In Defence of War

Daniel M. Bell, Jr.
Nigel Biggar, In Defence of War. Oxford University Press, 2013. 361 pp. HB $55.00. PB $30.00

In this book, Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology and Director of the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life at Oxford University, offers a collection of essays that revolve around the moral evaluation of war.  As a collection of essays, it does not attempt to offer or develop a single argument.  Rather, it is a collection that is loosely knit together by a common focus on war. Moreover, several of the chapters are close engagements with other authors, meaning that the most fruitful reading of this book will be enhanced by familiarity with the works Biggar engages.

The first chapter treats three contemporary Christian pacifists: Stanley Hauerwas, John Howard Yoder, and Richard Hays.  The engagement with Hauerwas is notably brief and incomplete. He complains that Hauerwas fails to offer a rigorous biblical justification for his pacifism and that he cavalierly dismisses the constraining authority of biblical texts - claims that will strike many readers of Hauerwas as off the mark. Biggar then makes the obvious point that love, forgiveness, justice and the nature of contemporary politics can be understood differently than Hauerwas understands them.  Next Biggar turns to Yoder and the argument he offers against Yoder turns on two points. First, he argues that the inferences and generalizations Yoder draws from the biblical texts are mistaken. Second, he takes issue with Yoder's historiography, namely, with Yoder's argument that the just war theory is an alien intrusion into the Christian tradition instead of a theologically compelling development of it. Finally, in the bulk of the chapter, Biggar repristinates his side of an argument he had with the noted biblical scholar Richard Hays in print elsewhere.  Relying heavily on an argument from silence derived from the New Testament narratives about soldiers, the common-place reading of Romans 13, as well as an interpretation of Paul's theology of atonement that likens God to a Roman magistrate, Biggar argues that the NT does not absolutely prohibit the use of violence by Christians.

The second chapter unpacks the seemingly incongruous claim that waging war can be interpreted as an act of love for the enemy. Beginning from the affirmation that just warriors are not excused from loving one's enemies, Biggar explicates how, contrary to popular thought, love in the form of forgiveness is not antithetical to or mutually exclusive of, punishment. What this amounts to is a reconfiguration of both forgiveness and punishment. The former entails dividing forgiveness into two components - the first being compassion, which corresponds to what many think forgiveness is, and then a second component, which Biggar calls "absolution" but which might better be recognized in the tradition as "penance," and entails actual positive change in the offender.  The latter entails recovering an older notion of punishment from its modern, Kantian retributionist distortion.  What we call punishment or even vengeance, is best understood and practiced as a kind of restorative and reconciling practice.  Thus reconceived, forgiveness is not incompatible with some forms of coercive justice.  This paves the way for consideration of the motives of soldiers and in the latter portion of the chapter Biggar offers anecdotal evidence that soldiers and war-fighting are not best understood as driven by hatred but are often informed by love.  

The third chapter continues to look at the matter of motives or right intent in war, this time through the principle of double effect. What Biggar seeks to establish is that soldiers can wage war and deliberately kill without intending to kill. Traditionally the principle of double effect has been used to morally evaluate an action that has evil consequences, distinguishing between the good effects that were intended by the agent from the bad effects that were not intended. In debates concerning just war, some - such as John Howard Yoder - have asserted that the principle of double effect is an abomination that excuses all kinds of atrocities. Others, (such as myself) have followed Aquinas closely and argued for a more rigorist understanding of the PDE. Biggar clearly positions himself in the dominant, permissive camp.  He does this by defining intention as a matter of desire or want.  Intentionality, according to Biggar, is not about what you deliberately choose to do. Rather it is about what you want. Thus it is possible for a soldier to choose to kill an enemy (one example Biggar uses is "shoot them in the head") without intending to do so because they did not really want to do so.  Biggar defends this distinction by pointing out that if soldiers intended death, then, if they came upon that person after the battle, they would kill that person or want them killed. The problem with this reformulation of intentionality is that it effectively evacuates the criterion of right intent of any force. After all, as Clausewitz, and Augustine before him, noted, no one wants to kill or even wage war.  Everyone wants to conquer without war; every war is waged out of a desire for peace - just a peace that better suits them. Indeed, Biggar's reformulation risks the absurd outcome of rendering the entire history of war a grand accident, just to the extent that no one wants war. Or consider a domestic analogy. A fleeing felon shoots a police officer in the head. According to Biggar's account, the felon could honestly say he did not intend to kill the police officer because he did not want to kill the officer; what he wanted was to escape. In other words, Biggar needs to do more here if this reformulation is to be compelling.  

