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A Review of Jean Bethke Elshtain’s Just War against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World


[1]  Jean Bethke Elshtain's Just War against Terror is her response to the attacks of September 11, 2001.  The original publication date was 2003, and the most recent edition also contains analysis of the initial prosecution of the Iraq war.  Elshtain's analysis is pursued from the perspective of "just war theory," a theory that finds its origin in the theology of Augustine, particularly in The City of God.  Briefly, just war theory states that not only are there times when it is necessary to go to war, but also times when it is right to go to war (and conversely wrong not to go to war).  Chief among the reasons why a war might be justly pursued are a nation's self-defense, to secure sufficient civic peace for the proper functioning of a nation, and the protection of innocent life.  Medieval thinkers following Augustine codified these principles and added additional prudential concerns, such as, use of war as a last resort, the ability to win the war, and most importantly the distinction between soldiers and civilians.  Just war theory was the predominant way of thinking about war throughout the Medieval and Early Modern period.  It was foundational for international jurists such as Grotius, and reached its apex in Clausewitz's treatise on war.

[2]  With the tremendous weight of historical and theoretical precedent behind her, Elshtain argues that not only was the U.S. response to 9/11 necessary, but it was right.  Furthermore, while the war in Iraq may not have been necessary, it was still right.  Elshtain makes a strong case for her position by showing how American actions following 9/11 fit squarely within the just war tradition, and also by criticizing those who take an opposing view.  In the first instance her work is clear and scholarly.  In the second instance, though, her criticisms often seem to miss the mark.  For example, Elshtain writes:

People who routinely insist on the illegitimacy of blaming victims now do it.  No one deserved what happened to them on September 11, neither the immediate victims and their families nor the country itself.  Cannot a powerful country bleed?  Are not its citizens as mortal as those anywhere?  Simple human recognition along these lines does not deter the literary theorist Frederic Jameson from seeing in these horrific events "a textbook example of dialectical reversal."  Rather, what we are being treated to in such comments is a textbook example of what Hannah Arendt called the handy magic of "the dialectic," which puts "to sleep our common sense, which is nothing else but our mental organ for perceiving, understanding, and dealing with reality and factuality" (93-4).

It does not seem to follow from the fact that Jameson called the events of 9/11 "a textbook example of dialectical reversal" that he lacks "simple human recognition."  Understanding events within a theoretical framework (in Jameson's case Marxist) in no way precludes an understanding of the human costs of terrorists attacks.  Elshtain would seem to agree since the first chapter of the book outlines the theoretical framework within which she views the events of 9/11.  Furthermore, it seems incumbent on Elshtain to demonstrate that Arendt and Jameson are talking about the same "dialectic" in order for Arendt's zinger to stick.  Or, if Elshtain wants to claim that all uses of dialectic (whether Platonic, Hegelian, or Marxist) are absurd, this too would need to be argued for.  While I have a great deal of respect for Arendt, her dislike of a position does not automatically make it ridiculous.

[3]  Elshtain continues to cast opposing positions uncharitably.  A few pages after the above quote, she again returns to Jameson in discussing the difference between academics and politicians:

Unlike those who specialize in the verbal equivalent of a hit-and-run accident, politicians cannot evade responsibility for their words and deeds.  They cannot talk blithely about "blowback" and "dialectical reversals" and "imperial retaliatory terrorism" when a country and its people face biological, chemical, and nuclear attack-not to mention explosions and suicide assaults (97).

What concerns me about the above paragraph is the use of the word "blithely."  Jameson's blitheness has neither been proved nor disproved.  All Elshtain provides is an uncited phrase without any context.  Notice how the meaning of the sentence changes when "blithely" is removed.  I see no reason why a politician or academic could not or should not talk about 9/11 from as many perspectives and from as many theoretical frameworks as possible.  I agree that no one should discuss it "blithely," but Elshtain has not demonstrated that anyone has.

[4]  I am dwelling on this point at length, because I think it points to a larger problem in Elshtain's book as a whole.  Throughout Just War against Terror, Elshtain seems to conflate explanation and justification.  As a result, any attempt to understand why someone would fly passenger jets into buildings appears to be saying that such an attack is justified.  Without understanding or explanation, however, it seems that we risk increasing the likelihood of future attacks rather than mitigating it.  Thus, Elshtain writes:

Repeatedly the worst possible gloss is put on American motivations and the best on the motivations of those who attacked us.  Terrorists are given the benefit of the doubt.  After the obligatory caveat that it is not a good thing to fly hijacked commercial aircraft into skyscraper office buildings, we are told to consider the provocations.  These range from "the fascism of U.S. foreign policy over the past many decades," in the words of a Rutgers professor cited by Andrew Sullivan, to the historian Mary Beard's declaration that, "however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming" (93).

