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Operation Allied Force, Kosovo, 1999. Image: Department of Defense.

Reading List July 31, 2014

Just War

In her new essay, F. M. Kamm carefully considers problems of proportionality and justice posed by the carnage in Gaza.

Nothing clouds ethical judgment like war. In her new essay, F. M. Kamm carefully considers problems of proportionality and justice posed by the carnage in Gaza. Over the years other Boston Review contributors have chronicled, condemned, and debated “just” and “unjust” wars-—and questioned whether the distinction is even valuable. These pieces try to see through the chaos and understand the ethics and consequences of military action.

In our Summer 1999 issue, Hungarian political scientist G. M. Tamás looked at the centuries-long history of terror and upheaval that led to NATO’s war in Kosovo: “This ‘just’ but ‘wrong’ war is dividing and destroying the West European left,” he wrote. “There may be no attractive solution, but better understanding may help to reduce the current horror.”

In our February/March 2000 issue, historians Kieko Matteson and Robert Perkinson documented the legacy of the American bombing of Laos, a campaign whose “combined destructive force . . . was more than 100 times that of the atomic bomb detonated over Hiroshima,” leaving behind a ruined economy, ravaged environment, and land mines that threaten lives to this day.

Political scientist Neta Crawford investigated the criteria for “preemptive war” just before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. The “temptation to slide over the line from preemption to preventive war is great,” she warns, “because that line is vague and because of the extraordinary stress of living under the threat of terrorist attack or war. But that temptation should be resisted.”

In 2012, Georgetown law professor David Luban examined the ethical doctrines of Augustine and Aquinas in the context of today’s drone killings, and found that such actions “have to be judged by the same standards of necessity and proportionality applied to warfare in general: sometimes they are justified, sometimes not. There are no simple answers.”

Lastly, revisit last summer’s forum on the personal ethics of war, led by philosopher Jeff McMahan, who argues that volunteer “soldiers are morally culpable for fighting in unjust wars, and thus deserve the option of selective conscientious objection.”

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