prompted Congress to declare war, he cited… he said “The United Kingdom is already at war with us by their actions.” 

What were those actions? First, the British army provided American Indians on a frontier with British weapons, including firearms because the British wanted the sort of an Indian buffer state between the U.S. and Canada, and if your country and her people are being slaughtered by British weapons, that’s a cause for war. Second was that there’s an economic, more or less, embargo that had been going on for ten years that had dramatically hurt us. In fact, in 1807, 1808, the last year of the Jefferson Administration, due to the British and bad policies our… our trade, our international trade dropped by 80%, so it’s a devastating economic impact. 

Third, Britain had been at war with France since 1783, for 19 years off and off. And so, the one way that they got new sailors in part was by impressing them. Remember this. And on of the… the number that they had impressed by 1812 was 15,000 sailors. Now the population had been smaller, so to do a comparison today, if 729,000 American citizens were impressed. So the legitimate authority that George Washington… the congressionally authorized declaration of war happens on July 18, 1812, in the justification largely these three things I mentioned. And the intention was correct. The U.S. wasn’t trying to take over the British Empire or anything. It’s trying to defend the rights of citizens. 

What about jus in bello? Let me give you a quick example about jus in bello, about how war is fought. And I think it’s truly tragic, the phrase one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist, vice versa. And sometimes people mistakenly or immaturely at least say that George Washington, therefore, is like a Che Guevara, or something type. And that is just wrong, and then we just stiffen your spine on early American history. George Washington had a federal mandate he had a commission from the Continental Congress. He wore a uniform. He tried to build a modern army out of militias, volunteers. He brought in expertise from the outside of the training, drills, and practice. And he never countenanced terroristic expectations.  

It would have been easy to try to scare off the Tory population. He did not. It would have been easy to try to burn down their homes and he did not. He didn’t trip boys in the pubs, or do any of the kinds of things that would have been terrorist behavior. Now, there were some unconventional aspects to the… to the way that the colonists fought, but they didn’t behave in that way. And most importantly, he disciplined his own troops. If they stole, if they raped, they pillaged, he had them hung. There’s a lot to be proud of, and that’s the principle of jus in bello, in action; restraining of troops when you’re applying force. 

One conclusion… I’ve mentioned the third area, jus post bellum. That’s been a growth area over the past twenty years. And that is the idea, that how do we bring wars to an enduring, satisfactory, secure conclusion. A lot to be said there, but the model that I put forth in a number of books is the idea that if they build a foundation of order, first, stop the bullets, and post-order, and law, and then you can work towards justice and over time in some cases towards reconciliation. 

Think about in the U.S. Civil War, in this regard, Lincoln over time candidly did smash the South. He was right and that’s what happened. And then from that position, as he famously said to General Sherman, then we let them up easy… Then we let them up easy. And their work… There was an element of justice. Many senior Confederate officials went to prison and didn’t immediate… at the immediate end of that war, but the first amnesty happened in the summer of 1865 and by 1868 the federal government had twice more, and it’s a little bit like the Confederacy would pledge allegiance to the United States. Even Jefferson Davis received a pardon by 1860.  

And so it’s an effort… an effort towards establishing order by beating them on a battlefield and a level of justice. And then we’re having an eye on the future reconciliation is this, that comes in terms of a past, so that we can imagine our former adversaries as partners. It’s not adversaries but partners in a shared future. That’s justice at war’s end. So with that, I’m happy to take your questions. And would you stand up, tell us who you are, and then ask your question in two sentences or less. Okay. 

Question: So, my name is James Nyberg, I’m from Liberty University. So my question is, so Article One, Section Eight gives the dimensions that Congress has authority to punish violations against the law of nations. So I’m asking how does this theory, this law of nations theory and this law of nature theory apply to just war theory itself?  

Answer: Thank you. And so by the way, and for all the speakers today, this young man [you can have a seat] did exactly what’s courteous to all the speakers for the rest of this day. Just notice that this young man identified himself and then asked a really short, pithy question without giving a speech of his own. Super. That’s the model. So, well done.  

