The Voices of War

10. Cian O’Driscoll - A Philosopher’s Take On Just War Theory

VOW 10 | Just War


My guest today is Cian O’Driscoll. He is originally from Limerick, in the Southwest of Ireland where he completed his schooling and undergraduate degree, before moving to Nova Scotia, and then Wales, for Grad School. He completed his PhD at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, and worked at the University of Glasgow before joining the Australian National University, Canberra in 2020. 

His principal area of research is the intersection between normative international relations theory and the history of political thought, with a particular focus on the ethics of war.

His published work examines the development of the just war tradition over time and the role it plays in circumscribing contemporary debates about the rights and wrongs of warfare. These themes are reflected in his two monographs: Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Just War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019) and The Renegotiation of the Just War Tradition (New York: Palgrave, 2008).

Cian has also co-edited three volumes and his work has been published in leading journals in the field, including International Studies Quarterly, the European Journal of International Relations, the Journal of Strategic Studies, the Journal of Global Security StudiesReview of International StudiesEthics & International Affairs, and Millennium.


Some of the topics we covered today are:

  • Cian’s research on the narratives that the Bush and Blair administrations used to frame the 2003 war in Iraq
  • Reflections on the widening of the jus ad bellum (justifications for war) since the end of the Cold War and its consequences
  • Exploration of Gulf War 1 as a ‘just war’ and the potential irony of its aftermath
  • The inability of Just War Theory, try hard as it might, to sanitise war
  • The challenge faced by military leaders when wrestling with Just War Theory
  • ‘Just War is just war’


I thoroughly enjoyed this discussion with Cian, and hope you do as well. I recently finished his book that we frequently mention, Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Just War, and can warmly recommend it to anyone contemplating the complexities of Just War Theory—the principle tool used by Western militaries to manage conflict. 

Listen to the podcast here


Cian O’Driscoll – A Philosopher’s Take On Just War Theory

My guest is Cian O’Driscoll. He’s originally from Limerick in the Southwest of Ireland. He completed his schooling and undergraduate degree at Limerick before moving first to Nova Scotia and then Wales for grad school. He joined the Australian National University in 2020. Prior to this, he completed his PhD at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, and worked at the University of Glasgow. Importantly, he assures me that coffee in Canberra is superior to what he encountered in Ireland, Canada, and the UK thus, he’s planning to stick around.

His principal area of research is the intersection between normative international relations theory and the history of political thought with a particular focus on the ethics of war. His published work examines the development of the just war tradition over time and the role it plays in circumscribing contemporary debates about the rights and wrongs of warfare. These themes are reflected in his two monographs, Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Just War published in 2019, and The Renegotiation of the Just War Tradition published in 2008.

Cian has also co-edited three volumes, and his work has been published in leading journals in the field, including International Studies Quarterly, the European Journal of International Relations, the Journal of Strategic Studies, the Journal of Global Security Studies, Review of International Studies, Ethics & International Affairs, and Millennium.

He was also the lead researcher on an Economic and Social Research Council project entitled Moral Victories, and was a 2019 Independent Social Research Foundation fellow. He served as the Chair of the International Ethics Section of the International Studies Association. He’s also a king fan of Liverpool and Munster Rugby. Were it not for COVID, he would be attending live music at every opportunity. Cian, it’s a real pleasure to host you on the show. Thank you for joining me.

Thanks so much, Maz.

Before we delve into the depths of the just war theory and other such light-hearted topics, maybe we can start with a bit of your background. Firstly, how did you end up in academia in the first place?

Before we get started, thanks so much for the invitation to have me along. It’s very generous of you. I’m very flattered to be involved in this series, which I’ve been following with great interest. I was saying to you off the air before we came on that it’s a little bit embarrassing to be sat alongside some of the people you’ve spoken to who have done all these wonderful, adventurous things, and seem to have accomplished so much. With all of that said, it’s lovely to be here.

It’s very nice of you to say, but I must object also. Having read your book, you’ve got quite a lot to say and quite a lot of things that many of my readers, both in Australia and overseas will be certainly keen to learn from. It is my pleasure to have you on the show.

One of the things that I’m excited about is the conversation between academics and soldiers interested in issues pertaining to the ethics of war. I’m as excited to be talking to you, and to be learning from you about this stuff but we’ll bend back to that, no doubt. You asked where I’ve come from or how I’ve ended up in this game. To paraphrase a friend of mine at UQ Matt McDonald, it’s a story of a middle-class White male hardship.

I can’t tell you any greater struggle here, but when I was a teenager, I was quite impressionable with respect to war movies and the moral dilemmas that I saw frequently portrayed in them. I remember being particularly horrified by some of the movies I saw about Vietnam and realising when I was about fifteen that a lot of the people portrayed in those movies were just 1 year or 2 older than me. Growing up in Catholic Ireland, I had this constant sense of my own mortality and sinfulness. I was very moved watching these films about these young men who faced these life-and-death decisions where they were put in a position to kill or be killed.

I found myself constantly worrying about what I’d do in that situation and what would be the right thing to do in that situation. That’s the deep background but I guess when I started university, I wanted to study history, and in doing that, I took an exchange program to Upstate New York. I took this small class in this small university in Upstate New York on war and international politics. The reason I took the class was because it aligned with my diary. It didn’t require me to get out of bed too early.

I took this class and there were initially fifteen of us, and the prof was a real hard-ass. After about three weeks, there were only five of us. This class introduced us to the ethics of war, and I found it utterly compelling and riveting. He had us read Michael Walzer’s book, Just and Unjust Wars, which you might have come across pretty much cover to cover, which was a first for me in university.

It was surprising how few books we had to read in university, but this was one of the first that I read cover to cover. I was particularly provoked by the chapter in there on neutrality, which used Irish neutrality as a case study. Growing up in Ireland, Irish neutrality was presented as something that was an undimmed positive. Not only did it signal our independence from Britain, but it was also a progressive position in international politics to be anti-war and so on and so forth.

