The Purpose of the Sword
All Christian writing on war leads back through Aquinas and Augustine to Paul's famous remark in Romans (13, 4) that all power is from God, that the Emperor "beareth not the sword in vain." We can reach pretty much the same conclusion in Aristotle who tells us that coercion is added to the law when it (the law) is not in public being observed by those with disordered souls (1180a22). Augustine saw no problem with Christians in the Roman army when they did not have to sacrifice to idols. But we still bristle at Nietzsche's petty charge that the essence of Christianity, on its own principles, is cowardice or weakness. We know that the combination of cowardice and weakness, the one a lack of virtue, the other a lack of will, has betrayed many a people.
In the end, I remain a supporter of Maritain's straight-forward remark in Man and the State that, however difficult to sort out, it is always possible to combine justice, brains, and strength in any serious political situation that involves the necessary and careful use of force to prevent greater evil. Without claiming to be universal saviors, we do not rightly praise those whose pacifism, weakness, or bad judgment, let alone cowardice, allows the destruction or subjection of anyone. From the vantage point of my own philosophy of history, not denying the power of meekness, I suspect in Kingdom Come, more politicians, Christian and otherwise, will be chastised for failure to use force when appropriate than they will be for using it improperly or unjustly. That is a minority position, I know, but I think it closer to the truth than the innocent optimism that finds any use of force tinged or immoral. The failure to use appropriate force has at least as many moral problems connected with it as any proper use of force itself.
Jean Bethke Elshtain is a welcome voice in the all too flabby intellectual circles of modern politics and religion. She knows of what she speaks. And what is more, she speaks what she knows clearly. This book is nothing less than a carefully thought-out prudential reflection and guide about what action is appropriate and needs to be taken in the light of the war on terror that has unavoidably arisen in recent times, but most vividly brought to our attention after 9/11. The threat is something that will not go away and must be faced, most immediately by responsible politicians and soldiers.
Professor Elshtain's previous book on Augustine, Augustine and the Limits of Politics, has already shown clearly that she understands political realism in its Christian, not Machiavellian, sense. She knows that power in principle is good but that its use is limited by the Socratic principle that it is never right to do wrong. Just war is not a theory of making wrong right.
Elshtain's new book on just war is mindful of Herbert Deane's blunt discussion of war in his Political and Social Ideas of St. Augustine. Perhaps the best thing about this book of Elshtain is the author's willingness lucidly to state what is at issue and what must be done about it, even better, why it is all right, even necessary, to do what needs to be done, however messy. There is no naïveté or wishful thinking in this clear-thinking ladyno peace at any cost, no pretending that the enemy does not mean what he says, no denial of what the enemy says about himself, no hesitation to act when action is called for, no illusions about what happens when we act, no illusions about what happens when we fail to act, no exalted thinking about how the United Nations will save us or anything else.
In this sense, this book is not so much a further examination of "just war" in new circumstances, though it is that, but it is about when the theory of just war must be used and why. The last time we were up in arms, so to speak, about "just war" was when we were all overly wrought about nuclear proliferation, piously denying that deterrence could not work. Little did we know at the time that this nuclear worry, with all its subtle distinctions, would not be our most pressing war problem a few decades laterunless the terrorists get nuclear weapons, which they well might. The latter possibility makes it even more immoral not to do all we can to stop them now.
A surprisingly few determined Muslims, none poor or uneducated, have made every airport and public building in the world a potential inferno, one at a time. They have made every airport and train station, most public buildings, small armed camps on constant look out for disaster. The "suicide bomber" turns out to be more dangerous by far than Soviet missiles. And instead of international outrage at the very idea of religious sources encouraging this suicide weapon, we even have those who claim it might be "justified" for sociological reasons. We are in danger of losing sight of common-sense principles: "The best preparation for peace," it used to be said, "is to prepare for war." The trick is to know what kind of a war is before us. All nations have a record of preparing diligently for the last war. This book warns against that sort of preparation.
Actually, Augustine faced a problem similar to the present extremist Muslim one in the Donatists, something Elshtain does not mention in this book, though she treats it well in her Augustine book. But the Donatist controversy still serves to remind us that certain types of ideological and religious mind will not stop their aggression unless their minds are changed voluntarily or unless they are taken out before they carry out their plans. We do not like to hear this. We are little prepared with our own tolerant ideology even to imagine such minds. But they exist and to deny it is a form of blindness. Elshtain does not deny their existence. We are "ecumenical" at our peril when we fail to engage in debates about suicide bombings. The killing of the innocent by this terrible method is more than just the killing of the innocent. It is the bankruptcy of a theology that supports it, a proof that it cannot be true. Elshtain understands this reality as too few do.