Leaving aside legitimate concerns that one might have about American motivations in the international community, it is clear that those who attacked the U.S. on 9/11 had already put the "worst possible gloss" on American motivations.  In an effort to understand the hijackers, it seems prudent to think about the U.S. in the way that they do, and then ask why they might think about the U.S. in this way.  The phrase "obligatory caveat" seems to impugn unnecessarily the motives of those trying to explain what sort of historical forces led to the 9/11 attacks.  It seems much more amenable to a continuing dialogue about the U.S. role in international affairs to assume that these "obligatory caveats" are sincere, and the concern for understanding seeks prevention rather than provocation.

[5]  As I noted above, Just War Against Terror presents a powerful argument that the U.S. was right to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq.  I would like to call into question one of the key presuppositions of the argument, namely that just war theory can be appropriately applied in this instance.  In particular, I do not think that there can be strictly speaking a "war" on "terror."  I am not the first person to make this claim.  The recently released report of the 9/11 commission makes a similar claim.  "Terrorism" is a technique that seeks political or social change through the unpredictable and indiscriminate killing or injuring of noncombatants.  Terrorism is an effective technique because it is so efficient.  One attack can create great upheaval and the threat of future attacks is nearly as effective as the original attack.  Given that terrorism is a technique, it does not seem that a war can be fought against it.  Terrorism is not a state that can agree to terms of surrender, nor is it a combatant that can be killed or captured on the field of battle.  When U.S. troops landed in Afghanistan and Iraq, the people that fought against them were not defending terrorism, they were defending their country or their religion or both.  When there are protests against the use of military force in the "war on terror," the protesters are not protesting on behalf of terror, or in the hopes that without military intervention terror might flourish. 

[6]  I would draw a parallel by comparing another technique, land mines.  It is generally agreed upon by the international community that land mines are an inappropriate technique to use.  Long after the war in which they are deployed is over, they continue to kill and maim.  The solution to this problem, however, is not to declare a war on land mines.  Rather, one enjoins the members of the international community to ban the use of land mines, and seeks funding for their removal from past conflicts.  In the same way that one cannot declare a war on land mines, it seems that neither can terror be the proper object of a war.  Obviously, terrorism is a much more complicated issue.  Terrorism is roundly condemned by the international community as an inappropriate technique for effecting political and social change.  The problem is those who use terrorism are by and large outside of and hostile to the international community.  This refusal of international citizenship by those who employ terrorism, however, does not make a war against the technique any more plausible. 

[7]  The nature of those who employ terrorism points to another difficulty in applying just war theory.  Just war theory is very good at putting limits on the relations between states.  However, it becomes increasingly murky and difficult to apply when the agents are not acting on behalf of a state.  Just war theory marks the limit of relations between states, but is not a delicate enough instrument to draw the contours of multinational, sub-state organizations such as Al-Qaeda.  It seems as if this can only be done through international cooperation and careful intelligence gathering.  In short, there cannot be a just war on terror, because just war theory applies to states, not sub-state actors, and terrorism is a technique amenable to sanction but not war.

[8]  I would like to conclude with two claims that I think we can all agree on, and some difficult questions that we are all struggling to answer: 

The first [claim] is just what I assume to be recognition of fact.  That is that the events of September 11 were a horrendous atrocity, probably the most devastating instant human toll of any crime in history, outside of war.  The second [claim] has to do with the goals.  I'm assuming that our goal is that we are interested in reducing the likelihood of such crimes whether they are against us or against someone else.[1]

[9]  Given the atrocities of 9/11, what is the best way to prevent future attacks?  Is the way that we are prosecuting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq increasing or decreasing the likelihood of attack?  If it is increasing the likelihood of attack, what are the alternatives?  Can democracy legitimately be imposed by force?  The great virtue of Elshtain's Just War Against Terror is that it forces these questions on us.  We will be working out answers to these questions for decades to come.

See Elshtain's response.

© October 2004
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 4, Issue 10