Elshtain, Augustine, and Just War (again)

I’m at work now on the early stages of a longer piece that promises to revisit the arguments leading up to (and following) the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I’m especially interested in evaluating arguments that attempted to interpret American actions using the framework of just war theory. From everything I’ve read recently on the sad and untimely passing of Jean Elshtain (RIP), it would seem that for many of us such questions have been settled, at least in a temporary and contingent way. It has been ten years since 2003, though, and I think it’s time to go back and “unsettle” some things. 

I’m a political theorist, and I’ve written on Augustine. I was therefore intrigued and challenged by what I read in Elshtain’s book Just War Against Terror (Basic Books, 2003), about an allegedly “Augustinian” justification for force:

For early Christians like Augustine, killing to defend oneself alone was not enjoined: It is better to suffer harm than to inflict it. But the obligation of charity obliges one to move in another direction: to save the lives of others, it may be necessary to imperil and even take the lives of their tormentors. (p. 57)

I’m going to skip over the issue of attribution and origin, although I have to emphasize that I’m unfamiliar with any place in scriptural or patristic sources that makes this kind of argument. Particularly intriguing to me is the conceptual juncture that stands  between nonviolent passivity in the case of one’s own life, and potentially aggressive action on behalf of others. Leaving aside the issue of just war for just a moment, I’ve heard an argument of this kind made on behalf of gun ownership in the American context: the properly “Christian” justification for carrying a weapon is not self-defense, but the defense of others. In other words, I’m not carrying this gun to protect myself, but to protect innocents around me.

As noble as this sounds – and to return to the position that Elshtain attributes to the just war tradition – there is a problem with this kind of argument. Without essentializing too much, the principle of self-defense has a pragmatic, practical, utilitarian aspect that leads many of us in the modern world to attribute to it a kind of “natural” quality. If one is attacked – either as an individual or a political entity – it’s as if one reacts rather than responds. To be sure, there’s a certain amount of conceptual room in which we can talk about the nature of the threat – is it happening? is it imminent? or is it merely forecast for some future time? – but when it comes to self-defense the reaction seems almost automatic. When it comes to the defense of others, this instantaneous reaction (fight/flight) becomes abstracted somewhat, and in the space of that abstraction, a danger emerges. That danger concerns what Augustine called superbia or pride. Beneath the veil of disinterested charity lurks the machinery of a subtle equation that (once more) highlights and prioritizes the self, this time as a heroic figure in the eyes of others. Augustine critiqued the Roman value of civic virtue on this very principle. The Roman example also showed that allegedly selfless, heroic action could be unspeakably cruel.

This is so because once one garners a reputation for heroic and “selfless” action, one grows fond of that reputation and identifies with it. In the worst instances (e.g. George Zimmerman), one builds up an imaginary world the populated with innocents (who need protection) and the “bad guys” who prey on them. One’s role in that world becomes frighteningly clear. The bad guys are motivated by hate and must be defeated. What in the case of self-defense would have been a single, natural, reaction becomes ramified and conceptualized into a system of thought and force that requires further vigilance. One’s own violence becomes in a sense invisible, again not as an “animal” reaction to an instantaneous blow, but as a systematic attack on what Elshtain calls the “tormentors” of the innocent. In this way, and in an ironic and uncanny manner, the “selfless” response can generate a level of force that is even more brutal and sustained than mere action/reaction.

The Augustine that I know and understand isn’t a theorist of (or apologist for) clear and decisive action in pursuit of evildoers. To be blunt, he is instead an expert diagnostician of the way in which fallen human beings lie to themselves, and to each other. He’s an insightful analyst of the way in which caritas becomes superbia. In this way his vision represents a profound challenge to the principles and actions carried out in March 2003, rather than a “just war” apology for them.

Robert Geroux is a political theorist.

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