book review, conservative, history, Jean Elshtain, justice, modern nation-state, pacifism, peace, violence, war

On Elshtain and Her Book on Just War

Response to Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World

Jean Bethke Elshtain, in Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World, writes for the justification of a just war against terror as not only necessary, but also that the war on terror is the responsibility of the only great super power left and the country upon which the stability of the international community rests on – America. She argues that the current order, and all its advances, is at stake, but the prosecution of the war is hamstrung by the fad of opposition in academia and a pulpit that tends toward “self-flagellation” (117). She cites Tillich and Niebuhr to justify a violent response to “Islamic fundamentalism.” In her mind, it is the duty of the state to maintain the citizen’s security (and presumably their wealth) and it is the state that should react violently with those whom attack us.

There is a great deal that I disagree with within this book and its overall position. The following are some of my criticisms and where some of the more foundational disagreements between Elshtain and I occur.

Semi-whiggish historiography (pg. 28)
Elshtain’s construction of history is uncomfortably close to what is called in the historical field whiggery, whiggishness, or whiggish historiography. Certainly Elshtain’s history is not a full blown whiggery, after all her subject is America and not England, but the over all perspective and methodology is strikingly similar – an elitist view of the past with a somewhat triumphal idea of the present and connecting the two events is a distinct impression of destiny and inevitability. In most of Elshtain’s historical narratives one can find a whiff of whiggery, but in her understanding of the collapse of American slavery, whiggery seems explicit: “Lincoln could not have made such a claim if he had lacked the principles from which to challenge the abhorrent practice he condemned. Slavery was not a founding American principle. It was a repulsive practice that clashed with our principles and was therefore doomed” (28).

The Definition of Terror and its Application (pg. 18, 19, 152)
Elshtain seems to define terrorism rather objectively as “violence that targets noncombatants, is random and unpredictable, and aims to sow overwhelming fear in a population” (152). By and large, this definition of terrorism seems objective and that it could potentially cut both ways. However, Elshtain never allows for the term “terrorism” to be applied to American force; America as terrorist is never given a thought. She never seems to move from her perspective to see business end of American force, which leads to the next two points.

Japanese Militarism and Democratic American Force (pg. 54)
Elshtain seems to have a false understanding about democracy and militaristic force. She characterizes imperial Japan as militaristic (and I think rightly so, or at least in the 1930s and 40s), but credits the passivity of Japan to democratic government established post WW II. Here again Elshtain commits another historiographic blunder of equating the reduction of arms and perceived peaceful trade with governmental change. Certainly such a change concerning militarism can exist through governmental change, however, to make it appear that it was the governmental change, and not the depletion of resources and the utter devastation inflicted upon Japan by the Americans that flattened not only the economy, but also the Japanese spirit, is simply wrong – very wrong. Not only does she exclude the other more vital factors, but she again draws connections of inevitability that no historian would be comfortable with if judged by historical peers.

Simply put, Elshtain’s assumption that democracy demilitarizes a population is flat wrong. Her anecdotal proof is easily rejected and exposes her bias that America could not be militaristic. Perhaps she has not looked at the government’s budget, where over half is spent on the military?

American Weapons Cannot be Just (pg. 65, 67)
Just war theory is entirely dependent on the fact that we can discriminate between civilian and foe. However, truth be told, we cannot not actually discriminate through our technological, falsely advertised weapons. The weapons that the government buys from defense contractors come in over budget, late and with normally far less abilities than promised. Couple the false advertisement of what our actual capabilities are with our extreme reliance on technology and the conception of fighting a war from miles away with drones, our abilities to discern the right target become suspect at best. Just war theory was developed with the idea of conventional battles in mind and fought with arrows and swords – not with using video feeds to determine a suspect target and with a push of a button an entire building is flattened with whomever is inside, be it a hidden arms factory or a school.

A Poor Understanding of Kingdom Theology (pg. 30, 47, 99)
Elshtain continually points out that just war is a highly complex idea, as is the circumstances to which we are reacting, however, she seems to act as if opposing arguments and their underlying theological basis are simplistic, or at least her depiction of the opposing arguments are simplistic. She quite simply has a poor understanding of the complexities in Kingdom theology. She asserts that the Kingdom is entirely and solely eschatological and the ethic that Jesus preached is for the eschaton. She never once recognizes that Kingdom theology, by every current and respected theologian that I have heard, is a carefully nuanced theology to reflect the complexity that the Kingdom is both here and not here.

A Poor sense of Justice and Peace (pg. 23, 55, 56, 63, 100, 130)
As Elshtain has a simplistic idea of Kingdom theology, she likewise generally has a simplistic sense of justice and peace. She does, to her credit, mention varying types of justice, however, she lacks extending this complexity to an understanding of peace. Peace must include justice, otherwise there cannot be peace. Justice, similarly, cannot be sought without peace, but she does not mention the interconnectivity of peace and justice, in fact she at times sees them as antagonistic. She sees peace at times in opposition to justice and as such simplistically characterizes pacifism against justice. Without nuancing peace and therefore simplistically characterizing pacifism as passive, instead of what it is as nonviolent action, does injustice to a position that emphatically disagrees with her.

A Poor understanding of Community and Social Space (pg. 30)
Elshtain also has a poor understanding of community and social space. She claims that the “Christian community is not territorial, that is, it is not tied to a specific place and space” (30). This is emphatically not true. Christianity forms a political, social body and that body is not only tied to space and time, but also to the community in which it lives. Christian communities cannot simply pick up and leave – that is instead the American way of life. Whenever a community within another community simply leaves, relationships are broken for the Christian life is not an individualistic, inner spiritual life, but instead the character of the Christian life is an organic, social body that helps the community in which it lives. Relationships are established and thus Christianity is inherently territorial.

Myth of the Nation-State as Savior (pg. 46, 161)
I outright reject Elshtain’s assumption that the Nation-State is the savior that supplies our safety. This is an Enlightenment narrative that justifies the existence of the Nation-State and the use of force. Certainly life would be hectic and different than as it is now, but life and civil society existed long before Hobbe’s social contract and to say that life and civil society would cease to exist if not for the state is simply wrong. For more on a critique of this, see Theopolitical Imagination by William Cavanaugh.

A Couple Last Words
The Niebuhr and Tillich arguments are worn out, that is to say that she is arguing a moot point because theology has accepted the Niebuhrian argument for a fallen humanity. Her argument against the “humanists” is precisely that, an argument against humanists who hold to an anthropology of decades ago, that or she mischaracterizes the pacifists, which she has admittedly done in the book.

The arguments for bringing Saddam to justice would work far better for bringing Pinochet to justice, but instead we supplied Pinochet. While Saddam clearly did some evil acts, the justification for intervention in one place and ignoring others (Chile, Darfur, etc.), merely on the basis of murder, genocide and human rights violations, seems to discredit much of the argument for invading Iraq.

Lastly, how come the neighbor for Elshtain is always only the victim? Justice and peace is about righting relationships – rehabilitating the oppressor and bringing the oppressed out of their hurting circumstances – not about simply killing off the victimizer until there is no one left or they are punitively smashed into submission.


3 thoughts on “On Elshtain and Her Book on Just War

  1. Pingback: just war

  2. I really appreciate your review. I have a budding interest in Just War (especially in Niebuhr), and I found your thoughts really helpful. I followed the link on your “about” page over to your CV and spent 45 minutes reading your Masters thesis. Good stuff.

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