“Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power In a Violent World” a Review

Reviewed by Chuck Fager


First a bit of autobiography: Jean Bethke Elshtain and I were both undergraduates at Colorado State University, and late in my time there, we became acquainted. I recall with a smile a party where she, a known intellectual, amazed me by dancing wildly to the Beatles, at a time when I was still holding out against the “British Invasion” as a classical-music snob. Jean was the one who taught me better.

Later, our paths crossed again in Boston, when she was at Brandeis and I was sputtering along at Harvard. There, at some particularly low moments, she was very kind to me, and I still feel gratitude for her personal compassion in time of need.

A lot of water has gone over the dam since then. Jean, who was always headed into the academy, has had what is commonly called a “distinguished career” there, which I, not being an academic, have not followed closely. But my own path does put me in the way of books like Just War Against Terror, (JWAT) so I made haste to read it.

Thus it is with regret that I am obliged to report this is a dreadful book, a sub-par example of the genre called “neo-conservative,” and one that I hope is not representative of her overall body of work.


I’m not the first to say this. Indeed JWAT has overall not fared well among the critics, as we will see below. Leaving aside the predictable kudos from the usual neo-imperial claque (e.g, Paul Berman in the New York Times, whose praise was damningly faint enough at that), even a brief online search shows it being savaged both from left and right.

I wanted, for the personal reasons stated above, to be sympathetic to an author thus besieged, but reading Just War Against Terror made it difficult.

The book opens by claiming Albert Camus’ help in constructing a straw man image of those who doubt the wisdom of America’s new imperial mission and the wars it is spawning, as fools who have “banished the word evil from their vocabularies.” They are, she says, mired in a “naivete” which “can get thousands of innocents killed.” (1-3) No actual people or statements are identified, but such a transparently underhanded way of painting critics of her argument with the guilt of the September 11 attacks hardly seems the way to avoid tendentiousness in the debate, not to mention responses that might become equally caustic, if less literarily pretentious.

Then she moves on explicitly to Al Queda’s attacks, and is soon spending several pages denouncing any attempt to understand or even to speak of what happened in other terms than those of her outrage and calls for vengeance. Any other terms are “misdescription”(16) and are simply, as she says three times, quoting Stephen Carter, “a pile of garbage” (13, 14, 20), or somewhat more loftily, indicative of “moral nihilism.” (20)

Taking any other approach is to “traffic in distortions of language that lead to contortions of moral meaning,” (11) though how we are thereby to understand what the belief in “martyrdom” could teach us about their pathological worldview (a very useful step, most intelligence agencies would agree, in ferreting them out and stopping them) is not explained, and evidently not her concern.

For Elshtain, Al Queda and their attacks represent, not instruments of “mass murder” (20) but the “heart of darkness,” (12) and in dealing with them, “no political solution is possible.” (19) With all this scorn and ridicule as preamble, it is hard to avoid the sense that the “robust politics of democratic argument” (20) the book claims to favor flows from a well poisoned from the outset.

Such generalized demonization of critics, actual and potential, is an all-too-familiar neo-conservative rhetorical strategy, which I have encountered and exposed before. (Fager: 1992) Only a few days before this review was finished, Richard Perle, a central neo-conservative figure, repeated it almost casually at a televised Hudson Institute forum on the prospects for the “Neo-conservative moment,” noting that the movement’s critics are “living in a fantasy world,” and that they are persons in whom “visceral anti-Americanism runs deeper than any other value.” There was no challenge to these comments from the audience or most of the other panelists; they are taken as established truisms by this constituency. Only the token non-neo-con panelist, Joshua Micah Marshall, voiced even a tepid dissent.

For Elshtain, this book marks a major departure from the more measured, ambivalent tone of her 1992 essay, “Just War as Politics: What the Gulf War Taught US About Contemporary American Life.” (Decosse) That essay was somber, even melancholy, and declined to render a definite judgment on the 1991 war:

# . . . As we draw up the balance sheet in the matter of the Gulf War, whose effects will be felt for years to come, we must do so not only in mind of the strategic brilliance of the Desert Storm campaign, with its remarkable tote sheet “in our favor” on all counts, including combatant lives, but also in mind of malnourished Iraqi children; alongside breaking the war machine of an aggressive and despotic power. We must weigh the breaking of fundamental human relationships, some at their most fragile point, in the early weeks and months of lives as parents, especially mothers, and children were separated: in the same breath as we marvel over the peaceful taking and decent treatment of thousands of Iraqi prisoners of war, we must recount, with appropriate unease, the frenzied destruction of defenseless Iraqis on the “Highway of Death.”