To see Michael Walzer in this book, which I otherwise had been enjoying talk about Ireland’s position as being morally perfidious, cowardice, and stuff, I found it provoking. I thought, “I must look into that a bit more.” When I finished that exchange and came back to Ireland, and then moved on with the rest of my studies, I kept coming back to the ethics of war journey. I found those questions of conscience and how they connected with big issues of statecraft. I found them compelling.

At each successive stage of my schooling, I found myself writing my final dissertations on this general area until eventually I realised, “Maybe this is what I want to do.” I ended up writing my PhD in the area, and sometimes, these things are faded. I interviewed for my PhD in March 2003, which you will remember as the same period as the invasion of Iraq.

In fact, I might have mentioned this to you before. Even prior to that, when I was doing my Master’s, I started my Master’s in International Relations the same week as 9/11 happened. I was on the first plane from Europe back into New York after 9/11. We got stranded there for two days. We were staying at the airport. There were soldiers, flags, and guns everywhere.

You could see the Twin Towers smouldering through from certain parts of the airport. I was always going to end up studying international politics and issues of straight statecraft and war and so on after that. As I said, in 2003 when I was applying to do a PhD, the invasion of Iraq was taking place. My interest was fuelled.

You got a firsthand account of the topics you wanted to cover and study. You saw through your own eyes the militarised notion of, “Let’s go and fight for our peace. Let’s go and defend.”

If you remember in the aftermath of 9/11, there was a swirl of ideas. How do we respond to this? There was a period in which we were like, “What are the rules now? Is it no-holds-barred? What happens next?” Tony Blair had a great quote to this effect in one of his speeches when he said, “The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. We have to reorder the world around us.” There was this real sense of, “How is this going to shake out in the next couple of years?” What are the laws and rules that are going to shape this coming maelstrom?

Is that what your thesis was about? What was your PhD thesis on?

My PhD thesis was about the way that Bush and Blair picked up on and redeployed certain just ideas from the just war theory in attempting to sell the war to their public. In particular, I was interested in how they seemed to reanimate medieval ideas about punishment and evil in their case for the invasion of Iraq. I essentially looked at how they engaged these ideas and rolled them out as part of their legitimation strategy for the 2003 war.

If you’re happy to touch on that, I’d be happy to explore that a little bit as well, because it was one of those things that I found fascinating, particularly about Iraq, the axis of evil, and the language surrounding it. I’m a communicator by background, so the language and the use of language is my pet passion, so to speak.

Particularly, you are either with us or you’re against us. Also, this idea is that there is an axis of evil out there. By default, if you are not with us, you are against us. Therefore, if you are not with us, you are evil. Therefore, we are the just, the righteous, and the morally correct ones. Is that what you explored? What did you find?

That was certainly a part of it. What I found in the broadest brush stroke is that there were three principal justifications offered by the Bush and Blair governments for the invasion of Iraq. The first one will be familiar. That was the anticipatory war argument about pre-emption and preventive strikes for the Iraqi WMD. The second one was the humanitarian argument, which was rolled out intermittently, which essentially went, “Saddam is a bad man, and we’d all be better off without him. Look what he does to his own people.”

The third argument was that Saddam was in violation of international law and moral codes of right and wrong. Therefore, it’s incumbent upon us to punish Iraq, lest they make a mockery of international law or of international society. Playing out in that latter argument, which when you think about it, and this was what got the thesis going, was to hear this language about punishment.

In 2003, the punishment was cause for war. It had a decidedly medieval accent. It caught my attention. In the course of my research then for what stuck out was Bush’s predilection for the language of good and evil. I can’t remember what the figure is now. I tallied it up in the book and drew upon research done by others. Bush used the term evil 53 times in his speeches around 2003. He used evil as a noun. This war against terror was a war against evil as something that is out there, and that must be eradicated.

There was this strongly Manichean to the rhetoric, which I considered deeply unhelpful because when you frame the enemy in such morally charged terms, you load the deck against the idea of waging that war in a restrained manner where the enemy is depicted as evil. Bob Dylan said, “You don’t count the dead one when God’s on your side.” If you believe you’re doing the Lord’s work against the agents of the devil, anything goes.

If you believe you're doing the Lord's work against the agents of the devil, anything goes. Share on X

I was particularly concerned about how charged some of that rhetoric was. I found that it connected and resonated with me, it drew upon earlier tropes in Christian political theology from Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, to name a few, but it took those ideas wildly out of context and ran with them in directions that probably weren’t very helpful.

We can see Iraq as it stands now. It’s still paying the price for some of those decisions. What were your findings or recommendations based on your research? If there is some summary to take away from it, what would it be?

I don’t think I came up with recommendations per se, but in terms of findings, there’s one big thing to take away there, and that’s the discussion about the right to war. The jus ad bellum, what counts as a just cause for going to war had we told ourselves through the 20th century, been winnowing down and reducing to one single track, which is a defence against aggression.

This is the story of International Law, the League of Nations charter, the UN charter, and so on and so forth. 2003 wasn’t a moment that came at the end of a process that had been going on since the end of the Cold War but what we saw was an opening up, again. A widening of the jus ad bellum basis for the use of force where states were once again, contemplating humanitarian intervention as grounds for force.

VOW 10 | Just War
Just War: What we saw was a widening of the jus ad bellum basis for the use of force where states were once again contemplating humanitarian intervention as grounds for force.


The right to protect.

Also, this notion of policing violations of international law, using military force, and constabulary missions, as they were called for a period in the 1990s. Again, there was this re-emergence of a notion that forces something that could be employed to manage emergent security challenges that we could use war in a rational and constrained sense. We were buoyed in this moment or in this regard by the so-called revolution military affairs, the development of smart weapons.

You’d had the end of the Cold War so the UN Security Council had been reanimated. It’s this real sense of optimism, and the Balkans play into this in a big way. Here is this car crash playing out in real-time on television, and Madeleine Albright saying, “We have this great Army. Why don’t we use it?” There is a sense of, “Maybe we can. Maybe we should.” You had suddenly the discussion about when it’s justifiable for states to go to war had been blown open again.