The fourth chapter takes up an historical debate about the First World War.  Specifically, Biggar takes up the question of the justice of the First World War with regard to the strategy of attrition and the tactic of trench warfare.  Against those who argue that the carnage of trench warfare was disproportionate, and thus a violation of just war principles, Biggar makes a case for the proportionality of even brutal wars of attrition.  Actually, Biggar does not argue for proportionality, which, he claims, is pretty much impossible to assess, so much as he argues that such actions were not clearly disproportionate.  While I am not qualified to assess the specific historical claims he makes and conclusions he draws regarding the First World War, his main point clearly holds, namely, that the just war principle of proportionality is not merely a measure of destructiveness, but is an assessment of destructiveness in the context of the ends sought and benefits pursued.

The fifth chapter is a lengthy engagement with David Rodin, a philosopher who challenges the just war theory's foundation in national self-defense.  Here Biggar helpfully shows that there is a difference between modern just war theory represented in international law and Michael Walzer, which is problematically rooted in defense of self, and an older Christian tradition that roots just war in the natural order of justice, which, not incidentally, Biggar notes, challenges the modern notion of the inviolability of national sovereignty .  Along the way Biggar takes up the question of a whether humans have a "right to life" and whether it is ever just to deliberately kill the innocent.  He argues that the Christian just war tradition recognizes no right to life and that it can be right to deliberately kill the innocent. To argue otherwise, he says, makes war impossible.  In the process he argues that one might rightly kill an innocent person who refuses to sacrifice themselves for others by willingly submitting to being murdered (p.186). While Biggar is correct to anchor Christian just war in a natural order and to dispel the notion of a right to life, his argument for deliberately killing the innocent may not convince everyone.  On the one hand, just because a more rigorist understanding of discrimination makes just war more difficult (not impossible, as he claims) does not mean it is wrong. On the other hand, his defense of the moral legitimacy of killing someone who refuses to willingly submit to being murdered on the grounds that Christianity is not individualist but realist needs more work. While the distinction is true - if a bit of an odd juxtaposition - as it stands it sounds more utilitarian than convincingly theological.  

The sixth chapter takes up the question of the legitimate authority in the context of the intervention in Kosovo.  His basic argument is that according to Christian just war theory, military intervention can sometimes be morally justified even in the absence of or in spite of international law.  Along the way, Biggar returns to the question of motives in waging war, arguing both that NATO's motives were moral and just and that national interest is not necessarily antithetical to altruism.  Furthermore, he offers a brief defense of what appears to be the hypocrisy of attending to some atrocities while ignoring others and concludes those questioning NATO's motives have not engaged in careful or fair assessment of the facts.  While there is much to be learned from this chapter on the nuances and ambiguities of international law, by choosing to all but dismiss the question of motives and hypocrisy,  I am left with the feeling that Biggar passed up an opportunity to help us reflect on character - that of individuals and of nations and their political processes.  Reading Biggar's apology against the backdrop of something like the Samantha Power's study of Bosnia and Kosovo (among others) in A Problem from Hell, makes the lacuna apparent and troubling.

In the final chapter, Biggar offers about as charitable a reading (some would call it naïve or worse) as one could make for the justice of the war in Iraq. Setting that debate aside in favor of what this chapter teaches us about the just war theory, in this chapter we get the fullest exposition of Biggar's understanding of the just war tradition as a whole as he walks through each of the criteria in relation to Iraq. Noteworthy here is Biggar's throwing his lot with those contemporary voices who argue that not all of the criteria of the tradition must be adhered to with the same rigor. Just cause, legitimate authority, right intent, and last resort are sacrosanct, whereas reasonable chance of success and proportionality are not.  As already noted, Biggar thinks one cannot really make judgments of proportionality, only of clear disproportionality. As for reasonable chance of success, Biggar holds that the higher the stakes, the lower the chance of success can be.  

In sum, there are at least two ways to assess this work. One can consider the particular judgments Biggar renders on various historical events.  No one will be surprised that his conclusions will arouse the ire of many, which does not necessarily count against it.  One can also consider what Biggar teaches us about the just war tradition itself.  Here, too, he courts controversy but along the way he introduces the reader to many helpful and important nuances in the just war tradition that too often are overlooked in the commonplace presentations. Regardless of where one comes down on the controversial matters, all should be grateful for these insights and this stimulus to think deeper and better about what just war means.

Daniel M. Bell, Jr., is Professor of Theology and Ethics at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. His most recent works include, Just War as Christian Discipleship (Brazos, 2009), and The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World (Baker Academic, 2012)


On YouTube

The Story of Scripture

Find Out More

Register for the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology

Reformed Resources

2023 Annual Report