#The celebrations are over. The bands have played. The soldiers have marched. The confetti has fallen, creating multicolored drifts on city streets. Now is the time to get sober and to remember what St. Augustine taught: war and strife, however just the cause, stir up temptations to ravish and to devour, often in order to ensure peace. . . . de Tocqueville warned that military greatness was pleasing to the imagination of a democratic people. He feared the ephemeral but corrupting luster of such greatness. So does the just war thinker. (59, 60)


No such temporizing dilutes the righteous fervor of JWAT; evidently any lingering doubts were consumed in the smoke of the Twin Towers. Here all the important conclusions are made clear before the book gets to the just-war casuistry, “The Burden of American Power” that is its subtitle and Elshtain’s ostensible main subject. And what of the book’s version of the just war theory?

While less than twelve months old, the arguments in Just War Against Terror, (JWAT) have not worn well as a theological-ethical justification for the ongoing war. That’s partly because the ink had barely dried on her elaborately anticipatory defense of the Bush regime’s rationale for attacking Iraq, when this rationale evaporated in the unexpected, unfinished outcome of the actual war.

For instance, “By the time this book appears in print,” she notes, “. . .we may be embarked upon the perilous course of a war against Iraq in order to force a murderous regime to disarm.” (7; emphasis added.) When written, this was a faithful rendition of the line of the moment; how quaint it sounds now, only a year or so later, when the Washington regime’s explanations have moved from it through warding off imminent attack by weapons of mass destruction, to eliminating the potential for such weapons, to freeing Iraqis from a murdering tyrant, to simply shrugging off questions of justification in the face of the fait accompli the occupation seems to have become. As George W. Bush said to a TV interviewer in December 2003, “So what’s the difference?” (Stevenson)

But for me, what most undermines the book’s staying power is something else: the fact that when all its intellectual posturing is done, all the references to old Church Fathers and new ideologues have been trotted out, the linchpin of her thesis – that America, as the “world’s sole superpower,” has acquired (actually, JWAT states that this right was “thrust upon it” [151]) both the right and duty to set the world straight, and has the capacity to do so – this notion is crumbling before our eyes.

Whether the US indeed has acquired any such “right” (even if phrased as a “burden”) is, to say the least, debatable, even if it is expressed as guaranteeing “only” what Elshtain repeatedly calls “minimal civic peace.” (46ff, 107, 187) I for one do not believe it. And whether our present level of military power gives the US government has a duty and a license to make war for this “civic peace” wherever it deems such lacking (and by her definition it is lacking in too much of the world) is likewise debatable, though here a stronger case can be made, at least for some cases such as Rwanda and Bosnia.

But even if one were to grant Elshtain’s belief in this right and duty – which despite her ritualistic mantra of purported qualifying and balancing seems reliably to come out exactly where the current White House wants to go – there remains a thorny third query: Is the US really as “super” a power as she so totally believes?


She approaches this question from her position as a fixture of the academic conference and issues-seminar circuit, which a casual websearch suggests she rides almost nonstop

Her knowledge base was also, it seems, immensely expanded in October of 2001, when she was among the august group of forty religious figures ushered into the Oval Office for a two-hour session with its occupant back in October of 2001. Besides yielding an evidently in-depth personal understanding of the administration’s character and leadership, this meeting also appeared to be something of a spiritual epiphany for her. Either that or a groupie’s dream come true; the breathless account of it written for her university colleagues leaves the reader unsure which rubric is more heuristic. (Elshtain: 2001)

I come at this from a different place, not in the academy but hard by the gates of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, one of the largest and most important military bases in the so-called “war on terror.” And from here this issue of capability dwarfs the others, and offers the truest, most damning measure of the hubristic illusion on which is built what JWAT approvingly acknowledges as “imperialism.’” (166ff) I have argued that this self-assumed “mission” can be more accurately termed “messianic hegemonism” (Fager: 2003); but we’ll use her term as a shorthand here.