It had been broadened after arguably many years of being locked down and made ever more restrictive. That was the basic finding. If you want to put it even more broadly, what it’s saying is that we’ve been in an adjustment and a readjustment period since the end of the Cold War, where the legal regime and the moral regime governing the use of force are being renegotiated.

Why is that? What’s your feel on that? I don’t know if this is too broad a question, but I’m interested in your view on that. You’ve made the point that since the end of the Cold War, that has been a significant shift. I’m keen to hear what your thoughts are on that.

There was probably both a greater demand and a possible supply for the use of force in this period. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, you had ethnic conflict broke out across Southern and Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, and soon. After the Soviet Union had left, all of these squabbles broke out. You had Somalia and Rwanda. We can go on and on. In these cases, you’ve got this open source where people are watching the news and saying, “What should we do?”

Prior to the end of the Cold War, there wouldn’t have been very much to do because any combined international action would’ve been thwarted by disagreements in the Security Council. However, suddenly in the Security Council, there’s a possibility of unanimity, of consensus, and of the states getting together to quench these brush fires. I don’t mean to be callous to call them that. That’s supplemented by the hubristic sense on the part of, particularly, armies of the Western liberal democracies through smart weapons and technology that we can now wage war in more incremental, limited, and targeted fashions with much less spill-over. We can do this tidily and cheaply.

Those kinds of very geostrategic and technological developments created a set of circumstances where there was both a perceived need for greater use of intervention forces and a greater possibility of it being conducted. When I did my Master’s, we were all terrifically optimistic about this. I remember studying in about 1999 and reading Michael Ignatieff’s work about the Balkans and saying, “I’m right. We should get in there. Let’s go intervene wherever we can make and world a better place.” 2001 and 2003 in Iraq had us wake up with a bad hangover from overextension.

That’s hubris, as you rightly pointed out. Also, the irony can’t be lost on us of the Iraq war. As you said, 1 of the 3 principal reasons is the violation of international law, yet, if I remember correctly, at least, we went without a UN mandate to Iraq.

You can lawyer up, and they did lawyer that to say that what they were doing was they were reanimating the legal mandate from 1991 because the argument was Iraq had violated the terms of that ceasefire. In actual fact, the resolution for 1991 was reactivated. The resolution authorising the use of force in 1991 was reactivated. That was the American legal argument. There were layers upon layers of double talk and nonsense. We could get into that if you want but some of it is depressing as it was ludicrous.

I’ve been to Iraq since as a civilian, and I’ve seen some of the aftermath of that war, but perhaps more importantly, I’ve seen the military-industrial complex. I’ve seen the post-conflict industrial complex, which is infinitely more expansive than the military side because it brings the whole of government approach. Also, the international aid community creates an entirely parallel economy.

I’ve spoken to so many people in Iraq who know that they are on a revolving door. They’ll be back to employ their statecraft or their particular skillsets that they’re trained for, whether that is in decentralising the government or governance in Iraq. Something as likely to be successful as the war itself. We know that, and they know that fully well. They know that this is not likely to be successful.

In Bosnia, we have a saying, “You’re emptying from hollow into empty.” That’s a direct translation but that’s what that entire adventure felt like. Notwithstanding, there are a lot of good people who are doing a lot of good work, and I certainly don’t mean to cast a shadow on that, but looking at it over a period of time, you often wonder, “Was it all worth it, and under what justification did we even go in the first place? Are we reflecting enough on these decisions, how they were made, and the lives that were lost because of them?”

VOW 10 | Just War
Just War: There are a lot of people doing a lot of good work, but looking at it over a period of time, you often wonder, was it all worth it?

One of the games or a little thought process, which has detained me or distracted me a little bit in the last year or so, is in teaching one of the just war theories, one of the questions that I sometimes get asked by the students, “Can you give us an example of a just war?” If I were to put it to you right now, are there any wars in the post-World War II era that you would categorise as a just war? What would you say or what ones would top the charts as it were?

That’s such an interesting question because whilst I’m ethnically Bosnian, and it’s very easy for me to say that ought to have been a just war, it’s also very difficult for me to isolate that war without the ecosystem within which it exists. I find it very difficult to distinguish one particular war from the rest that surrounds it.

I used the term ecosystem or the geopolitical machinations that exist, and much like the Balkan War, there were many more players in that war than meets the eye, or the most obvious. Again, I’m probably going to be chastised for this by the Bosnian community, but it’s so easy to throw the Serbs out and say it was their fault. If we look at it purely in guns, bullets, who fired first, and all that sort of stuff, there’s an argument to be made, etc. but that dynamic never existed without Germany and Austria being the first two countries to accept Croatian independence.

Probably knowing fully well that this is escalating the chance of war exponentially. Now, that incidentally did. The first shots were fired post-Croatia declaring independence. I’m not saying Croatia shouldn’t have been made independent. That’s not the point I’m making. The point I’m making is you can’t isolate the war in the Balkans from everything that exists around it. You can’t isolate US politics in the Balkans. You can’t isolate British politics. You can’t isolate or exclude, let’s say, Turkish politics in Bosnia. You can’t exclude Russian politics through Serbia in Bosnia.

There are all of these different levels of interaction and then to say, “That’s a just war. At which point do you start calculating it being a just war?” It’s because the further you peel back, the more you realise, “There are multiple links. There are historical links here. This guy’s pissed off because this happened in the 13th century. It’s how far you go and nothing exists on its own. Therefore, how do you cast this almighty judgment to say, “That’s a just war.”

Nothing exists on its own. So, how do you cast this almighty judgment to say something is a just war? Share on X

You finished your book well. You quoted Ken Booth, “Just war is just war.” That’s a beautiful summary of this very point, “Let’s not pretend,” which is I feel what just war theory does. It’s great, and I endorse it but I feel like it’s a bit of a Band-Aid. “Here’s a way to make this seem compelling sufficiently so that our people will believe it. It will feel right and we can give ourselves a pat on the back and that we are on the right side of history.”

