Just War Thinkers: From Cicero to the 21st Century, edited by Daniel R. Brunstetter and Cian O’Driscoll

| June 2018
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Just War Thinkers: From Cicero to the 21st Century, Daniel R. Brunstetter and Cian O’Driscoll, eds. (Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge, 2018), 282 pp., $155 cloth, $44.95 paper.

Just War Thinkers provides a big picture look at the development of thinking about the ethics of war by means of a series of smaller pictures—contextualized “snapshots,” as the editors term them—of individuals whose work has contributed to the development of the just war tradition in some way. Each chapter presents the reader with an overview of a thinker—a total of nineteen across the centuries—who has made some contribution to our body of just war thought. In addition, the chapters also take care to contextualize each just war thinker within his or her time period and personal history. Contributors consider not only their subject’s conceptual or philosophical development but also their controversies and legacies. Helpfully, the authors also engage with other chapters in the book as well as with the broader just war tradition, which gives the reader a sense of each thinker’s place within the intellectual history of the just war tradition.

In terms of scope, the individuals covered in this volume include, for the most part, names that are well-known to students of the ethics of war, beginning with Cicero through Thomas Aquinas and Grotius, up to Paul Ramsey, Michael Walzer, and Jeff McMahan. Notably, James Turner Johnson appears in the volume both as the author of the chapter on St. Augustine and the subject of a chapter on his own contribution to the just war tradition. In addition to these familiar names, however, the volume makes detours into less well-known scholars who have shaped our thinking about the ethics of war.

One such example is Cian O’Driscoll’s discussion of medieval woman of letters Christine de Pizan, one of two women highlighted in this collection. In her time, de Pizan’s writings were often dismissed on account of her gender, and even in modern analysis she is often relegated to the role of a “popularizer” of other people’s thought. Nevertheless, O’Driscoll argues that she “paved the way for incorporating the cares and beliefs of those who did the actual fighting” into what would eventually be called classic just war doctrine (p. 74). Other examples are Daniel R. Brunstetter’s chapter on Bartolomé de las Casas, a sixteenth-century Spanish scholar who criticized the Spanish conquest of the Americas, and Stephanie Carver’s chapter on Francis Lieber, which extends the volume’s reach to include the law of armed conflict.

While the chapters on historical figures within the tradition are interesting and important, the chapters on more contemporary thinkers are no less so. Someone wishing to understand areas of agreement and discord within the field of ethics and war today could find no better place to start than here. Particularly rewarding is Chris Brown’s chapter on Michael Walzer, which recognizes Walzer’s central role in reviving interest in the just war tradition while acknowledging aspects of his reasoning that are in tension with more traditional strands of just war thought, which are perhaps better exemplified by Ramsey’s theological approach or Johnson’s historical perspective.

Each chapter considers the controversies raised by a thinker’s writings, their legacies, and their enduring relevance. All of the chapters distill the just war thinking of the individual under consideration and place him or her within the broader intellectual conversation about the ethics of war. Some of these discussions argue for revisiting a figure’s place within the just war tradition. In the chapter on Gentili, for instance, John Kelsay argues that this is someone who has been overlooked in favor of Hugo Grotius, the towering figure who came shortly afterward.

In terms of utility, Just War Thinkers has something to offer both to those well versed on issues related to the ethics of war as well as to those new to this arena. Those who have a degree of familiarity with the just war tradition will find the chapters to be a useful overview of the tradition’s development from the vantage point of individual thinkers within that tradition. The editors have chosen not to structure the book around particular claims about the nature or direction of the just war tradition, hoping instead that their readers will draw their own conclusions. While they point out particular areas of controversy or disagreement within the ethics of war, they do not nudge the reader toward specific answers. Those with less background in the ethics of war will find here a good introduction to the just war tradition. And every reader will benefit from the “Works Cited” section at the end of each chapter, should he or she wish to explore an author’s body of work in greater depth.

This is an excellent volume that takes a unique approach to reviewing the large (and growing) body of thinking about the ethics of war, written by an impressive lineup of just war scholars. The collection of essays will be a welcome addition to the bookshelf of anyone engaged with the intellectual history of thinking about ethics and war, and will undoubtedly prove a valuable resource to anyone working on the just war tradition.

—Amy E. Eckert

Amy E. Eckert is professor of political science at the Metropolitan State University of Denver and author of Outsourcing War: The Just War Tradition in the Age of Military Privatization.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 32.2, The Ethics of War and Peace

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