War is among the most crucial and consistent experiences in American history, and therefore it is not surprising that the role of war has always been hotly contested. Historian John Bodnar here at Indiana University has observed that during the Second World War the United States and other liberal nations “had to scramble to justify the sacrifices and explain their killing sprees.” They did this in part by finding ways to transform the meaning of killing and dying into virtuous acts. Proclamations of virtue, however, could never fully erase questions about national identity or personal qualms about encounters with violence and trauma. Consequently, the public memory of war in modern America was invariably contested. There were always those who could never forget the suffering war had brought, who were never completely comforted by patriotic rhetoric, and who resented the fact that they had to relinquish some of their most basic rights to liberty and life.” In an essay entitled “Religion, War, and the Meaning of America”, religious historian Harry Stout succinctly captured the meaning of war in American history: “The norm of American national life is war. From colonial origins to the present, Americans have never seen a generation that was not preoccupied with war, threats of wars, and military interventions on foreign soils.” 

Despite this, it is not often that Americans are able to come together to discuss their experience of war—as service members, as veterans, as military families, or as civilians. And, it is the rare moment when individuals have a space in which to reflect on how their experiences are linked to ethical frameworks—particularly notions about justice. The readings and discussion programs for Justice and War seek to create this space—to link experience and ethics and to examine how they inform each other. 


In order to ground our discussions, we have chosen to focus on two wars—the Spanish-American War and the Vietnam War—that were central to shaping the American experience and understanding of war during the long twentieth century. The Spanish-American War (1898) is often remembered as America’s “first” imperial war. This conflict engaged the generation who came of age in the shadow of the American Civil War and the rise of the United States as a global economic power. It also provoked an extraordinary debate among a cast of characters, from the president William McKinley to satirist Mark Twain to social activist Jane Addams and, perhaps most infamously, newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. Debates about the war focused on the justness of the U.S. fighting “in the name” of the Cuban and Philippine people and the justness of a conflict that grew into a campaign against those whom the United States had claimed to liberate. The second is the Vietnam War, a conflict with echoes of the war fought sixty years earlier. American troops also engaged in jungle warfare and, more importantly, fought under the pretense of supporting the Vietnamese following the collapse of their colonial master. Both events were framed by forces crucial to the American experience with war, including anti-colonialism, a liberal commitment to economic progress, media-generated debates about the conflict, and grave misgivings about the nation sending troops to a far-off land. We chose to discuss these two wars because they demonstrate an important narrative in the American experience with war — while they were fought in different times and spaces, they share patterns of ideas and politics that help us understand a common culture of war in U.S. history. While the World Wars have significance that is self-evident and the Civil War is pivotal to American history, these two relatively smaller wars, were wars of choice, fought in the name of peoples not vital to American security, and illustrative of the kind of decisions and debates the U.S. seems to be having today. In other words, these two wars provide ways to speak about both the particular cultural context in which they were fought and the more universal questions that the U.S. continues to consider. 

The range of programs that we are offering as part of this project mean that the sources we will utilize are quite broad. Because we will be discussing the nature of justice—and more specifically, just war—readings will, of course, include Thucydides, Aristotle, Aquinas, Sepulveda, Grotius, and Walzer. But, beyond these theorists, we have integrated a range of other humanist sources that allow us to open up the discussion of justice by exploring the experience of war. These include literary works (e.g. Epic of Gilgamesh, Iliad, Mark Twain’s “War Prayer,” Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, Viet Than Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies), films (e.g. The Fog of War, Full Metal Jacket, Crucible of Empire); narratives from the front lines (e.g. Đặng Thùy Trâm’s Last Night I Dreamed of Peace; Michael Herr, Dispatches; interviews with Janice Alyce Nark, NAM: The Vietnam War in the Words of the Men and Women Who Fought There); and selected primary documents (e.g. W.E.B. Dubois’s “Credo,” Jane Addams’s “Democracy or Militarism,” Apolinario Mabini’s “Manifesto,” Lyndon Johnson’s Press Conference to explain troop escalation, 1965). 

With an eye toward contrasting the particular and the universal, both the university courses and the public discussion program will rely heavily on the ideas related to “just war theory,” a set of principles with a long history given particular prominence in the United States through the important and influential text by Michael Walzer in Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations. Published in 1977 and now in its fifth edition, Walzer’s book quickly became required reading for both scholars and publics anxious to embrace just war theory as a way to evaluate the legacy of the Vietnam War and to orient debates over America as a moral place. Throughout history, just war theory has provided a systematic way to evaluate how to enter, fight, and exit war with particular regard for the use of force both on the battlefield and against civilians. Three broad categories comprise just war theory, jus ad bellum (or having a just cause to fight); jus in bello (or conducting a just war); and jus post bellum (or creating a just peace). One of the aspects often hotly contested in the application of just war principles is the concept of proportionality, or calibrating the destructive force used to fight a war to the aims of the war and the threat posed by the enemy. In the American context, the idea of proportionality has special relevance. It highlights the contrast between the considerable might of the American military and the idealism of American war aims. This conflict between violence and ideals enlivened Michael Walzer’s book, helping Americans work through the morally ambiguous experience of war.