To get at this “superpower” question, it’s worth attempting some precision regarding the term, which Elshtain does not pause to define. In the strict military sense, what this now means, as I see it, is that the US war machine is able to go farther, and deliver more destructive force than any other existing military force, or combination of forces, and perhaps any other in history. It also means that few if any other militaries can effectively oppose such strikes, at least in the short term. In army jargon, the US can “break things and kill people” with unparalleled reach and efficacy. To this extent, the term “superpower” fits.

But this is only the beginning phase of exercising the “right” and “duty” of creating and enforcing “basic civic peace” in the world, or at least that much of it as the US regime chooses to notice. Installing such a “peace” in a place like, say, Iraq, also means occupying it, for an indefinite period. But unlike destruction, which has been largely technologized, occupation-cum-reconstruction takes, again to use army jargon, “boots on the ground.” A great many boots.

And there’s the rub. Elshtain’s mission for the US is built on abstractions, hardly unusual for an academic. But occupation/pacification is a very concrete undertaking. It takes not only weapons, but many other human skills, linguistic and cultural to name but two. And what is already painfully clear is that the “world’s sole superpower” is radically “un-super”and massively under-equipped for this part of the imperial mission. Woefully, even pathetically so. Moreover, as it pursues these projects, its forces are indeed vulnerable, particularly to bloody guerilla insurgencies like that now tormenting Iraq.


Thus, our “superpower” status, while real, is much more limited and dubious than its more enthusiastic advocates presume.

How is that possible?

It’s simple, actually: the US has far too few troops and other skilled personnel for what Elshtain’s soulmates at the Project for a New American Century confidently refer to as “constabulary duty,” a phrase selected, no doubt, with a wink and a nod to Gilbert and Sullivan. (Project) But the actual work of establishing “minimum civic peace” in Iraq is proving to be something other than a comic opera. Besides taking mounting casualties, the US forces there are also stretched to the breaking point, and beyond. (Hockstader)

One may not get much a of a sense of this at scholarly confabs in world-class hotels; but its ground-level reality is confirmed concretely every day in my work here at Quaker House. Yet one need not be a peace movement “grunt” to understand. Numerous eminent military and strategic figures who could hardly be tarred with the peacenik label have made this point analytically and cogently.

Not that the war party hasn’t tried to tar them. When General Eric Shinseki, a Vietnam veteran who lost a foot in combat there, told a Congressional committee last winter that occupation of Iraq would require 500,000 troops or more, his testimony was dismissed by “a high administration official” as “bullshit from a Clintonite.” (Vest)

Whatever Shinseki’s political opinions might be, his numbers have gained considerable credibility since then. They were resurfaced and buttressed in November 2003 by no less a hawk than strategist Edward Luttwak. In a stinging New York Times analysis, aptly titled “So Few Soldiers, So Much To Do,” he made a similar case. (Luttwak) And such technically civil exchanges aside, the casualty figures from Iraq underline their credibility daily.

So that’s just for Iraq, which along with Afghanistan are merely the beginning of the list of societies that meet and surpass the Elshtain/neoconservative criteria for calls on US power to establish “minimal civic peace.” But the plain truth is we don’t have enough human beings under arms to achieve anything near that in either place. It is not even plausible, never mind realistic, without a uniformed military several times the size of our current 1.4 million force. The task becomes even more massive if one factors in the unmet demands of “homeland security,” guarding vulnerable points within the US. (Tilford)

For me, this concrete test of capability throws the fantasy of new American empire, even in its most scholastically ethicized “civic peace” guise, into a cocked hat.

Why? Two reasons: One, this nation, yea even the “world’s only superpower,” can’t afford the imperial war machine it now has in action, never mind the behemoth here envisioned.

Second, if the US did manage to raise, finance and equip the uniformed force required, doing so would turn the nation into a different, wholly militarized state, of the sort that peopled the last century’s nightmares.


