There is a paradox, Columbia Professor John Witt argues, lying inside America's contribution to modern warfare. On the one hand, the United States has been the leading force in creating and promulgating the modern laws of war. And on the other hand, the United States has been pioneer in the use of ever-more destructive methods and materials of warfare.
What explains this tension? The common view is simple: hypocrisy. But Witt thinks there might be something more to this story, and presented an early draft of a chapter from his current book project, tentatively titled "Lincoln's Code: The Laws of War and the Dilemma of American History" to the University of Chicago's American Legal History Workshop.
Witt's core argument is that America's relationship with the laws of war is not accurately captured by a neat division between theoretical ideals and messy practice. Instead, the oscillation is between two different conceptulizations of moral warfare: just ends versus just means. The former was represented by the classic Augustian view that a war is just if the cause is just. Once this threshold was established, a prosecuting force could undertake whatever means necessary to attain victory. The latter, an Enlightenment reaction to Augustine, urged that nations contingently put aside their own view of their moral rightness, recognizing that (since both sides inevitably think they are in the right), the Augustinian view sanctioned a never-ending spiral of recrimination and escalation that could quickly spiral out of control.