Another welcome and refreshing aspect of the book is that Professor Elshtain is not bogged down by legal theories about the nation states that harbor terrorists or about paralysis of the United Nations. By the nature of the case something must be done about the actual enemies and his capacities wherever they be found. Moreover, she is theologian enough to recognize that this war has something to do with Islam. Whatever she thinks about other so-called "fanaticisms" in the modern world, she is not deterred from casting a cold and clear, but just, look at the immediate cause and its overall character. Her book is mindful of Roger Scruton's The West and the Rest.
Elshtain's book was written before the Iraq war, so its main empirical context is the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and the Afghan War, together with the world-wide reaches of al-Qaeda. Here premises remain valid. Nor Elshtain does arrive at her tough position via Hobbes. She does not simply argue that absolute power must sit on whatever disturbs the peace in some sort of quasi-scientific mechanism. Rather she makes a strong case for the use of mind in the use of force and, more basically, for the prudential carrying out of military action designed to stop not just the "threat" of terror, but terror itself. She is not opposed to diplomacy or other "peaceful" means. She knows their limits in this particular case.
This endeavor requires a much more careful look at Islam and its long, disturbing record than many would like to face. It is not that there are no "peaceful" Muslims, but as Elshtain recognizes, even the peaceful ones are under threat in their own world from those more bent on pursuing the ancient Islamic goal of world domination usually by military means. What most of us, with our more liberal bent, are loathe to admit, is that any historical movement can seek century after century to pursue a single goal of world domination. Our memories are shorter than many Muslim visionaries.
Belloc, in his writings on Islam, understood this likelihood, this persistency over time. We have to have a certain begrudging admiration, as well as fear, for this determination. But it is an aberration and needs to be called such. Moreover the lack of freedom and independence within actual Muslim societies needs to be much more honestly faced and described. Few are willing to recall that Europe is not Muslim today because it was stopped in France and before Vienna by the sword. At bottom, the Crusades were classic defensive war against an aggressive power, without which Europe would have been absorbed centuries ago.
Today, however, Europe may yet become Muslim, and not only by the sword. If the immigration and birthrates of Muslims in France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and other countries, continue unabated, Muslim conquest of Europe seems to be the immediate prospect. Indeed, I have suggested that the al-Qaeda attacks may, in fact, prove to be the main reason why Islam will not conquer the world. Their flamboyant attacks have finally alerted at least some of the rest of the world to the nature of the problem. With deliberately low birth rates in must developed countries, Islam might well have won by default.
In its simplest terms, Elshtain's book is a book of common sense about the facts of a real threat, its dimensions, and what is needed to do about it. The first purpose of government is to protect its population. If that fails, all political life fails. This protection requires both intelligence and force. It requires intelligence to know the reason why Canada is not a threat and why Saudi Arabia or Iran or Osama bin Laden are. We cannot not look at ideas and practices.
But though the first line of defense is intelligence in the sense of knowing the enemy, the situation, we need force. We cannot doubt that some individuals and movements cannot be stopped except by force. Force means army, navy, air power, technology, and above all will and brains. But it also means intention. It cannot be lost in legalities or institutions that prevent action on an immediate danger. If there is anything new about this situation, it is found in the very title of the Elshtain book, Just War Against Terror. Something can and must be done about terror, beginning with its proper identification as to its source and cause. This "doing something" requires that potential threats be stopped where they are by armed force acting justly. This book is, as it were, a handbook on why this is a proper way to act in prudence and reason. This book, in my view, is must reading, especially for clerics and other good (or bad) folks who are slow to appreciate what is going on, what needs to be defended, why defending is needed.
As a concluding exercise, let us suppose that our or other intelligence services had managed to spot on 9/11, as they should have if our and other governments were working as they should have during recent years, all the terrorists as they were in flight training in Florida, or as they were in Germany or crossing the Canadian border. Let us suppose at the airports where the terrorists were about to board the planes unexamined that we had in place armed men there quietly to arrest them and legally and physically render them neutral. Two things would have happened. The World Trade Buildings would still be standing. But few would believe that any United Airlines planes could destroy them.
Secondly, no one would believe that al-Qaeda was anything but a bunch of Arab fanatics, no threat to anyone, certainly not to the French or to the Americans or to the Australians vacationing in Bali. The point of the Elshtain book, and for this we have to admire her clarity, is that such things can happen again, are intended to happen again, and that they not only can be stopped, but can be stopped morally. The fact is, since 9/11, because of our military and security efforts, terrorists have been stopped. All we do not know is the full record of this success that has saved things we cannot imagine, as we can now imagine the World Trade Center destroyed. This prevention, after all, is the purpose of the "sword""he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer." Jean Elshtain understands this use of mind and force and her book is a comfort for those who, in honor and justice, have to carry out, often at the cost of their lives, the rugged work that prevents the determined wrath of the wrongdoers from falling on us all.
James V. Schall, S.J., is a professor in the government department at Georgetown University and author of On The Unseriousness of Human Affairs (ISI Books).