There are loads of stuff there for me to unpack. I’d like to come back, hopefully, to some of the stuff about the ecology of the Bosnian War and the notion of just war theory as a Band-Aid, as a pretend, or shallow response. Let me say in the first instance, if I take all of what you say, it’s exactly right when you talk about making the description that this is a just war. It’s always a question of where you start and whose starting point you choose.

Whose justice am I fighting for?

You’re knee-deep in it at that stage already. When I put that question to my students, one of the wars that sometimes comes up, less so now, is the 1991 Gulf War. You can talk about a historical pretext regarding the Rumaila oil fields and all of that stuff but most people are pretty satisfied to say, “This was an act of aggression where Iraq ruled across Nur-Sultan Annex and neighbour. While there might have been some wrongs committed against Iraq, they weren’t sufficient to warrant the use of force in this way. If the international community didn’t respond, this would’ve been a real dereliction of duty.”

The nature of the response was under a UN Security Council resolution, it was limited. It was discrimination. They didn’t march all the way to Baghdad. They simply kicked Iraq out of Kuwait and then rolled up the invasion from there. It was100-hour ground war. I’m not saying it was conducted perfectly. There were serious problems with the conduct of the war. I’m not an expert, but I gather that there were issues there.

However, one could make an argument then that if ever there was a clean, contained just war, responding to a very discreet and clear-cut act of aggression, this is it. Where the intervention force acted in a limited and constrained way. Here we are. Yet, you could say, “This was the war that ironically set the cat among the pigeons,” to make some metaphor. This was the war that set Western troops in the Holy Land and gave fringe lunatics like bin Laden and those around him the oxygen they needed to have a run at local regimes and to weaken the appeal of local regimes in the Middle East.

Also, to create a vacuum, ultimately.

The effects of which we’re still dealing with now in terms of what that invasion did to Middle Eastern politics in terms of putting this perversion of Islamic fundamentalism on the maps there. Giving them the calls. Giving them something to rally around. Giving them a focal point. I raised this by way of saying that there’s deep irony there.

Even ostensibly the most just war we can think about in this particular period comes with a hugely troubling legacy, which we still are paying for in blood and treasure now. A bit like you, I have this little thought experiment that leads me to be a little bit sceptical about what just war theory offers or what it is. However, I’m curious to know for me, why you consider it to be a sham or shallow or a Band-Aid, however you wish to put it.

Even what’s ostensibly the most just war we can think about comes with a hugely troubling legacy, which we still are paying for in blood and treasure today. Share on X

I’ll say it first. This is the best we’ve got, and I’m happy to have deployed under the auspices of the just war theory and have thought about it to some lengths in my application of duty in places like Afghanistan. I am perpetually bothered by this idea and your book addresses that world. There are seven principles that we have for the just war theory. Right intention, just cause, legitimate authority, proportionality, probability of success, and last resort.

The last resort in particular is the one that bugs me. At which point do we say, “It’s the last?” I say this firstly as a child in a conflict zone. Someone on the receiving end of some pretty serious artillery hiding in a cellar at the age of ten, wondering where this is all going to lead and then fleeing that horror to find myself a refugee in Germany. Through context, I wonder, what is the last resort?

At which point, because ultimately, while we might have the precision weapons, all the right intention, while we might arguably have a just cause, in every war, more recent ones included, it is those who have nothing to do with that war that end up paying the highest price. It’s the so-called non-combatants or civilians.

It is those who have absolutely nothing to do with the war that end up paying the highest price. Share on X

Whilst we have all our jus in bello, all our rules of engagement, all of our Geneva conventions, inevitably, civilians will die. They are the price ultimately of our application of just war. There are a bunch of things and I’m not forming a coherent argument here, but that last resort, for example, will be one that I would question. Also, I’d say the probability of success. We can only go or it is only a just war if there’s a high probability of success.

While I understand the logic behind that, it’s not worth justifying or we do this to prevent needless suffering, arguably of our own forces because the civilians will suffer anyway. How does that marry up with justice? If I’m finding a just war, what happens if there’s a low probability of success? Should I roll over and take tyranny as the status quo now? Where do we draw the line? How do we explain this? How do we justify this?

We’ve decided to go to Iraq in 2003. We need some nice theatrics. We now need some powerful rhetoric. We need the whole idea that it’s a just cause. It’s good versus evil. Let’s have some nice images in the United Nations that show these WMDs that we never then subsequently found because arguably, it didn’t exist because of poor intelligence or whatever. It smacks a little bit of self-righteousness that doesn’t necessarily consider the true cost of war.

What you were saying makes perfect sense to me, and the reason I asked or put the question the way I did, is because it occurs to me that I read and teach about the just war tradition. I’ve been interested in this for years. I am working my way through, slowly and gradually the various texts and historical moments associated with the just war tradition. Be that Cicero, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, or Hugo Grotius.

I’m reading those texts and I’m not an expert in any of these periods or thinkers in particular. I’m trying to understand what they were saying and talking about, and how those things might speak to us now. That’s been my interest, and within that, it strikes me that’s worth doing because it tells us something about what humans have considered grounds worth killing and dying for.

That cuts to the heart of politics and to the human condition. I find how we’ve made those choices, the lines we’ve drawn in different historical periods across different societies fascinating. However, that’s a different thing than saying that tradition is generative of a template of rules and principles and criteria, which I’m now going to pass over to you, the soldier who is going to go and live and die by this code.

I understand that you’ve taken Deane-Peter Baker’s course, which is called Ethical Armouring. The idea being that you armour yourself ethically or that you can armour yourself against moral injury by acting ethically and having a code, as it were. A man must have a code but, for somebody like me, I wonder, “Does it withstand that stress test?” For people like yourself who’ve been on the pointy end of things, who’ve gone to places that somebody like me is simply not going go, what does this theory look like when you come out the other end of it?

