Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

Just War Against Terror:
The Burden of American Power in a Violent World.
By Jean Bethke Elshtain. Basic Books. 1995 240 pp.

Jean Bethke Elshstain is professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago, a prolific author and feisty defender of America’s right to defend itself. 

 She is no stranger to controversy nor cowed by the rhetorical din of battle that surrounds the topic of this book. She seeks to bring Christian insight to bear on what is obviously a very controversial and divisive issue. That makes two reasons why this book is worth reading by all who look for moral clarity despite the fog of confusion surrounding the role of the United States on the world scene. 

This book can be read as a commentary and explication of the statement “What We’re Fighting For: A Letter From America,” published in February, 2002, and signed by sixty academics and intellectuals who wanted to accomplish two things with this publication. First; to indicate to leading figures in other countries that not all American intellectuals and academics are opposed to the American war effort.  Second, to offer a conceptual framework within which to assess America’s efforts. (This Letter is included as an appendix, complete with the names of the signatories and extended notes.) 

The American media mostly ignored this document, while a number of intellectuals felt it necessary to distribute a “Letter from United States Citizens to Friends in Europe,” intended to set the record straight by explaining that the “correct” American response is to condemn the American military action (which at this time only involved the action in Afghanistan). One way to do that was to describe the destruction of the war as “immeasurable.”  They predicted that millions of the Afghanistan people would be filled with “moral desperation and hatred “as they “watch helplessly as their world is devastated” by the United States. 

Just War Against Terror tackles all the difficult and controversial issues related to the war against terrorism. Elshtain pays a great deal of attention to the historic just war principles, as first articulated by Augustine (354-430). In that context she sets out her views on the meaning of September 11, 2001, the nature of Islamist fundamentalism, suicidal terrorism, the relationship of church and state, the role of the United States on the world scene, preemptive military action, and a perspective on war and peace. 

This is not yet another dispassionate, academic lecture that leaves the author a lot of room to come down on both sides of an issue, or that simply goes with the flow in American academia.  Elshtain writes as an American citizen who hails from “a small people, Volga Germans, who would have been murdered or exiled to the Soviet Union’s farthest provinces by Joseph Stalin had they remained in Russia rather than making the wrenching journey to America in the waning years of the nineteenth century….” 

Elshtain wrote this book because she was provoked by much of what has been written and said about terrorism and the events of September 11, 2001…. and “because I have grandchildren who deserve to grow up in a world of civic peace, as do all of the world’s children; because I am a believer who believes that other believers have the same rights I do because we are all equal before God. “ She explains:

The burden of the argument in the pages to follow is that we must and will fight – not in order to conquer any countries or to destroy peoples or religions, but to defend what we are and what we, at our best, represent. We are not obliged to defend everything we have done, or are doing, as a country. But we do bear an obligation to defend the ideal of free citizens in a polity whose ordering principles make civic freedom and the free exercise of religion available to all. Moreover, international civic peace vitally depends on America’s ability to stay true to its own principles…. 

The first questions she raises is “What happened on September 11?” A simple question, you might say. But take another look at the vastly different reactions to this horrible event that has been indelibly imprinted on the minds of the panic-stricken survivors. Millions and millions more all over the world watched with terrifying fascination the televised pictures of the crumbling and burning Manhattan towers and the Pentagon building. They will never forget those pictures of flames and smoke and utter devastation. 

What equally horrified all civilized people was the jubilant and wildly cheering crowds in Arab countries who rejoiced and celebrated the “brave martyrs” who performed this “glorious deed” of wreaking vengeance on the “Great Satan.” How is such hatred possible, and what moves well-educated, seemingly normal people (normal enough to live among unsuspecting Americans) to commit such a heinous crime against innocent men, women and even little children? 

The American people, rallied by a determined President Bush, came together, united in their anger and grief about such cruelty and terrible loss of life. But the sense of togetherness did not last. Soon enough we began to hear that the problem was not with the attackers but with America itself. If they hate us so much, there must be a reason; America had this attack coming because it behaves like a world bully that is responsible for the poverty and suffering of the Third World.  This has become the mantra, eagerly broadcast in Europe, Canada and even in America itself. 

Elshtain disagrees, and she does so with careful analysis of the precise threats issued by Osama bin Laden then -- and perhaps still -- the fanatic leader of the terrorist Al Qaeda that has its octopus-like tentacles in many countries. This is bin Laden’s fatwa pronouncement in 1998; “ I have been sent with the sword between my hands to ensure that no one but Allah is worshiped, Allah who put my livelihood under the shadow of my spear and who inflicts humiliation and scorn on those who disobey my orders.” At another occasion bin Laden instructed the faithful that to “kill the Americans and their allies – civilians and military -- is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it…” 

Such war-like words fall uncomprehendingly on the ears of the sophisticated western secular elite. So they can safely ignore such chilling pronouncements except when bin Laden’s followers crash airplanes into the heart of American cities and into the Pennsylvania countryside. How to explain such “unspeakable horror”? There must be some reason behind such extremism. Surely, no sane person would do such things unless they were provoked, unless they had a reason for doing what they did. 

Elshtain is convinced that we should take the fanatic haters of the United States, and in fact all western democratic countries, at their words. They really mean what they say, and we should be prepared to defend ourselves. However, she is equally insistent that our response must be nuanced. For one thing, we should realize that there is a significant element among Muslim believers that want to live at peace with their neighbours, and we should seek to work with them. 

We also need to be nuanced in our use of military force, and she believes that we therefore need to revisit the classical teachings of just war that makes a crucial distinction between the actions of private citizens and a legitimate state. Unfortunately, this distinction is often lost on those who quote the biblical instructions about peace making. Other vital just war conditions are that no war may be for conquest, that the aim must be the furtherance of civic peace, and the means must be used very discriminately so that minimal damage is done and the lives of non-combatants are spared. 

These are obviously hotly contested guidelines, and Elshtain’s provides a carefully guided tour through this moral landscape. She faults the church leaders who have used strong words to condemn the U.S. but are often more guided by prevailing secular opinion than by just war principles that have evolved during two millennia of careful reflection and debate. 

The author provides a helpful analysis of the task and nature of the state and the use of force.  Pacifists who condemn all war, she believes, are conflating the peace in this world with the peace of the kingdom of God in the hereafter. In contrast, she thinks that Christians who want to take part in politics -- and we are called to do so -- must face the thorny issue of rampant evil in a dangerous world. It is a world where there are no final or perfect solutions and where we sometimes will have to get our hands dirty. 

Her views of the role of the U.S. as a world power is that such power can be abused, but also can and should be used for the war against the implacable enemies of freedom who kill indiscriminately and are driven by what can indeed be called a culture of death.

This is a gem of a book written with clarity and suffused with the wisdom that comes from a long history of Christian thought.  The author tackles the most contentious and seemingly intractable issues of our time with gusto yet with carefully reasoned arguments. It should be in every church and home library. 

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