Bob Meagher is a professor of Humanities at Hampshire College who has been a good friend to me ever since we served together as commissioners (and I also provided my testimony) for the 2010 Truth Commission on Conscience in War. Some time ago, he invited me to read a manuscript of his, which has since been published as Killing from the Inside Out: Moral Injury and Just War (Cascade, 2014). I was glad to endorse it saying (in my typically unabridged fashion);
For millennia, young men (and increasingly women) have been told that war is a place in which they will win glory and honor. When soldiers write about their battlefield experiences, however, one notices a fundamental disconnect between their perspective and the way in which war is popularly conceived. By and large, soldiers discover on their own that little is gained in war and all too much is lost. It is no long stretch, then, to indict the intellectual tradition of just war in this cultural dissonance, that the moral pain suffered post-combat is in part inflicted by communities and voices who do not know the true nature of war.Just war was initially a pastoral response to the problem of martial pain by a North African bishop who fielded conflicted correspondence from the highest ranking of soldiers. Instead of turning to three centuries of church history built upon the experience of soldier saints and military martyrs, Augustine turned to a pagan jurist. Just war as a theological project was doomed from the start, and Dr. Meagher provides here for us its two thousand year long obituary.Not all have given up hope that the tradition may have something to positively contribute to the actual well being of soldiers, as Augustine’s pastoral instincts should be commended. It cannot be denied however, that, though Dr. Meagher‘s criticisms of the just war tradition cut to the core, they are sorely needed. One need not agree with him that it be torn up from its roots to be profoundly challenged by his work here. His writing wonderfully balances scholarly research with literary tact and will be appreciated by academic and popular audiences alike.
In his response to my review, Meagher says I too “reject” JWT. That’s true but not totally. It’s like saying I reject the bottom rung of a ladder I’m climbing; it helped me get to where I am, and maybe I could have even skipped it by taking a larger stride at the get-go. I think it does not stand the test of serious theology, BUT I do not agree it should be tossed out with the bathwater because the way its concreteness and insisting on particular events helps us minister to not just Christians but nonbelievers too. By asking specific questions about a soldiers participation in violence, we can help them (me/us) avoid whatever the moral equivalent is to survivor’s guilt. For example, I never aimed my rifle at a human and pulled the trigger, but I DID plan indirect fires and assist in developing “targets.” Asking the kind of specific questions that classical just war traditions ask helps us get at much more accurate and helpful moral equations by which we might understand the question of killing in war. Generalizations and abstract notions (like “the military is inherently evil”) has been counterproductive and reflects theological laziness of the worst kind. I do ‘reject’ JWT insofar as it has been used (by Nigel Biggar, for example) to avoid the moral culpability of soldiering, but I do not reject it outright.