Does it hold water? Do you feel that it served you adequately? Did it give you a good guide for what counts as right conduct and wrong conduct in those moments? Quite frankly, for me, speculating, I don’t know. I imagine that there’s something existential about all of this that you have to find yourself in a situation to figure out whether you believe that it’s permissible to target this person, but not that person. Also, that you’ve made the right decisions in life that have put you where you are.

I’ll pick up on that because it’s a powerful point. To refer to that kind of armouring piece or ethical armouring, as a defence force, we are realising that this is an important piece, and this is something that is being injected into our training continuum because it is important. How does it apply? I’ve never been on the front lines. That wasn’t my gig. I had various different ethical challenges to face, but it has to form part of how we do business.

Now, I also understand that for a soldier on the frontline, there’s not necessarily time to speculate on the finer points of jus in bello. It has to be instinctive, but therefore, we need to inject it into the training cycle to train for those scenarios and for those circumstances in the most honest way possible. When I say honest, we need to be honest with ourselves. We are not robots. We are complex beings that carry our own baggage.

I’ve interviewed a bunch of people now for my show who’ve dealt with moral injury, PTSD, and that stuff. The message is consistently the same. None of us are immune to this, and also, none of us are the same. We are unique in how we are likely to respond to a situation. Therefore, we need to train for this. We need to talk about this. We need to explore these topics at all levels from the foot soldier to the senior officers because we need to have this embedded into our everyday discussions about war.

I’ve spoken to Mike Martin on my show as well about this soldier-philosopher concept. We need to embody this as an organisation because the cost is too great if we don’t. It’s because we then find ourselves in this perpetual cycle of justifying, and explaining what happened and why it happened. All of those have good reasons but if we don’t understand what’s likely to occur, if we create given conditions, then we’re going to find ourselves caught out.

What’s happened ugly in a number of theatres where we’ve been caught out slightly with some places worse than others. That’s an interesting point. It’s a very welcome change for me to have participated in Deane-Peter Baker’s training because it’s great. It was useful and the next stage is to contextualise that within the ranks so that we can start talking about this.

Ultimately, we’ll find that war is not going to solve the problems that we’re seeking to solve. I’m not a naive optimist or some idealised pacifist of things that war is not the answer. War is, more often than not, not the answer. In fact, war is the last resort, and I am still in my head, to go back to your question, is there a just war since World War II? Again, even, World War II, it is sacrilegious to say it wasn’t but it was a just war. Even then, you need to start looking at what caused the war. This is where I’m involved again.

More often than not, war is not the answer to the problems that we're seeking to solve. Share on X

What does the war entail? It’s dropping two atomic bombs on cities. The firebombing of Hiroshima.

Also, Dresden and so on. Take Galtung’s Conflict Triangle, which you’ve probably come across, but he has that ABC triangle, Attitudes, Behaviours, and Contradictions. For me, attitude is a contradiction that exists between two parties in conflict that will shape their attitudes towards each other, which will then ultimately drive the behaviours, which will reinforce the contradiction, and so on. It goes around a circle in this triangle.

To me, where the just war theory sits is between attitudes and behaviours. Attitudes, I have an attitude towards this enemy. Now, how do I justify and explain these attitudes that will ultimately drive behaviour? That behaviour might be sanctions or just kicking out ambassadors or whatever it is to ultimately, dropping nukes on cities. The just war theory sits in between those two somewhere, between attitudes and behaviours. Perhaps, I’m naive in my very rudimentary analysis of it, but that’s how I see it. That’s perhaps my struggle with it as well.

VOW 10 | Just War
Just War: Just war theory sits between attitudes and behaviors.

Let me pick up a few things there. I want to come back to the point you make about solving problems in a moment. However, in the first instance, let’s start with the immediate problem in front of us. There is an immediate problem in front of us. The just war theory starts about here and about now and is roundabout here. In other words, we wake up every morning in an unmade bed. This is not a perfect world. We have militaries. We have military conflicts. These things are going on.

As far as we have these things, it’s incumbent upon us to think about the set of rules by which we might bind them and operate them. Unless you want to stick your head in the sand, it strikes me that we need to think seriously and earnestly about the moral rules that we would attach to the operations of our militaries. That’s where just war theory comes in.

Deane’s a fantastic scholar and does fantastic work in this field. That’s why those classes that you took with Deane-Peter Baker are so useful. I had my first taste of them, and I found it interesting because I went in and not being accustomed to teaching practitioners to work with practitioners in this domain, I got it all wrong.

Where were you teaching?

In the Australian Defence College.

You are teaching active service members, yeah?

Yeah. It was a set of sessions we’d convened on ethics and the ethics of war with Deane-Peter Baker and myself. Charles Weller had organised it. It was a lot of fun. It was interesting for me to see how people who’ve served react to some of this material. What I found was this. There’s that emphasis on exactly what you drew attention to a moment ago.

We need a set of rules or codes that are almost automatic, which are intuitive such that if we’re drilled in them at the moment, we automatically default to them. These are reflexes and we want simple, clear, and programmatic rules of action that we can plug in and go with. That makes a great deal of sense if you’re going to be on a roadblock or something like that.

I understand those pressures. On the other hand, what I was coming in with was a sense that every situation you face is unique and is, to some degree, indeterminate. These rules that we’re talking about require interpretation. They’re not clear. They don’t legislate for the specifics of the situation that you’re going to find yourself in, rather, you are going to have to try and unpack them and think casuistically about how they apply in this particular moment.

In other words, for me, in teaching the just war theory, what is important is not learning the principles themselves, but learning the logic behind them so that in those moments where you see that the logic or that the principle doesn’t quite fit here, you can still reason through what’s all right to do. I’m not sure if that makes sense or if that’s clear but you had this real tension between, “We need something ready to go,” and me saying, “No. You don’t need the rules. You need the user’s manual. You need to read the background coding.”

What was the response to that? How was that received?