It seemed odd to me that Elshtain does not see these clear implications of her thesis, but that is a common neoconservative blind spot. The nub of this US mission is laid out especially in her Chapter 12, “American Power and Responsibility” (161-173), and perhaps the best summary is:

#The principle I call “equal regard” underlies the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, just as it lies at the heart of our Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s matchless Gettysburg Address. But equal regard, as the American founders knew, as Lincoln understood, and as we are coming to understand, must sometimes be backed up by coercive force. This is an ideal of international justice whose time has come. Equal regard is a mixture of old norms given new urgency and new possibilities.

#Some will understandably query: If the claim to justice as equal regard applies to all persons without distinction, shouldn’t an international body be its guarantor and enforcer? Perhaps. But in our less-than-ideal world, the one candidate to guarantee this principle is the United States, for two reasons: Equal regard is the foundation of our own polity; and we are the only superpower. (168)

Thus wrapped in the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and the mantle of the martyred Lincoln, this notion is supposed to be beyond question by any loyal American. But look closer: enforcing these standards, as interpreted in JWAT, on the international scene is what is now required, and the US is the only one competent, both morally and militarily, to do the enforcing.

This is a very tall order. Reading these sections of JWAT, I kept hearing the echo of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke: “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? . . . Or what king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand?” (14:28, 31) Elshtain twice mentions the issue of cost as a “prudential” aspect of just war thinking, but then essentially shrugs it off. (58, 173, 178)

From this base, her treatment of the just war canons, despite a pose of dispassion and independence, has a remarkably similar outcome, namely that of dismantling any potential bar it might raise to US plans for war and military dominance.

Just cause? Under the flag of establishing minimal civic order in the world, it can be whatever the US regime decides it is.

Right authority? As we saw in early 2003 at the United Nations, the US makes its own. And the US rulers, because of our superior “democratic values,” have all the legitimacy they need, regardless of what any other state or body might say. Elshtain’s disdain for the UN and other international institutions, a marker of the neocon ethos, is palpable. (127f;162-166)

Last resort? This now means only that non-military options need to be “explored” by the US rulers (61). For how long, one wonders – an hour? Moreover, with our adversaries, she repeats, “there is nothing to negotiate about.” (61)

A reasonable chance of success? Even in the case of Afghanistan, the results in mid-2002 when JWAT was written obliged her to admit that “I cannot pronounce with any degree of certainty that this criterion has been met.”(62) One doubts she could say much more at the end of 2003. But as she also notes, such judgments are “always tricky”(62), so perhaps she can be forgiven for disregarding them. This is another instance where she seems unable to see beyond the myth of American “superpower” omnipotence. One might wonder how she would rate the success of the ongoing war in Iraq; but as JWAT amounts to an advance justification of whatever happens, the answer is regrettably not much in doubt.

Imminent threat? If a possible threat could someday become imminent, that’s imminent enough. (54;57f;166-173) Or to quote again the chief executive carrying out the policy, “So what difference does it make?”

Discrimination and proportionality? The mangling of the previous criteria are bad enough, but it is on these latter two points that the book’s argument reaches its nadir. Elshtain is fully satisfied that,

#Those of us who have studied this matter in detail, however, know that a basic norm of US military training is the combatant- noncombatant distinction–the principle of discrimination. We know that American soldiers are trained to refuse to obey illegal orders under the code of restraints called the “laws of war,” derived in large measure from the historic evolution of the just war tradition and its spin-offs as encoded in international conventions and arrangements.

#US. military training films include generous helpings of ‘what went wrong’ in various operations. ‘Wrong’ refers not only to US. military losses but also to operations that led to the unintentional loss of civilian life. These films ask: How can such losses be prevented in the future in a theater of war?” (21)

She also cites a senior navy officer, asserting to the New York Times that “With precision-guided weapons, you don’t have to use as many bombs to achieve the desired effects, and using fewer weapons reduces the risk of collateral damage.”(66-67) “Many agencies and groups, as well as the US military, are continually trying to get an accurate count.” (120; emphasis added)

Very nice. Her confidence is touching in its self-assurance. And startling in its blatant naivete.


