by Uwe Steinhoff. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2007. 176pp. Hardbound. $65.00/£32.00. ISBN: 9780199217373.

Reviewed by Amanda DiPaolo, Department of Political Science, Middle Tennessee State University. Email: dipaolo [at] stu.ca.


Uwe Steinhoff challenges the basic tenets of just war theory in ON THE ETHICS OF WAR AND TERRORISM. While it is often difficult to know whose voice is speaking because most of the book is dedicated to the analysis of others, Steinhoff sets a high bar for his own arguments suggesting that it “is a lack of intellectual integrity, in the form of breathtaking double standards and hypocrisy in the assessment of war and terrorism (and in the assessment of different perpetrators), which constitutes the main target of this book” (p.2). Upon working out the hypocrisies and double standards, the crescendo of the work moves from theories about war to ultimately a justification for some terrorist attacks.

In his attempts to expose the lack of intellectual integrity, and so forth, Steinhoff asks several provocative questions about the conduct of both war and terrorist attacks. In turn, the reader is provided with a variety of controversial answers to issues like who is a legitimate target of an attack? When is war justified? Can terrorism be justified? The overarching theme guiding Steinhoff’s theory is that the jus ad bellum, the reason for entering a war in the first place, can never be divorced from jus in bello, how the war is fought. He argues that such a separation is only “analytical,” and in reality the justification for entering a war is often “dependent upon the way in which the war will most likely be conducted” (p.2).

Chapter One analyzes who has legitimate authority to use force. Steinhoff rejects the assumptions of just war theory that are rooted in Christian moral theology and instead takes a more liberal, or individualistic, perspective suggesting that it is not the state that has the authority for the legitimate use of force. Instead, the authority to start war is within each individual. This leaves open the possibility that one person acting under his/her own authority is all it takes to declare war. Steinhoff points out that if an unorganized fighter blows up an Israeli tank in the Gaza strip it is considered terrorism, but when the Israeli government retaliates it is “considered something different” (p.8). It is this sort of reality that leads Steinhoff to bring back the possibility of private wars, long ago rejected in the name of minimizing the number of wars conducted. The lack of regard for already established international norms may be seen as problematic to some. Steinhoff simply replaces violent crime with conducting an act of war. This argument completely overlooks the fact that, with the growth of the nation state after the treaty of Westphalia, the notion of sovereignty has yet to be eroded to the point where an individual can legitimately use force. The individualist perspective Steinhoff takes seems to lack modern historical backing. [*433]

Chapter Two is very brief and puts forward the argument that entering a war for a just cause is still not permissible if the right intentions are absent. For example, if the United States enters a region to stop genocide from taking place, “such an intervention would nevertheless be illegitimate if it were not carried out in order to prevent the genocide but rather in order to expand one’s own sphere of influence. This is true even if the genocide is indeed prevented by the intervention” (p.25). Furthermore, proportionality matters. Steinhoff suggests that questions of morality in war refer to questions of loss of lives, arguing it does matter how many people die because of the war versus how many people will be saved by actions to end it. Disproportionality occurs when “the moral loss is greater than the moral gain” (p.30).

Chapters Three and Four discuss identification of the innocent in conflict who are thus not a legitimate target for attack, as well as the “double effect” and propotionality in loss of life. Steinhoff starts by explaining the premise that innocents and non-combatants are given immunity in armed conflicts. In other words, these individuals are not to be attacked. However, Steinhoff explains, although innocents and non-combatants are excepted from intentional killing, the laws of war currently allow the military to carry out operations in which those same innocents and non-combatants may be killed or harmed accidentally. This unfortunate side effect of war, or collateral damage, is considered to be acceptable. Steinhoff spends a considerable amount of time addressing the double effect concept, which goes back to St. Thomas Aquinas and the Catholic church’s need to justify war in light of the fact that the teachings of Jesus were about peace and pacificsm (p.35).
The double effect theory allows for actions to occur that have expected negative results when the intentions are good. The predictive negative effects are not desired and the negative effect is not a means to an end for any goal by the agent conducting the action in question (p.34). After a prolonged explanation as to how it is irrelevant if an innocent is killed by accident or intentionally in pursuit to one’s end, Steinhoff concludes that the doctrine of double effect itself is nothing more than an attempt to soothe the consciences of those responsible for killing innocent non-combatants.

The long discussion on the ethics of war presented in the first four chapters is the backdrop of the fifth and final chapter on the ethics of terrorism. Steinhoff notes that terrorism is a term used to describe the acts of others rather than one’s own actions. He further notes that the term has a clear negative connotation. Yet, Steinhoff suggests that acts of terrorism – which no one applies to their own deeds, but to acts which Steinhoff admits are committed by those with “a refusal to be bound by such rules of warfare and codes of conduct” (p.110) – can still be justified.

In the end, Steinhoff proposes to define terrorism as “the strategy of influencing the behaviour, perceptions, beliefs or attitudes of others than the immediate victims or targets of its violence” (p.122). Terrorism consists of a series of attacks, and terrorist acts “are such severe attacks on innocents or their property that they are part of such a strategy” (p.122). Justification comes in [*434] the form of narrowing who counts as a non-combatant or an innocent civilian. According to Steinhoff, being a civilian is not sufficient to qualify as an illegitimate target for a rebel group. If you are a voter, you may be considered guilty of the policies your country implements by virtue of your vote. And if a terrorist attack can be viewed as retaliation for policies of your government, then a terrorist attack may be considered self defense, or at least justifiable. As Steinhoff explains, when a state becomes victim to a terrorist attack, “it certainly cannot dismiss out of hand the question of motivation as irrelevant before it claims the right to take a bellicose countermeasure” (p.136).

It should be mentioned that Steinhoff concludes, in the end, by acknowledging what might be understood as the underlying theme of the book, with a stinging critic of American foreign policy. Steinhoff suggests that the US “war on terrorism, waged by state terrorists and with terrorist means, does not have as its object universal values, but rather the attainment of undisputed power” (p.137).

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Amanda DiPaolo.