Davis Brown on Just War Theory
Date: August 9th, 2015

What is just war theory and how can it relate to tort law?  What is the doctrine of proportionality?  And how do all these concepts apply to various conflicts including the Iraq invasion of Kuwait, Russia’s involvement its surrounding nations, and the Pig War of 1859?  Dr. Davis Brown, an assistant professor of political science at Maryville University, answers these questions and more as he takes us on a tour of the just war doctrine from its inception with the Early Church Fathers to its application in some recent conflicts.  As a trained lawyer with experience in the US Air Force, Davis provides a unique perspective on a topic that has occupied the minds of some of history’s greatest religious thinkers.

We begin the interview with some background on Prof. Brown himself.  He explains what he did as a judge advocate general (JAG) in the military, noting that it really wasn’t all flying in outer space and trying to apprehend bad guys like on television.  Instead, he explains how various military actions are run past military lawyers to ensure they correspond with international and domestic US law.  Davis then details his reasons for moving into the world of academia.

Following this brief biographical discussion, we move into the origins of just war theory.  Prof. Brown notes that while Jesus did have things to say about conflict, it was Paul who begins the discussion of how political entities should conduct themselves with respect to their citizenry and other nations.  He then jumps forward to the role that Augustine of Hippo played in formulating the doctrine of just war.  Where the intellectual advance in these ideas next occurs is with Thomas Aquinas, who lays out three basic principles for a war to be just:  1) proper authority; 2) just cause; and 3) right intent.  Davis discusses the dimensions of these three components with some reference to our contemporary world wherein some wars are being waged by “stateless entities” making it difficult to determine “proper authority.”  He then takes us to the early 17th century and the thinking of Francisco Suarez, a Spanish Jesuit who tweaks Aquinas’s second feature of just war (just cause) and introduces the concept of proportionality.  Suarez also advances the concept of “right intent” to talk about “right manner,” the means in which a conflict is conducted.  Tony learns about a few Latin terms and their meaning, most notably jus ad bellum and jus in bellum.  Davis also outlines some of the other advances in just war theory at this time, including the introduction of “reasonable prospect of success” and “means of last resort.”  We discuss some of the historical context of this thinking and note that the interest in just war theory diminishes during the era of absolutist monarchies (17th through the 19th century), to be revived again following World War I.

Davis then adds his own intellectual take on just war theory by expounding upon tort law.  He explains what tort law is and how it is applicable to international law and the specific topic of warfare.  There exist four key elements that must be satisfied for a tort claim to have solid standing: 1) duty to another; 2) breach of contract; 3) causation; and 4) existence of damages.  Davis shows how each of these works first with reference to ye olde “rat in the soup” problem that might lead to a tort claim in a restaurant, and then with respect to the decision of going to war.  We talk a bit about enforcement at this point and what role the United Nations has played (or not played) with respect to arbitrating just war decisions.  Tony then presents Davis with a number of recent conflicts and asks him to evaluate each in light of his understanding of the just war doctrine (and in the framework of tort law).  We review the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Russian incursions into Georgia and Ukraine, and the 1978 invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam.  To top it all off, Tony mentions the Pig War of 1859 involving a dispute over the San Juan Islands and surrounding waterways in the Pacific Northwest.  He lays out this little-known conflict between the US and Great Britain and Davis then notes that this might be the first empirical case of “invincible ignorance” within just war theory he has encountered, and he explains what that all means.  We finish up with some reflections on what Prof. Brown has learned over the course of his career as a JAG and an academic specifically studying religion and conflict.  Recorded: August 6, 2015.



Prof. Davis Brown’s profile at Maryville University.

The Sword, the Cross, and the Eagle: The American Just War Tradition, by Davis Brown.

The Just War Tradition: Applying Old Ethics to New Problems, edited by Davis Brown and Henrik Syse.

Religious Characteristics of States Data Set, compiled by Davis Brown.

The Association of Religious Data Archives.

Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, by Michael Walzer (mentioned on podcast).

War and the Christian Conscience, by Paul Ramsey and John Hallowell (mentioned on podcast).


Ron Mock on Pacifism, War, and Terrorism.

Sean Scott on Religious Rhetoric and the US Civil War.

Should Christians Have Fought in the American War for Independence?

Andre Molle on Spirituality and the Martial Arts.

Thomas Farr on Religion, Religious Liberty, and U.S. Foreign Policy.

William Inboden on Religious Liberty, Foreign Policy, & the Arab Spring.

John Owen IV on Confronting Political Islam.

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