“In our quest for answers,” JWAT has admonished us, “we should not take comfort in banalities and nostrums.” (180) Sound advice. But when the book turns from Augustine and medieval popes to the twenty-first century, Elshtain has somehow, despite her detailed study, and the round of academic fora, managed to remain utterly innocent of the thunderous ethical fact that during its last three major wars (Vietnam and the two Gulf conflicts), the US military has refused as a matter of stated policy to make any accounting whatever of civilian casualties in these campaigns. None. Zip.

“‘I don’t believe you have heard me or anyone else in our leadership talk about the presence of 1,000 bodies out there, or in fact how many have been recovered,’ Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the Afghanistan operation, said Monday (March 18, 2002) at Bagram Air Base. ‘You know we don’t do body counts.’” (Epstein)

This see-no-evil, report-no-evil policy is well-attested, and has been repeatedly criticized, to no effect, even by confirmed pro-military specialists. One was the Washington Post’s William Arkin, who wrote this from Afghanistan, where he was with a Human Rights Watch team investigating civilian casualties:

# Throughout the Afghanistan campaign, the Pentagon asserted that the U.S. effort was the least deadly military campaign in history. The Pentagon, however, has no factual basis for which to make such a judgment and it is doing little to study or substantiate its self-congratulatory line. (Arkin, April 2002; emphasis added)

A year later, his judgment was even more blunt:

#Over the past few months, I’ve been struck by how many times senior officers and officials have insisted that the level of civilian deaths in Afghanistan is low. This isn’t a case of military secrecy where they know something we don’t. The Pentagon can’t say low compared to what, how low, nor if the low they describe is good enough. The U.S. military can assert all it wants that it takes “all” measures to minimize civilian harm. But until it is willing to actually study why civilians die in conflict, it is an assertion that has little credibility. (Arkin, February 2003; emphasis added.)

When Helen Thomas, the senior White House correspondent, asked the Pentagon how many Iraqis had been killed in the latest war, she was told, “‘They don’t count. They are not important.’” She later wrote, “Remember the enemy body counts during the Vietnam War? Some of those U.S. tabulations were highly exaggerated in an effort to show gains on the battlefield.

“Well, we don’t do that anymore.” (Thomas)

And the Washington Post, in what can be considered a definitive statement on the current Iraq war, reported on April 5, 2003 that the “U.S. Has No Plans to Count Civilian Casualties.” Beneath this headline was a remarkably terse statement of military defiance of Congress: “The Pentagon said yesterday that it has no plans to determine how many Iraqi civilians may have been killed or injured or suffered property damage as a result of U.S. military operations in Iraq.

“The statement followed passage Saturday of a congressional measure calling on the Bush administration to identify and provide ‘appropriate assistance’ to Iraqi civilians for war losses.” (Graham)

Numerous other corroborative citations could be included, without even a detailed study. We will only note that this stonewalling continued through December of 2003, when it was extended by Occupation authorities to the Iraqi Health Ministry, whose officials were ordered to stop keeping tallies of civilian deaths. (Jackson)

This last points toward another level of disingenuousness in such “careful discrimination” arguments. In the 1991 Iraq war, there were many public utilities destroyed with more or less precise bombing and missile attacks. Their explosions hit few civilians nearby. But then with these utilities destroyed, thousands of civilians, especially the elderly and children, died of disease and lack of basic resources. Any honest moral accounting has to include this predictable “downstream” death toll as part of its calculation of “collateral damage.” Yet any such accounting would call the “discrimination” and proportionality” arguments fatally into question. Ignoring them, as the U.S. military had steadfastly done, and is also done in JWAT, is no more than the equivalent of averting one’s eyes from the bodies on the side of the road from Jericho. There is every reason to believe that a similar toll is building in Iraq today. The official response? Suppress the information. The heart cries out: have they no shame?


This policy of total denial raises issues both procedural and substantive for just-war theorists. When the “world’s only superpower” declines even to enter the discussion of whether its real wars live up to its stated ethical standards for warmaking, how is the calculus that can give meaning to just war thought supposed to take place? And more substantively, how can the credibility of these stated standards be maintained in the face of such a policy of refusal?

My conclusion is that they cannot, and on this ground alone the just war calculus fails when applied to the U.S. war machine.

