Winning wars justly?


Winning in war doesn’t seem to have much to do with moral theory. Victory in war can certainly be justified, but such theorizing comes closer to moralism than morality. But victory in war can’t really be moderated, for victory is the opposite of moderation. So, it would seem that the just war tradition – the most important and well developed body of moral thought concerning war – has little to say about victory.

Or so I thought until I attended a workshop organized by the University of Glasgow’s Moral Victories Project ( Convened by Cian O’Driscoll and Andrew Hom from Glasgow and Martin Cook from the US Naval War College, the workshop brought together some of the leading voices in just war theory to explore the nature of moral victory in war. Part of a larger, ongoing project, the workshop included papers from senior and junior scholars whose insights came to the central question of the workshop from a range of different perspectives. Papers included reflections on limited war, religious traditions, Clausewitz, humanitarian intervention, timing, and historical contexts. Each paper explored its topic with the guiding question of whether or not victory has a place in just war thinking or how ethical reflection more generally fits with the practice of winning in war.

I didn’t write anything for the workshop, but participated in the discussions. This was, as a result, one of those great workshops where you have to do very little work but derive great benefits. And there were plenty of benefits to be derived. My starting point in attending was that the idea of victory in war is not ethical at all, but political. Indeed, it is what makes war fighting a political practice, especially if we begin with Clausewitz (though my colleague Sibylle Scheipers presented a paper that suggested a very different understanding of Clausewitz). The point of war is to force your opponent to surrender not to moderate your war fighting. Complying with the rules of warfare might be seen to increase your chances of winning particularly if you assume that you are part of a social system in which you may fight again. The American military came to this conclusion in the 1990s as it integrated the military legal system into the practice of war fighting, concluding that ‘law as a tool could actually help military operations run smoother’.[1] Neta Crawford has demonstrated that the political logic of military necessity and victory clashes with the moral logic of protecting civilians.[2] In these analyses of American war fighting, victory quickly overcomes morality.

For some, modern war has moved away from victory as it has become humanitarian intervention or a war on terror. Neither of these formulations of modern war lends themselves to the logic of victory. The former is about saving or punishing, while the latter is about policing and counterinsurgency. But even here a logic of victory emerges. In order to succeed in any of these endeavours, you need to defeat an enemy; admittedly, the enemy might lose by being captured or tried in a court of law. Even so, the strategies and tactics of the soldiers on the battlefield still need to pursue victory, even if part of a larger strategy not designed to achieve victory but to ‘do good’.

When the just war tradition has reflected on something like victory, it has been through the idea of ‘ending’ war rather than winning it. Ending a war has a much different valence than winning; the former assumes the goal is halting a practice while the latter assume the goal is, well, winning the practice. One can end a game without winning it. We want to end things that are bad or problematic, so ending a war becomes the goal rather than winning the war. The idea of jus post bellum, or justice after war, also has little to say about victory. The goal here is to think about how the winning side treats the losing side, in which the logic of winning is assumed rather than morally investigated. These works have explored how to achieve reconciliation, justice, and peace in the aftermath of wars, particularly those that have divided societies.

So it seems at first glance that military victory has no place in just war theorizing, and moral reflections have no place in pursuing victorious war. The workshop, though, taught me otherwise. As with any good workshop, the papers began a conversation, and that conversation continued over the two days of proceedings. Individual papers prompted discussion around these themes, though no one single paper conclusively answered the question of whether or not morality has something to say about victory. For me, a number of themes emerged, though, that warrant some thoughts.

First, a number of papers questioned whether the humanitarian agenda underlying so many wars today make it possible to even think about victory. Chris Brown’s paper suggested that the ‘civilizing’ of modern military institutions makes talk of victory problematic, a point he argues has been taken up by ‘revisionist just war theory’. This body of thought, which draws from analytic philosophy rather the historical tradition, embodies a more cosmopolitan orientation, focusing on individual combatants rather than militaries or states as organizations. Brown argued that such theories assume that victory is not possible, for how can a war be waged to create a cosmopolitan world order? Instead, for war to be victorious, it needs to be won by states. One might wonder, though, whether victory in this sense might better be understood as the creation of a functioning nation-state order, one not cosmopolitan but peaceful and just nonetheless?

