The Ethics of War and Peace Revisited

Moral Challenges in an Era of Contested and Fragmented Sovereignty

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Daniel R. Brunstetter, Jean-Vincent Holeindre
  • Washington, DC: 
    Georgetown University Press
    , December
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


As its subtitle explains, this significant and timely collection aims to revise the traditional paradigms of thinking about the ethics of war and peace—just war theory, Responsibility to Protect, Human Security, and so forth–in light of current geopolitical circumstances in which “the norm of territorial integrity has shed some of its absolute nature” and “some states do not control all of their territory and cannot necessarily deal with terrorist groups operating within their borders or sliding across them” (1). This text would be a valuable addition to any course or study on the ethics of war as a complement to or extension of classical works in the field. On several points, it pushes the tradition in helpful and generative ways.

The volume is organized into four sections that address, broadly, the matter of intervention; the combatant/non-combatant distinction and the question of risk; whether new frameworks for ethical thinking about war and peace are necessary; and how to think about victory and the end of war. Among the diverse array of topics covered are: humanitarian intervention, drone/distance warfare, human security and justifications for military force, and foreign policy and the question of postcolonial responsibility. The collection nicely balances analysis with concrete examples and situations, a virtue of many of its individual chapters as well as its overall organization. Further, the frequent references that contributors make to other chapters in the book greatly enhance the volume and allow for helpful somparisons and illuminations. However, while most of the contributors clearly recognize the political nature of war, it seems more attention could be paid to the fact that the ethics of war is ultimately a matter of political theory–both in the immediate sense that war involves the actions of political communities and also, that the task of thinking ethically about war should be rooted in claims about the nature, purpose, and practices of political communities. 

Chapters to note in the volume include Nigel Biggar’s continued development of a neo-Augustinian justification for military intervention; Shannon French, Victoria Sisk, and Caroline Bass’s reflections on the ways in which drone/distance warfare calls for further refinement of a warrior’s code of honor; and Jean-Baptist’s Jeangène Vilmer’s provocative consequentialist defense of drone use. Additionally, there are some contributions that advocate developing the ethics of war in critical and especially timely ways: Daniel Brunstetter’s argument for and advancement of a jus ad vim paradigm that still remains underdeveloped, Brian Orend’s extension of a jus post bellum paradigm, and Cian O’Driscoll’s appeal to think more carefully about victory and the just war, which remains perhaps one of the tradition’s most egregious lacunae.

Without the space to examine each chapter with the depth it deserves, I will briefly consider two that are representative of both the quality of the volume’s many contributions and of its aforementioned limited considerations about political theoretical matters. 

In an insightful chapter about a topic of increasing importance, Deborah Avant takes on the issue of Private Military and Security Companies [PMSCs] in war. After tracing the way in which the just war tradition has thought about the ad bellum criterion of legitimate authority and the principle of sovereignty at its root, Avant argues that the problem PMSCs pose to the tradition may be a consequence of its framework. Proposing a constructive alternative, Avant suggests a “pragmatic” approach to the ethics of war concerned more with creative problem solving than moral principles (128). Avant’s pragmatist approach to the ethics of war is certainly welcome, but the need for further development becomes apparent. Although clearly aware of how monetizing military forces might affect their availability and use, Avant offers little insight into how profiteering might crowd out other motivations or be corrosive of the aims and purposes of military action. At least as important, when thinking about war as a political project, is the unattended concern about the effects on the political community itself of further privatizing the role of military service.

John Kelsay’s thought-provoking contribution revisits the ad bellum criterion of last resort in just war thinking. As a scholar of ethics and religion, Kelsay’s expertise in Islam and war is a welcome addition to the collection. Kelsay explains, as an example of the criterion's insufficiency, how the the duty of individual fighting renders nearly impossible an accurate assessment of jihadist threats. Arguing for restoring a stronger role to prudence in the ethics of war, Kelsay criticizes what he discerns to be an overly rigid commitment to last resort. He argues that the criterion is simply too blunt and unrefined for the dynamics and challenges of modern warfare, and he faults policymakers, including President Obama on the matter of Syrian intervention, for holding too fast to the criterion. He contends that strict adherence has hamstrung decision makers and prevented wiser practical reasoning with respect to the demands of war and the requirements of state security.

This point is well taken, and Kelsay’s tracing of the criterion through classical sources assists in illustrating it. However, as another just war theorist, Michael Walzer has argued, there is another way of understanding last resort as a warning against any hasty or easy minimization of the brutal costs of war. In this way, the criterion serves less as a threshold, since it seems impossible to ever fully satisfy, and more figuratively as a caution for policymakers and a reminder of their responsibility to members of their own political community. Even if Kelsay disagrees with Walzer on the details of this point, his argument would be strengthened by considering how last resort also functions as a summons to responsible political action.

These brief reflections hardly give this rich and timely collection its due. My concerns about attention to the political theoretical nature of the task aside, this text provides numerous challenges to and developments of key topics in the ethics of war. In the best ways, this volume offers much to wrestle with in the ongoing development of a tradition rightly characterized by vigorous, ongoing argument.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nicholas Buck is a doctoral student in Religious Ethics at the University of Chicago.

Date of Review: 
January 21, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Daniel R. Brunstetter is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California-Irvine and author of Tensions of Modernity: Las Casas and His Legacy in the French Enlightenment. 

Jean-Vincent Holeindre is Professor of Political Science at University Paris 2 Panthéon-Assas and Scientific Director of Institut de Recherche Stratégique de l'Ecole Militaire (IRSEM). He is the author of La ruse et la force: Une autre histoire de la stratégie.


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