This leaves aside the abundant evidence that the best available estimates of total civilian deaths in two of these three conflicts (Vietnam, Iraq I and II) are in seven figures – evidence which, because it is perforce unofficial, can be and is shrugged off or ignored by those who advocate the new US imperium. (White) It is telling, I think, that when JWAT trumpets the purported extremity of care the US military devotes to avoiding civilian casualties, no specific or primary sources are cited in corroboration; not even the training films are identified.

But even when confronted with this data of defiance, JWAT still has an escape hatch: it has declared these civilian deaths, morally almost weightless, because they are, she has been assured, unintended:

#Every civilian death is a tragedy,” the book tells us, “but not every civilian death is a crime. . . . Contrast the gleeful reaction of bin Laden and his cohorts to the collapse of the twin towers with the widely broadcast apologies of America’s top military leaders, including, on occasion, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for errant American bombs, whether in Afghanistan or elsewhere, and for any and all unintended civilian deaths. (4f)

So it appears that superior democratic values means occasionally having to say you’re sorry; at least when large numbers of civilians are killed in view of the media, and otherwise assuring ingenuous academics that you’re doing your best. But not having actually to account for the killing.

Further, this foreign casualty total needs to be augmented, again based on the work at my ground-level position beside a major military base: well over 500,000 US troops who survived these wars were nonetheless made their permanent victims, by Agent Orange, Gulf War Syndrome, severe PTSD, and other war maladies. (Vlahos, Arison, National Coalition for the Homeless) And while it is still relatively early in the latest Iraq war, the likely crop of its domestic victims shows signs of equally gruesome promise as well. In any honest just war calculus, these US citizen victims deserve to be counted as well, and like the Iraqis they are not here.

For this grim reality is substituted a dependence on the banalities of a few army training films, and the nostrums of unnamed naval officers assuring The New York Times that all is well. Such a record puts the book’s argument for “discrimination and proportionality” almost beyond the need for further examination.

Yet one more point: JWAT insists that in the US military, “No one is encouraged, or even allowed, to call the killing of civilians ‘God’s will’ or, even worse, an act carried out in God’s name.”(21)

No doubt she was told so, and found words to this effect in her detailed studies, though again no source is cited. But as her confident words were being written, General William G “Jerry” Boykin, a key figure in the Pentagon’s war, was traveling the country, loudly preaching just such toxic stuff. He was doing so in uniform; but not, one supposes, at the scholarly conference the author frequents. And when he was finally exposed, his superiors snickered and did nothing. (Leiby)

Added up, these failings bring to mind another damning review of the book, at the top of the customer-feedback section of Amazon.com. The heading tells it all: “Embarrassing.”


Yet credit where it is due: Elshtain makes some very valid points about how widespread is the teaching of violence and hatred for US values by some Muslim groups, how oppressively most Muslim countries are governed, and how ignorant of Islam and Islamic culture most Americans are–including, she is less clear to say–our policymakers, and how dangerous such ignorance is. When she lays some of this American ignorance to the refusal of many in the academy to take religion seriously, there is likely no little truth in that as well.

These insights do not redeem the book, however, because they weigh just as heavily (I would say more so) against the new US imperial overreach as for it. There is plenty of evidence that the “war on terror” and the new American “burden” is as much a threat to the world’s “minimal civic peace” as its protector. Moreover, despite its preoccupation with Catholic thought and papal teaching, JWAT’s credibility in this regard too is steadily undermined by its blatantly tendentious and unfair treatment of Pope John Paul II – otherwise the hero of every neocon Catholic (and almost-sort-of-quasi-not-quite Catholic like JWAT’s author). (Zoba)

At first blush, her regard for the Pope would seem to be limitless. She decries how the Pope was “ignored in intellectual circles” (73) when he denounced communism in the 1980s. Then early on she demands, “Whose description of September 11 am I going to trust? That of a person who disdains any distinction between combatants and noncombatants . . . or that of John Paul II,” who has called these acts an “unspeakable horror.” She finds this quite proper papal description so comforting that it is quoted four times (9,12,16,121).

But then JWAT, like other Romish neocon tomes, is only too quick to distrust, and entirely ignore, John Paul’s even more eloquent, and much more often repeated, condemnations of the Iraq war (both of them), as well as the “burden” of US imperialism and pre-emptive warfare that underlie it.

