Gregory M Reichberg, Henrik Syse and Endre Begby (eds), 'The Ethics of War: classic and contemporary readings'

IssueDecember 2006 - January 2007
Review by Trevor Curnow

The main aim of this book, as its editors make clear at the outset, is to provide a collection of readings on the ethics of war that will “prove useful to many students, teachers and researchers”. What they have produced is likely to prove an invaluable resource for many readers for years to come.

The book has a variety of strengths. First, there is its sheer size, with nearly 700 pages of readings. The editors have not stinted on the index, which itself runs to nearly 40 pages, and helps the materials contained within the book to be navigated with ease. Secondly, there is its scope. Those quoted range (in chronological order) from Thucydides to Kofi Annan, with more than 60 other people in between. Thirdly, many of the materials are difficult to find elsewhere and in some cases have not previously been translated. Fourthly, all the materials are accompanied by useful introductions and commentaries, putting them into their proper context.

The greater part of the collection is given over to texts relating to the “just war” tradition, and the book serves as an excellent historical introduction to it. The materials that appear here reveal the just war tradition to have been remarkably flexible during the centuries of its development and far from being the narrow, fixed and archaic set of principles that its opponents sometimes claim it to be. Other contributions come from the realist and pacifist traditions, as well as the “perpetual peace” one most often associated with Immanuel Kant.

Kant is one of a number of obvious names appearing here, along with those of Augustine, Aquinas, Grotius, and von Clausewitz, amongst others. However, the particular value of the book lies in the relatively neglected figures it brings to the reader's attention, such as Bartolus of Saxoferrato and Raphael Fulgosius. The choice of the most recent materials is always going to be more problematic, as their authors have not yet had the chance to pass the test of time, but few are likely to seriously quibble with the inclusion of Woodrow Wilson, Bertrand Russell, Paul Ramsey and Michael Walzer.

Although this book is primarily aimed at the academic market, anyone interested in the history of western thought on the subject of war will find it fascinating.

Topics: War and peace
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