November 1, 2020 Editor

Book Review of Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World

Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World, Jean Bethke Elshtain, New York: Basic Books, 2003, 240 pp.

WN: My friend Ron Dart commissioned this review back in 2009. The author was a bright, productive Christian scholar. Incredibly naïve and blinded by ideology as well . . . The review highlighted below explains why.


Jean Bethke Elshtain has published or edited about twenty books, several of which have won prestigious awards.  She has also written over 400 scholarly articles and nearly 200 book reviews.  She is Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago.  She is also considered “one of the country’s [America’s] leading public intellectuals (back cover)”, and works consciously from a committed Christian perspective.   When she writes on any topic, it is obviously the reader’s loss not to pay close attention.

The White Man’s Burden

Elshtain quotes Hannah Arendt’s repeated warning that “Politics is Not the Nursery.”  She dismisses the to her naïve mea culpas of American intellectuals who would see moral equivalency between the US and bin Laden as fundamentally flawed: bin Laden and Islamicists purposely kill innocent civilians; America does not.  The moral gulf is absolute.  And no amount of political change will satisfy the extremists out to destroy America: for America will not ultimately give up commitment to personal freedom. 

America cannot not fight, catapulted into that world stage responsibility ever since World War II.  “With our great power comes an even greater responsibility (p. 6).”, she declares, evoking the “white man’s burden” that British poet Rudyard Kipling thought so imperative in an 1899 poem by that title, in response to the Spanish-American War.  She writes: “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 who we are and what we, at our best, represent…  Moreover, international civic peace vitally depends on America’s ability to stay true to its own principles, for without American power and resolve, the international civic stability necessary to forestall the spread of terrorism can be neither attained nor sustained (pp. 6 & 7).”  She personalizes her reasons for writing as well, in part, she indicates, “because I have grandchildren who deserve to grow up in a world of civic peace …(p. 7).”  She argues for Kipling’s “savage wars of peace” to make the world safe for… what?  We shall return to this.

One wonders at the imbedded ideology enabling such a superficial gloss of “the facts.”  Especially when General Curtis LeMay, placed in charge of the Japanese bombing campaign in the final months of the war, openly bragged:  “We scorched and boiled and baked to death more people in Tokyo on that night of March 9-10 than went up in vapor at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined (Shalom, 2004).” This is not unlike Martin Luther’s instructions in the early 16th century to the German nobility to “smite, slay, and kill” all the peasants possible during the Peasants’ Revolt, nor the papal legate Arnaud Amaury’s instructions in the early 13th century, who helped to lead the crusade against the Cathars: “Kill them all, God will know his own” at the massacre of 20,000 villagers at Béziers in southern France.  And not unlike Osama bin Laden who “commits himself to violence without limits (p. 23).”  Her assertion is just: “America’s war against terrorism would collapse into a horror were we to fail to distinguish between combatants and noncombatants in our response (p. 20).”  One feels compelled to ask: But didn’t America’s entrée onto the world stage as super policeman “collapse into a horror” over the 1945 skies of Japan – by Elshtain’s own standards?!  And just war theorists calling this less than a totally reprehensible and “unspeakable horror” (like Holocaust deniers) is okay, perhaps praiseworthy?  When has America ever repented of this unmitigated terror?(( James Berardinelli in a review of Errol Morris’ 2004 film,The Fog of War, writes: “Long before McNamara became president of Ford motor company or entered the public spotlight, he served in World War II under the unrelenting command of General Curtis LeMay, the commander of the 20th Air Force. In 1945, LeMay was in charge of a massive firebombing offensive in Japan that resulted in the deaths of nearly 1 million Japanese citizens, including 100,000 in Tokyo during a single night. LeMay’s B-29 bombers raked 67 Japanese cities, sometimes killing more than 50% of the population. McNamara points out that, had the United States lost the war, he and LeMay would have been tried as war criminals. But, of course, it’s the victors who write the rules and determine what is justified. Nevertheless, it’s clear that McNamara has wrestled with this issue for decades. (Berardinelli, 2003).”   As Elshtain has not![/ref]

One soon begins to suspect that Elshtain’s book “is 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 (Hauerwas and Griffiths, 2003).”  This despite her counter in the same website to their charge of ideology: “Just war restraint and indiscriminate slaughter belong to different moral and political universes.”  One must agree.  Only, America in World War II and Al Qaeda terrorists today clearly inhabit the same (a)moral universe.  Yet all she can muster with reference to the “indiscriminate slaughter” of German and Japanese civilians is a bland, “I am critical of the bombing campaign (p. 62).”  That’s all?!  That’s it?!  Even then, she immediately references with muted disapproval, if not implied acceptance, Michael Walzer who justifies the end (winning the war) despite gargantuan violation of immunity of noncombatants as means.((The Chief of staff for Presidents Roosevelt and Truman wrote of the atomic bombs dropped: “It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons.

“The lethal possibilities of atomic warfare in the future are frightening. My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children (Leahy, 1950, p. 441, italics added).  Leahy begs the question: when has war been other than “in that fashion”, one that invariably is “barbarous”, all just war theory notwithstanding?  “War is hell”, observed Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman.  Just war theory claims: “War is peace”.[/ref]

One wonders: Why would America do any differently today (or anytime since World War II), without national repentance for and total rejection of its World War II “unspeakable horror”, and without commitment to “never again”?  Would a Parole Board ever release a criminal who never admits guilt, is a repeat offender, and shows no hint of dedication to changed ways? When has repentance ever been demanded and demonstrated at the State level?  Has Elshtain, in all her voluminous political writings ever called for it?  One has no reason to doubt that, despite Elshtain’s assertions, “violence without limits” (empirically) since World War II (arguably throughout its history) has been practised by America as well.  I shall return to this.

