Book Review: Eric Patterson’s Just American Wars: Ethical Dilemmas in U.S. Military History

One of the surprises I’ve gotten is that, even in conservative American churches, there are those in positions of influence who are pacifists. How can this be, especially since their core ethnic group is the bellicose Scots-Irish? But life is an education. Although it’s tempting to regard Eric Patterson’s Just American Wars: Ethical Dilemmas in U.S. Military History (War, Conflict and Ethics) as simply a refutation of this idea, it’s more than that. Patterson, former Dean of the School of Government at Regent University, sets forth a treatise in support of not only the just war theory itself, but also its application in the various conflicts the United States has fought, starting with its own independence and moving forward.

Just war theory dates back to Augustine, and has been the moral and ethical basis of pursuing war in the West ever since (until recently, at least.) One thing that Patterson should have been more explicit about is that no state–especially a world power like the U.S.–can survive without military capability and the will to use it when appropriate. Many of the same pacifists who decry the use of the military also use the democratic aspects of the state to pursue their goals, but bluntly you can’t have one without the other.

We normally think of just war theory only in terms of going to war in the first place, but Patterson’s book has as its basic outline the entire idea of the just war theory, which can be broken down (like Gaul) into three parts:

  1. Jus ad bellum, the aforementioned going to war. Components of this include legitimate authority, just cause, right intent, likelihood of success, proportionality of ends, and last resort. One thing I’d like Patterson to have discussed is something I’ve complained about on this blog re the Confederacy. In addition to the lack of just cause (we’ll get back to the authority issue,) one reason the whole adventure was chimeric for the South from the the start is that the unequal resources of the two combatants guaranteed that the South would lose once the North got its military act together.
  2. Jus in bello, right conduct during the pursuit of the conflict. This includes proportionality and discrimination (the care taken to minimise casualities of non-combatants.)
  3. Jus post bellum, doing the follow-up to war right. This includes order, justice and concilitation. In some way this is the hardest part of the whole process, and Patterson does a good job in his discussion of what happens when the war is done.

Patterson’s basic case is that the United States, on the whole, has conducted its wars in accordance with just war theory at all phases of the conflicts. To support his case he goes back into some conflicts that have been forgotten, such as the pacification of the Philippines after the Spanish-American war or the bombing of Veracruz during the Mexican-American War. From a contemporary standpoint the most important discussion he has is Vietnam, the conflict that has poisoned American political and military life ever since. His thesis is that getting into Vietnam was right but the conflict got subsequently bogged down in personal ego (shame-honour) and domestic political considerations that proved harder to resolve than the conflict itself.

Hand in hand with that proposition is another: that the leitmotif of American wars is not the overwhelming industrial and mlitary power that the United States can bring to bear on any conflict it gets itself into, but the moral purpose and direction of the war effort, from the debate before conflict through the conflict itself and the desires of the country in settlement. That morality was certainly operative in the wake of the two World Wars, with Wilson’s Fourteen Points (in reality, he overdid it) and the whole order the United States put together in the wake of World War II.

Unfortunately, from Vietnam onwards, scholars have cast aspersions on the whole moral nature of American policy. This has had an impact on American military conduct, especially in the overly restrictive rules of engagement that our military forces have been saddled with in Afghanistan and Iraq. Much of the motivation behind Patterson’s book is to refute these aspersions on American policy. If the book has a weakness, however, it is that Patterson’s refutation is too narrow and really doesn’t address what “sticks in the craw” of his liberal opponents.

I think it’s fair to say that the real problem that the left has with American law, polity and policy on the whole is that our current Constitutional and legal system, designed to force consensus and prevent rapid change, has not been sufficiently responsive to the implementation of their idea. They have “despaired of the republic,” to use Livy’s expressive phrase. That comes out most clearly in the whole discussion of the American Revolution, whose legitimacy Patterson upholds using just war theory and the desire of the colonists to assert their “rights as Englishmen.” The left has responded by challenging the whole idea of rebellion against the constituted authority of the English Crown. This challenge, which one would more reasonably expect from conservative Christian and Gothardian sources, strikes one as odd coming from the left.

The morality issue brings up something else: what happens when the basis of American morality changes? Such a change would certainly come into play if the country’s idea were to completely “flip.” We already see a streak in leftist thought that places more importance on who makes the decisions than what decisions they make. As an example, the same James Mattis who resigned to gasps of horror under Donald Trump was fired with little fanfare by Barack Obama, in both cases for a similar reason: he took a more hawkish position than his dovish Commander-in-Chief. Would a more uniformly leftist United States, for example, send troops to enforce same-sex civil marriage, something that was floated in anticipation of a Hilliary Clinton victory? Or to ensure the commercial success of an American tech hegemon? Patterson doesn’t really address these kinds of issues but does discuss the impact of postmodernism, which breaks down adherence to a just war paradigm–and not necessarily in a more pacifist direction.

Patterson, however, is better at sticking to his subject than I am. The just war theory, for all of its shortcomings, needs a defence in our current situation, and Patterson does a good job in giving it that. Just American Wars: Ethical Dilemmas in U.S. Military History (War, Conflict and Ethics) is just such a needed defence, and deserves its place in this ongoing debate.

Leave a Reply