In Defence of War

[The following review is forthcoming in the Expository Times. It is reproduced here with permission.]

Nigel Biggar, In Defence of War, Oxford University Press, 2013. £25/$55. viii + 361 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-967261-5

In Defence of WarIn Defence of War is an excellent book with a somewhat misleading title. It isn’t a defence of war per se, but rather a defence of just war theory in the Augustinian Christian tradition and, by way of application, of three relatively recent military engagements involving Western nations. As Biggar explains in his introduction, one of his major targets is “the virus of wishful thinking”: the idea that there always must be a course of action better than military conflict. Justice entails that war is sometimes not only justifiable but necessary.

The opening chapter takes on three prominent Christian defences of pacifism, those of Stanley Hauerwas, John Howard Yoder, and Richard Hays, arguing that their positions fail to do justice to the totality of New Testament teaching. Chapter 2 defends Augustine’s notion of “kind harshness”; by drawing plausible distinctions and appealing to testimonial evidence, Biggar argues that it is possible for soldiers to love and forgive their enemies even while pursuing retributive justice against them.

Chapter 3 explores the principle of double effect and its application to killing in combat. The argument here is as subtle and sophisticated as its conclusion is surprising: soldiers do not actually intend to kill enemy combatants. One weakness is that Biggar’s main example of the principle of double effect (a sailor ordered to cut a rope to save the ship, which unavoidably results in his friend’s death) doesn’t seem sufficiently analogous to the soldier who shoots his enemy counterpart.

The fourth chapter explores the criterion of proportionality in light of the horrendous loss of life in the Battle of the Somme; the fifth responds in detail to David Rodin’s influential critique of JWT, contending that it has teeth only against modern secular versions which aren’t grounded in the notion of a transcendent moral order. Chapter 6 addresses the vexed question of the legality of NATO’s intervention in Kosovo against the backdrop of humanitarian justifications for war.

The final chapter offers a measured and detailed evaluation of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Considering each ad bellum criterion in turn, Biggar bravely argues against conventional wisdom that the invasion was indeed justified. A particular strength of his case is that he appeals to both pro and con sources.

Combining deep understanding of the just-war tradition with impressive knowledge of military history, this book makes a valuable contribution to the ongoing debate. I highly recommend it.

3 thoughts on “In Defence of War”

  1. This is not related to this post but instead a previous post. Is there a place to ask questions/leave a response to your paper on arguing for God from logic? To be straightforward, I think that your latest response paper is good overall but does not properly answer Shannon’s critique concerning univocity and other aspects.

    1. I guess you could post your comments on the EPS blog. Or, if you have your own blog, post your response there; if you link to one of my blog posts it should generate a pingback link here. If you don’t have a blog, it’s easy to create one. Just go to, for example.

  2. As far as this post goes, thank you for pointing out what looks to be a very interesting book on just war theory.

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