For that matter, in their studied rebukes, the Pope and his close advisers cited just those issues of last resort, imminence, and proportionality that have weighed so heavily here and with other critics of the book. As Catholic writers Mark and Louise Zwick succinctly put it, “John Paul II has sought to distance the Catholic Church from George Bush’s idea of the manifest Christian destiny of the United States”; they also point out that Cardinal Ratzinger, the watchdog of orthodoxy, repeatedly declared that “The concept of a ‘preventive war’ does not appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.” (Zwick)

The bulk of JWAT’s Chapter 8, “The Pulpit Responds to Terror,” is devoted to scoffing at the many statements by US religious leaders condemning the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the imperial doctrine they herald. But then she skims completely around the Pope’s many statements making exactly the same point, noting only in passing that the pontiff is a “near-pacifist.” (16) One wonders how even a non-world-class scholar could have missed them; the Holy See’s website reserves an entire section for his statements on peace. (Vatican)

The gist of these papal misgivings is becoming clear to an increasing portion of the educated public. This perhaps accounts for why JWAT has overall fared poorly in the reviews, and here it is worth noting some of this reaction.

One striking review came from the right, by David Gordon of the “classical liberal/Austrian school” Mises Review. He was merciless in pointing up numerous historical and logical errors, deftly exposing JWAT’s manipulation of just-war theorizing, and concluding archly that “Students cramming for a history final will be ill advised to use her works as a substitute for a diligent perusal of Cliffs Notes . . . Evidently she needs a remedial course in logic as well as several in history.”

From another perspective (the “left”?), theological ethicist Stanley Hauerwas joined with Paul Griffiths to let JWAT have it with both barrels on the author’s own turf, the neocon journal First Things, blasting it . . . “as nothing more than an uncritical justification of the ideology of America as empire. It is itself a deeply ideological work rather than one of careful and critical thought.”

Then they told us how they really felt:

#Put more bluntly: when America sees states organized on principles it doesn’t like (this is what Elshtain means by “failed states”) it should remake them by force (if necessary) into states organized on principles it does like. These principles will be those of rights-based democracies with free economies–that is, countries like the United States. This new imperialism means that the more a state diverges from American principles, the more pressing will be America’s duty to remake it in its own image. This is a heavy burden to bear, for a moment’s thought shows that a high proportion of the world’s states diverge deeply and systematically from American principles. If Elshtain’s program were followed, perhaps thirty or so invasions and nation-buildings on the Iraqi model would be immediately required.

#So much for Elshtain’s position. Kipling thought the white man’s burden heavy; on Elshtain’s view America’s similar burden is immeasurably heavier . . . . In the end, the use of Christian language and ideas in this book is nothing more than window-dressing for a passion to impose America upon the world. It is not a book whose argument should convince Christians; it is not a book whose argument should convince anyone thoughtful; it is a book–and here, out of respect for its author, we do not mince words–informed by jingoistic dreams of empire. (Hauerwas)


Both essays drew outraged replies from the stung reviewee: a long letter to Gordon at the Mises Review denounced its “snide and caustic tone,” and insisted that the suggestion about a remedial course in logic “could only have been written by a crude positivist, a sexist, or both.” (Which, one wonders, is the worse epithet?)

And she complained to First Things that, “When confronted by a review so tendentious and unfair, it is hard to know where to begin a response.” Perhaps not, but she nonetheless knew how to end one, by falling back on the basic neo-conservative ad hominem reflex, clothed, as is typical here, in the words of some reputedly eminent authority. In this case it was Francis Cardinal George of Chicago, who reportedly once said “in reference to America’s radical critics that you ‘cannot effectively criticize what you loathe.’ Perhaps,” Elshtain writes, “this loathing explains the sour tone of the Hauerwas and Griffiths collaboration.” (Hauerwas)

Perhaps; but I doubt it. More likely it is is reaping what has been sown: Can a writer whose own book poured gall in the well of discourse not expect to find wormwood in her cup? My guess is that they were simply as able to spot a “pile of garbage” as the next person.