Walzer’s ideas about “just war” remain a touchstone — especially among officers trained at the nation’s military academies. While Walzer wrote his book in light of Vietnam, just war principles have medieval, if not ancient roots, that travel across time and have application around the world. In a sense, just war theory functions as a way to embed the particular experience of the United States in the context of larger, longer-term debates about how and why people resort to war. Moreover, Walzer’s book provides those who lead others into war — from battlefield commanders to military leaders in Washington — with ways to discern and discuss universal principles that might guide their use of violence. We will provide a measured discussion on principles of just war theory and discuss in detail the evolution of this tradition and the ways in which it has been applied over time. We want our participants to have an operational knowledge of just war principles so that we can ask them to contrast theory with particular wartime scenes.

A central dilemma raised by Walzer’s text is that war overwhelms the intellectual and moral time and space needed to put violence in perspective. In other words, just war theory sounds good until one enters the fighting of an actual war. Therefore, in order to build room for reflection on both the theory and experience of war, we will contrast this core text on just war theory with other sources that suggest the dislocation between considering the justness of war and imagining or recalling war. Such reflection will initiate discussions about the messiness of living with war — at home as well as on the battlefield. For example, to stimulate discussion about the timeless combining of religion and war, we will use Mark Twain’s sardonic essay, “The War Prayer” — a text Twain figured was too incendiary to publish during the Spanish-American War; he ordered his estate to publish it only after his death. Over the course of just a few hundred words, Twain tells the story of an itinerant “agent of God” disrupting a service in a small town’s church held for the young men about to go off to war. The essay’s black humor and lack of a simple morality makes it at once reflective of its time and, more broadly, a powerful critique of the conflation of religion and war. A short film based on the story was produced in the 1980s and can be used to spark discussion. Similarly, we will use Michael Herr’s Vietnam War book, Dispatches, among the first and most explicit reportages of soldiering in war. Like Twain’s text, Herr’s operates as both a specific reflection of a particular war and as a definitive illustration of the visceral experience of battle. Janice Alyce Nark’s description of her experience in both Vietnam and in the First Gulf War engages with the traumas that those who experience war endure both during and after their tours of duty. With Herr and Nark’s accounts we will show parts from the many films made about the Vietnam War. Our program will make apparent the struggle between theory and practice, the desire to do good while often having to do bad. 

Additionally, this program will use government documents, editorials, speeches, songs, movies, and even monuments to illustrate the evolution of debates over the fighting, defending, and remembering of war. While the specific terms of just war theory rarely get invoked, the principles of the theory permeate discussions about war. Therefore, we intend to construct a cultural context for our discussions by looking at the political rationale for these wars — for example, William McKinley’s famous explanation that prayer helped him decide to annex the Philippines; Apolonario Mabini’s “Manifesto” justifying the war against American imperialism; and Lyndon Johnson’s deliberations in 1965 over the decision to escalate American involvement in Vietnam. McKinley’s invocation of God has often been used to confirm the significance of religion in the construction of American foreign policy and the relationship between God and war. Johnson’s discussions with advisers culminated in a famous press conference announcing his decision to increase American troops. The HBO movie Path to War has a sequence that captures the competing views between LBJ’s advisers as well as within his own mind. Both of these cases demonstrate how just war principles are often implicitly present in deliberations to go to war — if not explicitly referenced — and both also illustrate the utility of applying just war theory as a way to critique the decision to go to war in the Philippines and Vietnam.   

The usefulness of comparing the presidential politics of the two eras can be extended to other aspects of culture. For example, we will use speeches, such as Jane Addams’s “Democracy or Militarism” from the Anti-Imperialist League (which formed to oppose American intervention in the Philippines) and Martin Luther King’s devastating anti-war speech at Riverside Church in 1967 to trace similarities in the language used to warn about the effects unjust wars have on American ideals. This is a crucial aspect of the program because we need to explore how sides seemingly opposed to each other over the reasons to go to war often use just war principles to make their cases. A question that has dogged just war theory for a very long time is whether this set of ideas helps government justify their war efforts more than prevent them.  

We also want to incorporate popular impressions of these wars and therefore will turn to media representations of justness and unjustness of both wars. Employing Daniel Boorstin’s observations is his landmark essay, The Image, we will consider the role of media in manufacturing opinion about the different wars. By looking at the role of Hearst newspapers in the 1890s and Life magazine in the 1960s, we will investigate how just war principles, such as the rationale for war and the use of just tactics in fighting war get processed through different types of media. Undoubtedly movies from war and movies about war have shaped the historical consciousness of Americans. One might assume that there would not be films shot during the Spanish-American War. In fact, the Library of Congress has digitized and made available short films produced during the war by Thomas Edison’s company. While the films are silent and many are re-enactments, they raise issues similar to the most elaborate and big-budget Hollywood films made about Vietnam. For instance, films from both eras were made to convey the sense of battle to those who are far away from and never involved in the fighting. Moreover, war films in general almost always attempt to frame wars morally, and films from both eras are no different. We will watch scenes from both eras as a way to discuss the construction of narratives and the evolution of the standard interpretations. 

Finally, through a digital survey of war memorials in Indiana, we will discuss how such permanent structures operate as contested ways to remember those who died fighting. Indianapolis is a city with an unusually large number of war memorials. It is also home to the national headquarters of the American Legion. The relationship between these two features will comprise the most local aspects this project, by playing upon the way the physical landscape helps shape the memories successive generations have of wars. Among the most powerful ways to debate the justness of war is to consider the pressures that weigh upon any evaluation of war. This is why we don’t want to discuss just war theory in a vacuum, but, rather, consider the complicated context in which different parts of American society make decisions about war.

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