So let me briefly say this and it’s a much longer… it’s a much longer conversation, but I’m… the principles of the just war tradition can actually become the law of nations. For the past five hundred years and especially the past hundred years, these principles have become that you learn in, I don’t know, international relations. That’s the principle of sovereignty, for instance. The concepts of proportionality and discrimination become the main principles of the Geneva convention, for instance. And so the sort answer to all of that is that the law of nations, if you will note certainly by the 18th Century, becomes enshrined in not just customary but international, formal law based on these principles. And by the way, the first chapter of this book explains it. 

Question: Cho Anli, PhD candidate at American University DC. Does the Christian tradition also foresee a danger of what began as just war then becomes corrupted into perhaps less just, downright unjust war? [Yes] Just exist?  

Answer: I’m going to give you two answers to the one question. The first one is… is a certainty, of war could start for just principles that we find right. At the same time, the war might be started for less good principles, and it might be fought within the rules of war. And so certainly there’s this… there’s a lot of time, and they love… wars like the Vietnam conflict could have good and bad, always.  

Let me just say one other thing. Okay. So I’m going to say something and then my friend, and we’re working on a book together right now about just war. Marc LiVecche talked about… Let’s say… let me say something about Napoleon and Holy War. The definition is in a modern context, in a modern context goes beyond restraint to saying that… that a religious leader or an individual’s understanding of the religious conviction allows pretty much anything to go. That’s the Osama Bin Laden, is he stood up to say I believe this is Muslim even though he wasn’t a cleric, or to think that that… what we have to do is that anything goes in killing the Zionists and the Crusaders.  

And I could say a lot more about that, but what made it a Holy War, what made it a jihad, that type of Holy War, a religious leader or a religious text what someone believed was a divine statement motivated activity. But usually in almost… in almost all cases, these types of Holy Wars are usually a fig leaf for unrestrained violence. And that… that’s the case of the Lord’s Resistance Army. That’s the case with some Hindu nationalists who are making these types of claims against their neighbors. This is what you see by the violent Buddhists in Sri Lanka and in Southeast Asia. So we see the types of jihad from Osama Bin Laden, from Al Baghdadi, from ISIS. 

Question: Hello. My name is Andrew Dawson, I’m a PhD student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. And my question is about the relationship, if one exists, between just war theory and the concept of total war. So could… could actions like Sherman’s march to the sea or the allied bombing campaign against the Axis be justified, the sense of fighting to bring a war to an end quickly, even though you would have much more indiscriminate damage to life and property that takes place. 

Answer: Yes. So the question if you couldn’t hear it was this: is that we sometimes hear this term total war, which means not the narrow battles that happen between two ships in the ocean which is very clinical we’re just two combatants fighting each other. And now a battle, with two armies at a discrete location like Cannais or Gettysburg. But that… that a larger war that goes against another country’s manufacturing enterprises, perhaps it’s electrical grid etcetera over a long period of time. And can that be just?  

And thing that I said in the second part of this is very important. Notice… that is, every war has limits. There’s no true total war, in part because it’s just… It’s so hard in it’s past version. It’s so expensive to your own side and you’re building a level of enmity with the other side that won’t go away for hundreds of years. But that being said, as it happens there’s actually quite a good body of research that shows that aggressive campaigns can actually limit destruction and loss of life.  

I’ll give you an example from here and that is the battle of Veracruz in 1847. Veracruz in Mexico was the most impregnable citadel in the entire Western hemisphere. It was built to withstand attacks by armies of pirates right on… right on the Caribbean coast of Mexico. And so, when General Winfield Scott and his army got there, they had to make a choice. How do we… how do we… do we do a siege that lasts a long period of time, or do we maybe bombard the city and… and here’s what you notice. You all know that when you’re down on the Gulf Coast or in Central America you’re… you’re liable to get malaria or yellow fever or any of these other diseases before our current time. 

And so… and so Winfield Scott landed there in March. You know, he had about one month before his troops in the Gulf Coast… before they were going to be decimated by yellow fever. In fact, a French army who had landed just thirty years before in Haiti had lost 90% of his troops to an illness. And so this was in his mind as a military officer. And so he told him you have to surrender unconditionally. The Mexicans said no. They put themselves, really in a posture that used human shields, the civilians that… in the city. “Oh the Americans are not going to bomb us, there’s civilians in here.” And Winfield Scott said “bomb them,” and within six days they surrendered.  