Elshtain leans heavily at points on Reinhold Niebuhr’s critique of sentimental idealism (106-111), and it still carries much force. Yet there’s little sign here of his balancing insistence on the “irony of American history,” which can turn our political culture’s many virtues into vices for us and risks to the world. Niebuhr supported World War II, but he opposed Vietnam; one wonders where he would come down today.

Elshtain may not be able to bear it, but the idea that America could become, may be becoming, as much a threat to the world’s “minimal civic peace” as its fanatical Muslim enemies is one that deserves to be, nay must be on the table of our personal and public deliberations. Could it be that in efforts to ward off one kind of “unspeakable horror,” we may tragically be preparing the way for another? Niebuhr might not have said yes, but I doubt if he would have refused to let the question be raised; such paradox and irony fits only too well with the best of his mature thought.

Neo-conservatives can demonize the question and the questioners all they want, but from here at the foot of the war machine, that appalling prospect looms larger with each passing month. With it comes the growing imperative to find another, better way to overcome terror and promote the “minimal civic peace” she seeks.

What is saddest to me about JWAT is that I am sure that if Jean Bethke Elshtain applied her skills and scholarship to the work of finding ways to prevent such an outcome, her contribution could be exceptional.

But Just War Against Terror is not it.


Arkin, William, “Checking on Civilian Casualties,” Washington Post, dot.mil April 9, 2002

Arkin, William, “Not Good Enough, Mr. Rumsfeld,” Washington Post, dot.mil , February 25, 2003.


Elshtain, Jean Bethke, “An Extraordinary Discussion,” *Sightings* 10/03/01 – Date: Wed, 03 Oct 2001 09:50:34 -0500

Elshtain, Jean Bethke, “Just War as Politics: What the Gulf War Taught US About Contemporary American Life,” in David E. Decosse, Ed., But Was It Just? Reflections on the Morality of the Persian Gulf War, Doubleday, New York: 1992.

Epstein, Edward, “Success in Afghan War Hard to Gauge,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 23, 2002.

Fager, Chuck, “Gulf War (1991) Books Review.” Published in the Washington City Paper, 1992. Online at: www.afriendlyletter.com

Fager, Chuck, A Quaker Declaration of War, Kimo Press, 2003.

Graham, Bradley, and Morgan, Dan, “U.S. Has No Plans to Count Civilian Casualties,” Washington Post, April 15, 2003.

Hauerwas, Stanley and Griffiths, Paul J., “War, Peace & Jean Bethke Elshtain,” First Things 136 (October 2003): 41-47.

Hockstader, Lee, “Army Stops Many Soldiers From Quitting: Orders Extend Enlistments to Curtail Troop Shortages,” Washington Post, December 29, 2003; Page A01.

Hudson Institute, “Is The Neoconservative Moment Over?” December 15, 2003, Washington, D.C.
(The Perle quotes are from the C-SPAN video, which was posted briefly on the C-SPAN website.)

Jackson, Derrick Z., “U.S. Evades Blame for Iraqi Deaths,” Boston Globe,
December 12, 2003.

Leiby, Richard, “Christian Soldier: Lt. Gen. William Boykin Is Inspiring Faith in Some and Doubt in Others,” Washington Post, November 6, 2003. page C01.

Luttwak, Edward, “So Few soldiers, So Much To Do,” New York Times, November 4, 2003. http://www.nytimes.com/2003/11/04/opinion/04LUTT.html?th

National Coalition for the Homeless, “Homeless Veterans: NCH Fact Sheet.”

Project for a New American Century, “Rebuilding America’s Defenses.”

Stevenson, Richard W., “Remember ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’? For Bush, They Are a Nonissue.” New York Times December 18, 2003.

Thomas, Helen, “Who’s Counting the Dead in Iraq?” The Miami Herald, September 5, 2003.

Tilford, Earl H., Jr., “Redefining Homeland Security.”

Vatican, “Peace on Earth . . .” (Special section, Vatican website)

Vlahos, Kelley Beaucar, “Many Homeless in U.S. Are Veterans,” November 27, 2003

White, Matthew, “Death Tolls for the Man-made Megadeaths of the 20th Century” – Vietnam

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