I’m not entirely sure, to be honest. In the first instance, it didn’t go across well because I wasn’t giving people what they wanted but when I explained, “This is why I’m talking about it this way,” because there’s never going to be a moment when it’s clear who’s a non-combatant and who’s a combatant, or there’s very seldom going to be that moment. You’re going to have to get in behind and fiddle about with what goes on behind the front of those principles.

When we talked about that, there was a greater appreciation for, “All right, okay,” especially people with command responsibility saying, “Maybe I do need to think about this a little bit more than just thinking about these as a set of prompts or reflexive rules.” In any case, we had that conversation. It was very interesting because it did bring home to me exactly what military personnel might want from this stuff. This might simply be reducible to the difference between a soldier’s perspective and an academic’s perspective. I’m looking for the complexity and somebody else is looking for it to be practical.

I agree that that would be the tension because many soldiers or officers will say, “I don’t have the time for that because the lives of my soldiers are on the line,” etc. I also think, and maybe this is my own bias coming in, that the more time we spend debating and discussing this stuff, we face the risk of going, “What am I doing?”

I want to come to that. For me, in that first instance, in that two-sided conversation, I’ve been brought in to be an egghead. That’s why I’m there. I’m there to give complexity. There’s no point in trying to pretend to be a soldier because that’s not what I do and the people in the room already do that. This is where people like you are so important and the work that you’re doing with this show. It serves as a nice translational device between saying, “Let’s hear what these people are talking about and let’s kick it about for a while. Let’s think about how it speaks to what we do in a more leisurely reflective manner.”

The work that you’re doing right now, and there are other things that we could do, are positive development. I especially think the platform is great for this stuff because a member of the military can put his or her earphones in, quiet time, engage with it in a quiet way, and be reflective. You don’t have to perform listening to it. You don’t have to nod along or anything like that. It can be a very personal reflective experience and people can pick it up in their own time.

We need more of this. Also, on your broader point there about it, the more we talk about this, “Why did we do it?” When you were speaking about your experience as a ten-year-old hiding in a cellar, while ordnance is landing around, the question did occur to me. War is the problem there. What leads ten-year-old you to then think that war or joining a military might possibly be a solution to this as well?

I feel like I’m in therapy, but that’s a very astute question.

I would lean more towards the pacifist position myself, not quite all the way. I was quite struck when I heard Dejan speak on the show about the examples of good soldiering that he saw. The perspective of coming out of the Balkans and seeing UN peacekeepers, cheering them, and thinking, “This is, if not as good, at least, it’s stopping something bad happening or something worse happening.” Even so, you talked about the ecology of these wars and the broader ecology that they take part in. Dejane spoke beautifully and I’m not disagreeing with him in any way here, but some of this language plays out, sometimes notions like soldiers as protectors, Dejan didn’t say this but as warriors and so on.

If we want to talk about a broader ecology, there’s an ecology of ideas as well that soldiering perhaps, and some of those ideas that support and sustain the idea of soldiering also propagate the problems that it addresses like masculinities, aggressiveness, virility, and the prowess that we respond to problems physically and militarily. Toughness is of virtue. For me, I tend to see war as part of the problem and just war theory too, as part of the problem as well as part of the solution. When you say, the more we debate this, the more we ask ourselves, “What are we doing?” I couldn’t agree more.

VOW 10 | Just War
Just War: Just war theory is part of the problem as well as part of the solution.

That’s genuine, I don’t want to say risk, but perhaps it might be a useful word or term. The more we empower our decision-makers in combat and in war, I’m probably going to get chastised for this as well, but I feel like the more we think about this, the more we realise that it’s a waste of time because war begets more war, even if we couch it as a victory. There are no winners in war. To use your book again, just war is just war, whichever way you skin that war cat. Again, we’ve seen this in Iraq. We went and we had a just war and just victory. It was a proportional victory, etc.

However, the ones who lost certainly didn’t concede defeat and said, “We’ll join your camp.” It festered more violence and hate. Even though it might’ve festered over a period of time, and rear its head again at a point down the line. There’s an action reaction. There is a relationship in this ecosystem. If you push me, I might just sit back for a while, but the fact that you pushed me will stick with me. I’ll pass it on to my son and daughter, etc. Somehow, it doesn’t strike me as to most efficient use of our resources, of our people, and of our time to drop bombs on each other in the hope of forcing peace, which seems to be a conflict.

I’d pick up on that. Have you read Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, the little novella?

I know of it, but I haven’t read it.

It’s a nice little book. It’s about 80 pages long. In the course of it, you’ve got two ranch hands, George and Lennie. The story’s pretty well-known. Some of your readers will know it. Lennie has learning difficulties. He’s a big bear of a man, and he’s quite simple. He is intellectually challenged. George is his buddy. He’s not his brother, but he is an older brother-type figure who’s a slightly cunning scheming guy.

The two of them are ranch hands in the depression era America traveling from farm to farm doing casual labour. It’s a miserable tough life, but they’ve got one another. That’s what sustains them. It’s a marriage of convenience, but there’s beauty to this friendship. George has Lennie and Lennie has George, and they’re an ill-matched couple, but it works. They both find something in one another.

They arrive at this ranch and poor old Lennie finds himself in a pickle where he’s being essentially manipulated and he is pushed into a corner. He then reacts in a way that’s intended to be harmless, but he ends up killing the rancher’s wife. He doesn’t intend to do it, but it happens. He doesn’t know his own strength. He’s got learning difficulties.

This is how it plays out. They go on the run, the two guys together. George is faced with a dilemma along the way because he hears the posse coming out, looking for Lennie, and he knows what’s going to happen. He knows they’re going to find them. He knows that when they find them, they’re not just going to kill Lennie, it’s going to be brutal.

What George does instead is he takes Lennie to Lennie’s favourite place. He sets Lennie into a reverie by reminding Lennie of a daydream that they have of setting up their own farm. There’ll be rabbits on the farm. They’re going to live together and they’re going to be happy. When Lennie is distracted, George shoots him. It’s an act of love. This is why I’m bringing this up. It brings you to a moment where you say, “How did I judge that? What did George do? Was it right or was it wrong?”