The English Consul at the consulate in Veracruz said this is disgusting. He violated the law of armed conflict and he probably saved not only his troops’ lives. He probably saved a lot of lives because if he’d done a traditional siege, disease would have broken out on both sides and more civilians would have died that way. So hey, if there’s a lot of literature, like the bombing campaign in Kosovo in May 1999, that robust action can actually limit destruction and suffering. 

Question: Gordon Milton, Patrick Henry College. In our current environment, there is a lot of moralistic tone raised on both sides of the political spectrum with regards to major issues, but certainly issues of war and peace as well as tactics. Some of this, I think, has been associated with the strenuous interrogation techniques, for example, of several years ago in which, arguably, some of the concepts and principles we’ve been talking about this morning were used in that debate potentially for political ends and purposes as well as positive ends and purposes, shall we say. A two part question. How do we… is there a way that we can be more clinical in those kinds of conversations as opposed to political, and how do you address that from the perspective of just war concepts? 

Response: Can I just ask for clarification on the second part of that. Is that is it… is it torture? Is that what you mean? 

Question: In part yes, but because it really is not eyewitness sort of accepted definition of what is torture, because it’s been with fudged with the psychological aspect, I would say yes but only because I’m not sure about that aspect… you suggested torture terms is adequate. 

Answer: So I’m going to give an answer to the first question and an answer to a different question in a second because we have… because we have a streaming audience. And I’m going to be in and out all day so you guys can catch me in the hallway and ask me questions throughout. I’ve got to bounce back and forth between here and my office. But first, the resource of the basic just war framework is it moral to go to war, and how is war fought. And these principles of authority, just cause, right intention is a very important little catechism that you now have if you didn’t have it before for having these conversations.  

And you want to steer people back away from the emotion and say well, let’s just ask a question. Is there a legitimate authority involved here, and what is the cause, what is the intention, and was… has… was there reasonable hope of success? Etc. Etc. etc. Ripe fruit. And you can do that for everything from the Marvel Universe to fighting ISIS. Okay. By the way, next year I’m going to talk about just war and the Marvel Universe. 

Second, on this other question I’m going to take a slightly different tactic. I’m happy to talk about torture, but let’s… let’s… but I would say this too, because this is an audience of students and many, many of you want to go and serve in public life. You’re going to be a lawyer, you’re going to be a judge, you’re going to be a military officer. I’m an air force reserve officer. You’re going to… you’re going to serve in a diplomatic corps or in humanitarian agencies or law enforcement. So I want to talk about something very… very specific to you. And that is that the just war tradition says a lot about… about the principle of personal responsibility.  

And all people under the government, all military officers, people working in diplomacy for instance, they are under that authority. And there are things that they are ordered to do and they may not like the policies at the time. You know, Republicans didn’t like Obama’s policies, some Democrats don’t like President Trump’s policies. But, but the vast… 99% of those, they can do. It is the policy of the United States, led by an elected leader. But, there are times when perhaps, one is asked to do something that violates the law. And there is nothing higher than the law. We are a republic. We are founded on laws. And it is the ordered liberty of citizens living up to the law that is an important Christian principle. Remember the three children, remember Daniel, and others. This is a Christian principle to stand up for what’s right.  

What has been disappointing to me is that we have very few people who say “I resign” when they’re asked to do something that is unlawful. Instead, they write a tell-all after they do it and they whine and complain and try to get a million dollar book contract or get on CNN. And this is a very important issue. That is… is that it never comes to a point where you feel like there’s a severe violation of what is right, but that doesn’t mean just like the prison guards at Auschwitz. Then you say “oh, my boss told me to do it. I know it’s illegal. I know it’s immoral. He told me to do it, I’m going to do it.” That’s the path of perdition. You do not do that. And the just war tradition stiffens our resolve to remind us that first… that in our vocations we’re first and foremost accountable to God, and second to the law. And we want to do what is best for our fellow man. And those things are not incompatible. Those two things go hand in hand.  

Well, I think I’m out of time. I am delighted to be here today and wish you the best. Thank you.