Others at the workshop also recognized that a different form of war is becoming more prominent, one more limited and humanitarian in aims. For Daniel Brunstetter, that more limited form of war means moral theory needs to be reframed in terms of ‘vim’ rather than ‘bellum’(vis being Latin for ‘force’ as opposed to war).[3] This means different categories and moral judgments apply, such as a jus post vim principle that focuses on containing violence and re-establishing political communities which have been subject to interventions. Kurt Mills, writing from outside the tradition of just war, argued that humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect (R2P) raises a crucial question about ethics and victory; if interventions are increasingly being undertaken by the United Nations, how do we conceptualize the ‘enemy’ against which such actions are taken? Mills suggests that this makes talk of ‘victory’ whether moral or not simply irrelevant.

In these accounts, the question of punishment becomes even more relevant. Brown, Brunstetter and Mills are exploring conflicts that lead to moralistic uses of force designed not only to ‘save’ but to punish those doing the harm in the first place. But war as a form of punishment is not something we tend to allow and most wars that seek to punish end up harming entire communities rather than targeting the leaderships who are doing the wrong.[4] I’ve both defended war as a form of punishment, but also realize how problematic this approach can be. Taking us back to victory, though, forces us to consider if punishing is a kind of winning? The moral grammar underlying the two terms (or underlying the former and lacking with the latter) makes this difficult to see.

I’m not mentioning every paper from the workshop, as this would turn into a much longer blog, though I can say that each presentation and the comments that followed were excellent. Instead, let me end with two final thoughts. As Jean Elshtain argued, just war is a political theory not a moral theory; it is a theory of how and why communities act in relation to other communities. This is because the act of war is a political act, a way in which communities relate that uses violence and leads to death and destruction. Because of its very nature, we might say that we need something like the just war tradition, for without it, this ugly practice has no moral meaning. A pacifist critique of the tradition would also make this point – just war simply makes us feel better about what we should not be doing.[5] While sympathetic to the pacifist position, I think just war thinking is still important and relevant. For, just war does not simply ennoble our war making, it also disciplines it. So while it may make us feel good, it also forces us to think critically and morally about what we are doing.

But as political communities change both internally and externally, so do the moral grammars that underlie their ideas about justice, war and victory. Cian O’Driscoll, who presented a paper at the workshop on war and victory in early Christian thought, has recently looked to the Ancient Greeks and how they understood war and victory.[6] In a fascinating account, he notes that the Greek practice of building trophies made of wood to signify victory was both a signal of political triumph but also a recognition that victory is ephemeral, a distinctly moral position. Perhaps there is something in victory that is not simply triumphant and moralistic, but sobering and ethical. Rather than a dry analytical account of justice and war, O’Driscoll’s argument, and this workshop, demonstrated that looking to the history of thought and practice can suggest ways in which the politics and morality of war can indeed speak to each other. I’m looking forward to seeing these papers published and the continuing work of this project.

Anthony F. Lang, Jr.

School of International Relations
University of St Andrews


[1] Stephanie Carvin and Michael John Williams, Law, Science, Liberalism and the American War of Warfare: The Quest for Humanity in Conflict (Cambridge, 2015): 128

[2] Neta Crawford, Accountability for Killing: Moral Responsibility for Collateral Damage in America’s Post-9/11 Wars (Oxford, 2013)

[3] See Daniel Brunstetter and Megan Braun, ‘From Jus ad Bellum to Jus ad Vim: Recalibrating Our Understanding of the Moral Use of Force’ Ethics & International Affairs 27, 1 (2013): 87-106

[4] For more on punishment and war, see: Harry Gould, The Legacy of Punishment in International Law (Palgrave, 2010); Anthony F Lang, Jr., Punishment, Justice and International Relations: Ethics and Order in the Post-Cold War World (Routledge 2008); and Cian O’Driscolll, Renegotiation of the Just War Tradition and the Right to War in the 21st Century (Palgrave, 2008)

[5] John Howard Yoder, When War is Unjust: Being Honest in Just War Thinking (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 1996)

[6] Cian O’Driscoll, ‘Rewriting the Just War Tradition: Just War in Classical Greek Thought and Practice’ International Studies Quarterly 59, 1 (2015): 1-10.

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