On the right side, you could say, Lennie had violated the order. However, rough and ready that order was, however imperfect it was still the order, and he was going to be punished for it. What George did was quite noble. He didn’t want to do this. He didn’t want to kill his friend, but he knew it was coming, and he decided to take on the burden of doing that himself, precisely so his friend didn’t suffer.

He lived by the rules of the day. He upheld them even at personal cost. It was out of love for his friend that he took this on. What a self-sacrificial act. That to some degree is the paradigm of just war. That we are willing to put ourselves in that position and to take that hit, to carry that burden of responsibility that others don’t. That ring of power that others won’t bear and to do the hard jobs.

On the other hand, as you say, when you read this out, George then is left alone. Both men, Lennie’s dead, but George is also dead inside now. The world isn’t a better place. The spiral of conflict hasn’t ended. This is simply one more chapter precedent to the next and to the next. There’s no argument to be said that what George has done has made anything better, resolved anything, or righted any wrongs. It’s simply more blood.

I like that story, and it’s a short little novella as a way of picking out, and I’m saying, “Do you agree with what George did?” You can use that as an allegory for just war thinking saying, you know, “Do I see just war as something noble and heroic and self-giving that needs to be done and that somebody’s got to do it or do I see it as a tragic waste of time that perpetuates the problem that it purports to resolve? That doesn’t help us escape from our problems, but compounds them.”

When I was reading that book, I also happened to be reading obituaries of British soldiers in Afghanistan at the time. When I read those 150 words about these young men and women who were killed, this is about 2012, 11 years into the war. It’s even more pertinent the same week that the Americans and the Australians have announced their withdrawal. You have to wonder, “What was that for?” You read these stories and it would say something like, “Jim was an adventurous, loving son, and a brother of two. He liked water skiing. He played golf. He had a streak of mischief about him.” You thought, “What did you give your life for?”

That’s powerful, and again, it resonated with me strongly particularly that war. It’s one that we ought to reflect on deeply, not least because of the price we paid. Australia has lost 41 soldiers in Afghanistan, but also because of the lives that were lost more broadly of Afghan people. One of the key lessons that we need to take from there, just war or not, is almost irrelevant.

We fought a different war than we thought we fought. We thought we were fighting this Taliban enemy, or whatever. There were the hard-core Talibs who sought to do us harm and so on and so forth, but there’s also a completely distant, unstudied, and misunderstood architecture that exists within what we refer to as Afghanistan. Many Afghanis wouldn’t necessarily choose Afghani as their first identity.

It would arguably be their families or their tribes competing for low-level power within small villages as opposed to part of this grand idea of a Taliban or whatever. That was something we told ourselves because it was black and white. Anybody that was against us was a Talib, and that was a simple way to do it because we had to. I was part of that as well, and while I sleep easy at night, it’s certainly something that’s worth debating and exploring because we didn’t understand what we were doing. I mean, we, broadly speaking.

Maybe on an individual level, especially those on the front lines, the soldiers probably understood it better than up higher in the echelons but we certainly didn’t have a good grasp. I’m happy to be challenged on this, but I haven’t seen anything that would clarify this for me or show me how we understood the actual ecosystem. Again, I’ll keep using the word ecosystem because it reflects well that it’s a human terrain and a particular culture is alive.

It is not static that we measure in a way that’s black and white. We are a player inside that ecosystem. When we enter that ecosystem, we are part of the dynamic and carry our own momentum that will have an impact on that ecosystem. Some people will empower, others will target, and we contribute to that power play and dynamics that exist there. We don’t come onto a blank slate and call the shots surgically black and white.

I’m fascinated there by how you’re putting that. That’s all exactly right. One of the things that occurs to me that people can do, people who might be going into service and who are interested in the issues that we’re talking about now, it’s always possible to go and read, download your articles on the just war theory and skinny up on your academic writings on these things.

In addition to shows like this, there’s a world of excellent memoirs and novels, which are good food for thought around these issues. about the writings of somebody like Phil Klay, Tim O’Brien writing about Vietnam, and Karl Marlantes. For the soldier who wants to think about soldiering, or for the person who’s not a soldier who wants to think about soldiering, these aren’t didactic texts.

They’re not out to make a point, to prove an argument to you, to build a case, to build a publication record. These are explorations of exactly some of the issues that you’re raising across the course of this show series. Fiction and novels can be wonderful tools for expanding our imagination and getting a more sensitive human grip on some of these issues. I would love to think that the people who are reading this are going off and picking up Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried or Karl Marlantes’ What It Is Like To Go To War.

I also recommend they pick up your book, Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Just War. I mean that sincerely because what struck me, is and maybe we can touch on a few points in the book. In a nutshell, can you summarise the thesis of this book, if that’s possible?

VOW 10 | Just War
Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Just War

I’ll take a moment, if I may. I went to an academic conference, a small workshop honouring a colleague who had brought out a manuscript on justice at the end of the war. It was a great book, and we were asked to respond to it. I had nothing critical to say, so I had to make something up. What I said was, “You talk about justice at the end of the war, but it’s not very clear what you mean by the end of the war. This term seems a bit amorphous. It seems a bit spongy. It doesn’t give us great analytical clarity on what you’re talking about. When does the end begin, and all of that?”

I said, “Why don’t you talk about victory?” Everybody in the room without exception said, “What a stupid idea.” Now, that’s remarkable not because I came up with a stupid idea, and that happens all the time, but because academics agreeing on something is weird. For everybody in consensus, I thought, “There’s something interesting there. How come everybody in this room recognises this as not something they want to do?”

The question then became, “Why is it that the just war theorists don’t engage the term victory?” They talk about war and, if you want to listen to Aristotle, “Victory is the end of war.” If you want Douglas MacArthur, “There’s no substitute for victory. Victory is a very object of war.” This term recurs. The Academy Saint-Cyr in France, above the gate in French, “We teach you to be victorious.”