Theology and “Only the Facts, Ma’am” (Reprised)

Hauerwas and Griffiths conclude their critique with the following words:

“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. Clarity about Elshtain’s question, the question of the burden of American power, can only be had if clarity is gained about America. That clarity has both a theological and an empirical aspect. Neither is present in this book (Hauerwas and Griffiths, 2003, italics added).”  I shall consider now some theology, and current American political reality.

Elshtain nowhere in her book mentions Western weapons of mass destruction as a global concern of gargantuan (or any size) proportions.  Canadian Senator Douglas Roche however is pointed: “The Group of Eight rich and powerful industrialized countries includes the U.S., Britain, France and Russia, which all possess nuclear weapons, and Germany, Japan, Italy and Canada, which support the nuclear powers. Together, the G8 holds 98 per cent of the 31,000 nuclear weapons in the world; spends 75 per cent of the $800-billion annual world military expenditures; accounts for 87 per cent of the $40-billion annual trade in weapons; and provides only 0.22 per cent of its collective Gross Domestic Product in official development assistance, far short of the UN target of 0.7 per cent (Roche, 2002).” 

The current US spending on the military is so staggering that it numbs our moral sensibilities.  Elshtain by her absolute silence on this displays a most amazing desensitization (read: “moral brainwashing”) at one with the average American citizen socialized into blithe acceptance of the most enormous militarization of a nation the world has ever known.  This is David Grossman’s “killology” at the mass psychological level.

The moral bankruptcy of America’s military spending on developing, selling, and deploying weapons of mass destruction is matched only by its inevitable imploding –  “The End of the Republic”, as argued in The Sorrows of Empire (Johnson, 2004).((Johnson described these four sorrow thus:

I think four sorrows inevitably accompany our current path. First is endless war… As it stands right now, since 9/11, Articles 4 and 6 of the Bill of Rights are dead letters. They are over… Second, imperial overstretch… The third thing is a tremendous rise in lying and deceit… The difficulty to believe anything that the government says any longer because they are now systematically lying to us on almost every issue. The fourth is bankruptcy. Attempting to dominate the world militarily is a very expensive proposition… The United States, for the last 15 years, has had trade deficits running at 5 percent every year. We are on the edge…  I do not find it easy at all that any successor to George Bush would make any difference… That leads me to the conclusion that we are probably going to reap what we have sown. That is blowback (Nimmo, 2004).[/ref]  “For Fiscal Year (FY) 2004, the US military budget is $400.1 billion, which is equivalent to approximately 47% of 1999 global military expenditures.((1999 is the latest available year of global military expenditure estimates (Nuclear Files, 2004).[/ref]  $343.1 billion (2002 US dollars) is the average amount spent throughout the Cold War from 1946 to 1989.  The FY 2004 military budget is now more than six times larger than that of Russia, the second largest spender.  The FY 2004 military budget is more than the combined spending of at least the next twenty-five nations.  The FY 2001 military budget was twenty-four and a half times greater than the combined spending of Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Syria and Libya, countries which the US deems potential enemies or ‘states of concern’.

Dwight Eisenhower is unmatched in his (nonetheless deeply ironic—since under him post-War military expenditure exploded) April, 1953 farewell commentary on such unconscionable obscenities: “Every gun that is fired, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.  The world in arms is not spend­ing money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”  And Ms. Elshtain has nothing to say about this in her just war apologia

The US has recently developed a new, larger bomb, the MOAB (“Mother of All Bombs”, to parody Saddam Hussein).  It is an “air-burst” weapon, so that its destructive energy is maximized above ground, not partially dissipated into the earth.  It is 40% more powerful than the BLU-82…  And I have not even begun to mention the atomic weaponry…  And Elshtain implicitly endorses this (im)moral insanity?!

Ms. Elshtain would not of course have her or any of America’s children/grandchildren victims of any of this.  So America must strike first, hardest and everywhere around the world.  For democracy and freedom, of course.  America’s at least.  And for peace without question, though it be the peace of the graveyard.  Lee Griffith catches this nepotistic horror well, while discussing Christians who believe in the “rapture”, God’s last-minute rescue operation for all the “good guys”, so terrifyingly represented in the bestselling Left Behind series by Jerry Jenkins and Timothy LaHaye: “This is the rapture in which the saints are akin to an audience at a horror movie, floating at a safe distance while being thrilled by scenes of the terror suffered by others.  Both military superpowers and the raptured righteous claim the right to float unscathed above a world of suffering humanity (Griffith, 2002, p. 178).”  This “suffering humanity” of course in no small part is consequence of the United States War on Terrorism. 

Griffith a few pages later aptly sums up Elshtain’s stance, with which I shall end: “Military ‘missions’ are no longer evil; they are humanitarian.  Decisions to embark on such missions are less cause for damnation than cause for palace priests to extol the justness of it all (Griffith, 2002, p. 183; italics added).”  And so the book title: “Just War Against Terror.”  Indeed.

Please click on: Book Review of Just War Against Terror



Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

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