Can War Be Just in the 21st Century?

Ethicists Engage the Tradition

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Tobias Winright, Laurie Johnston
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , December
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This series of essays could not be more timely, sensitive, or critical to the discussion of war and peacemaking, especially in our current era of geopolitics, terrorism, and unparalleled technology. As ethicists take on the Just War Tradition (JWT) from different standpoints, the reader will note the multidisciplinary nature of the topic. Students within the disciplines of politics, theology, military history, diplomacy, sociology, criminal justice, and ethics would all benefit from a careful reading of this short collection. Readers unfamiliar with the rich tradition will find a short, but rich introduction to the history and theory behind the idea of “just” or “justifiable” war.

The first chapter, “Just War and the Gospel,” by Lisa Sowle Cahill, gives readers an excellent historical summary of what exactly JWT is, where it came from, and why first the Greeks, and then the Christians have asked questions and debated the proper use or disuse of aggression within the church and state for the last eighteen hundred years.

After Cahill’s clear explanation of the tradition and its historical background, the essays become more pointed and specific, giving the readers an abundance of hard facts and real examples that pertain to our current cultural and political landscape. For instance, Brian Stiltner’s essay, “A Taste of Armageddon,” discusses the use of drones and robotics in modern warfare in a way that is highly informative and enlightening. Equally important and disturbing is Tobias Winright’s essay, “The (Im)morality of Cluster Munitions.” To those who are civilians and have never served in the armed forces, a whole new dimension of warfare is revealed along with the problems and moral quandaries faced by those who must make life and death decisions and/or act upon the decisions of others.

Anna Floerke Scheid’s chapter, “Torture, Terror, and Just War,” explains some major problems between theory and practice within JWT, and Cristina Richie’s “Women in Combat, Civilian Immunity, and the Just War Tradition,” illustrates in grim detail what happens when double standards over gender occur in militaries that supposedly no longer recognize gender distinctions. The lines are blurred between who is a combatant and who is a non-combatant, making it easy for political leaders to exploit this uncertainty, distorting and undermining principles in the JWT that were meant to protect the innocent. In fact, this exploitation and distortion is a remarkable commonality within nearly every essay in the collection, revealing how governments manage to skirt or neutralize the JWT in such a way that warfare becomes total or realpolitikal yet remains under the guise of JWT. The last chapter, “Combat and Confession: Just War and Moral Injury,” by Tobias Winright and E. Ann Jeschke, most meaningfully sums up the problems, possibilities, and significance of JWT.

This reviewer wishes that every senior in high school was required to read this book, or at least this last chapter. It would help our society considerably to have a better informed and invested public.

What is so helpful about this work is that the editors, Tobias Winright and Laurie Johnston, take great pains to take the Christian traditions of pacifism seriously, and engage the peacemaking or “just peace” discussions within Christianity in a serious manner. Every essay takes care to note the problems within JWT, and the overall view of the entire collection is favorable only toward a limited and strict version of JWT. This is probably why a noted advocate of nonviolence, Stanley Hauerwas, endorses this book in a foreword.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kristin A. Vargas is a doctoral candidate in ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
September 30, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Tobias Winright holds the Hubert Mader Chair in the Albert Gnaegi Center for Health Care Ethics and is associate professor in the department of theological studies at Saint Louis University. He is the co-author of After the Smoke Clears: The Just War Tradition and Post-War Justice, (Orbis, 2010).

Laurie Johnston is associate professor of theology and director of fellowships at Emmanuel College in Boston. She serves on the Steering Committee of the Catholic Peacebuilding Network and is a member of the Community of Sant’Egidio.


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