There’s this notion that wars are fought to be won. Why is it then that the just war theorists whose business is ostensibly talking about war won’t talk about victory? What I arrived at over the course of this book in a couple of years was to put it in a nutshell, they don’t talk about victory because victory unmasks or to talk about victory is to associate just war and the wars waged under that rubric as being contests of might.

That they’re brutish uses of force. Wars don’t determine who’s right and wrong. It determines who’s left. To use war as an instrument of justice is always a compromise. It’s putting square pegs in round holes. This is a fundamental compromise at the heart of the just war theory. It’s probably a necessary and pragmatic compromise, but just war theorists don’t like to talk about it because it draws our attention to that. It’s better to conceal it and to talk about just war as something that’s clean, that’s sanitary, polished, and polite.

War doesn't determine who's right and wrong. It just determines who's left. Share on X

The discourse almost lulls us into thinking that we can have a clean war, a proper war. Whereas when you bring in the word victory, you almost bring it to a point. You burst that misapprehension. You burst that pretension because you draw attention to the fact that if they’re winners, they’re also losers. Whatever you’ve achieved, you’ve achieved by killing people and breaking things, and you can’t get away from that.

My argument arising from that is that just war theorists need to think about victory precisely because victory reveals how bloody and brutish just war is, which is exactly why we need just war theory. It’s not a reason to disavow the just war theory. It’s a reminder of why we need it while also a warning against the seduction of just war theory as rhetoric that lulls you into thinking that everything you’re doing is morally safe, clean, and easy. Also, there’s no remainder and there’s no leftover. There’s always a leftover.

If you want to put this in figurative terms, the cover of the book is Ares and Athena, the two Greek Gods of War. We all know a little bit more perhaps about Athena, and that she stands for the idea that violence can be harnessed to the service of the state, that it can be made rational, and that it can serve justice. Her statute stands above courthouses because she channels the instruments of violence so that they serve a proper end and reinforce justice rather than undermine it.

Ares, on the other hand, is not. He’s brutish and careens around the place doing more damage than good. He’s like a bull of a gate. He can’t be stopped. He can’t help himself. He loves a good ruck, and there’s no sensor order to him. When we think about just war now, we tend to think about it in the language of Athena, and we tend to think about it as Athena trumping and supplanting Ares. We’re turning Aries into Athena. We’re sublimating war.

However, an actual fact, for the Greeks, you never had Ares without Athena. One didn’t supplant or sublimate the other. Each went with the other. When we have Athena, we also have Ares. We might have this noble drive towards just war, but it comes with a brutish underbelly, and you’re not getting away from that.

The point of interrogating the just war theory through the language of victory, or through the prison of victory, was precisely to make that point to say, “Ares is still here.” I’m not saying we don’t need Athena. I’m not saying Athena’s the wrong direction to go, but you’re not escaping Ares. You bring him with you. You can continue that conversation if you wish, and this thinking. It’s pragmatic and perhaps necessary, but it’s not morally hazard-free.

It comes at a cost as well. That’s such a powerful summary of what we’ve discussed, but also of the book. Also, it resonates again, even in the language that we use in the military. It’s suppressing an enemy, neutralising an enemy, and clearing an objective. The language is so surgical. It’s so clean. When delivered in a set of orders or in a back brief by a good presenter, you feel like, “This is great. We know exactly what we’re doing. It’s going to be easy. We’re going to do X, Y, Z. We will neutralise and suppress,” or whatever it is. It all sounds so clean, but it’s not.

There’s a reason those languages come about. There’s a very good book by a guy called Joshua Goldstein, War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa. He doesn’t call them the tricks, and I shouldn’t call them the tricks, but I’m mischaracterising the argument using that language. The tricks we pull on ourselves to convince ourselves that it’s right to fight, or the stories we have to tell ourselves, and the highly stipulative ways we narrate what we’re doing to ourselves.

There’s so much in there when you start unpicking it. It doesn’t make you weaker to do that, and it doesn’t risk things falling apart. It makes you more thoughtful and capable. It allows you to interrogate where you stand in the world, why you’re doing what you’re doing, and how you’re doing it. Again, that’s why something like what you’re doing with this is so important because it provides a starting point or a resource for people who are inclined to do that. Here’s some food in your ears to work with.

I appreciate you saying that, and that’s what partially motivates this show and why it’s titled The Voices of War. It’s about bringing those discussions into our social public discourse, particularly in the military setting that we don’t necessarily ask about and don’t have time, or perhaps even the will. As I was saying before, it’s all a little bit too messy and it’s a little bit too unnecessary to, “I’ve got a job to do. Don’t make this messy for me. I know what I need to do. Give me the black and white and let me go on and do my job.” “Sure. Fantastic. We need that.” That’s why I agree with you.

I’m certainly not arguing against the just war theory. It’s the best thing we’ve got, and it’s a fantastic tool but we need to be more reasoned about our application of force, not just at the military level, because the military will go when the government says, “Go.” That’s our job. However, in our broader discourse and governmental discourse, even our social discourse amongst our peers, we’re very quick to judge, “XYZ send the troops or pull the troops out,” or whatever it is.

We’re very quick to jump to conclusions without necessarily understanding the context. Perhaps the most important thing that I’m wrestling with myself is this need to understand the conflict that we are getting into the war we are starting, the war we are joining, or whatever it is. We need to understand the dynamics that are at play there.

Without that, chances are we’re going to be more of a problem than a solution. That’s where this all sits with me at the moment. Cian, I’m very conscious of the time, and you have been exceptionally gracious. This was great, but there will be a second episode to this because we have barely started scratching the surface of some of the topics. There’s a lot more we can discuss and talk about.

VOW 10 | Just War
Just War: We need to understand the conflict that we are getting into. We need to understand the dynamics that are at play there. Without that understanding, chances are we’re going to be more of a problem than a solution.

I look forward to it very much.

Thank you for your time. Your book is fantastic. The work you’re doing is great. I look forward to touching base again in the near future.

I hope we can do the next one of these over a pint in person.

It would be great.

Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.


Important Links