American Snipers and Just War Theory

Discussion of Michael Moore’s recent tweet questioning the bravery and honor of snipers following the success of the film American Sniper has filled headlines. While many have sought to rebut the accusation of cowardice, as Matt Victoriano recently did here in Cicero, the wider discussion has largely left out the consideration of “Just War,” as well as the morals and virtue of those expected to kill on behalf of our common good. Though I doubt these deeper issues are what Moore had in mind, moral questioning and obligation in war should always be a subject open for discussion, and those who have been to war are best placed to lead it.

Modern war is now about efficiency, which means war is reduced to merely a zero-sum game. In other words, the winners are those who remain standing the longest. This instinct to think of war as primarily a strategic endeavor robs it of its moral substance and makes it an industrial product to be improved, streamlined, and ethically sterile. Such a framework denies the long tradition called Just War, which moral philosophers and theologians stretching back two millennia have advanced in order to restrain our instinct to resort to violence to solve our differences. It is not strategy itself that is a problem, however; Victoriano’s reflections about killing a thousand insurgents by creating five friends is indeed itself a highly strategic consideration. My concern is that we give terrorist ideologiesboth American and Arab alikefree reign in war if we neglect talk of the virtues of prudential restraint and personal honor as integral to discussions of battle.

An honest person must grapple with their potential culpability in evil and make reparation if called for. If there are just wars, then there are also unjust wars.

Robert Emmet Meagher’s recent book, Killing From the Inside Out, gives a startlingly tragic biography of the just war tradition, citing repeated efforts at restraining war undermined in favor of winning for winnings sake. Hugo Grotius framed war in legal terms in the midst of the 17th centurys liberal enlightenment, because of a “lack of restraint in relation to war: such as even barbarous races would be ashamed of.” Nations pursued war with such fervor that they became the very “savages” they sought to snuff out. Lt. Col. Douglas Pryer has also written in Cicero of the concept of “moral injury” among soldiers—American or otherwise—in history and during the recent Global War on Terror. The morality of our violence is of utmost importance if we are to keep from becoming the evil we wish to extinguish. If survival is our primary goal, on the other hand, we can leverage any and every evil to justify our existence.

That being said, Victoriano’s story of teaching a potential combatant a lesson is powerful and moving. But I did not see what it had to do with his specific role as a sniper (it could have been something one of my infantry company team leaders did as well). In moral terms, snipers are part of a martial category that uses surprise and distance. It is part of their specialty. From Michael Walzer to Hugo Grotius to Saint Augustinewho revived Cicero from certain literary death in the fourth centuryfor war to be moral it must be something like a social contract in which combatants expose themselves openly on the field of battle to equal chance of being killed or injured.

Snipers, insofar as they primarily engage in pulling a trigger from several kilometers away from cover and concealment, are of a kind with submarines, high altitude bombers, drones, and long-range artillery. As a former artilleryman, I too am indicted on this count of potential cowardice. In fact, it is precisely the reason I endeavor within the academic realm to understand war and those who fight therein in order to answer the question: Are we good people? I hope so. But an honest appraisal might prove otherwise. An honest person must grapple with their potential culpability in evil and make reparation if called for. If there are just wars, then there are also unjust wars. And it is up to us to think through the implications of our moral proximity to the necessary evils that our society occasionally calls on us. That is a duty that applies to all, not just American snipers.

I doubt Michael Moore had any of these larger thoughts in mind when he blasted out his tweet about American Sniper. But as bearers of the military tradition, all members of the martial fraternity and I have a responsibility to bear witness to the complexity of war and to the seeming paradox that there is both evil and beauty in war. It requires careful rhetorical surgery to excise the bad from the good. But there are no better people to attempt it than those touched personally by the hellish flames of combat.


[Photo: Flickr CC: USMC Archives]

Logan Isaac is a combat veteran turned Christian pacifist who has published two books and numerous articles as Logan Mehl-Laituri. He is an aspiring scholar in the fields of political theology and ethics, seeking to bridge the gap between martial and pacifist perspectives. He is a candidate for a Master of Letters in Systematic and Historical Theology at St. Andrews in Scotland, where he currently resides.


  1. Cato III 28 January, 2015 at 15:16 Reply

    My understanding of just war is based on jus ad bellum and jus in bello and I don’t remember either stipulating that combatants had to expose themselves openly on the battlefield. Under these two bodies of theory/law, just wars are made such by their (rightful) motivations and the way (measured) force is applied. While it is difficult, at times, to determine the legitimate specifics of these parameters, the use of snipers don’t seem to violate either of these tenets as far as I can tell.

  2. Rev. Bob Roth, Wesley Foundation at the University of Michigan 28 January, 2015 at 21:04 Reply

    As always, Logan, your essay is thoughtful, substantive, and coherent. And also as always, I learn from you. I only want to question your statements at the beginning and at the end about Michael Moore, opening that you doubt he “had deeper issues in mind” and in closing comments saying you doubt “that he had any of these larger thoughts in mind.” If you knew Michael, you would be surprised. Spending significant time over the years watching all of his movies and many of his TV shows, and reading most of his books and early newspaper and magazine articles, I can attest to the fact that Michael indeed has the deeper issues and larger thoughts about war & peace in mind~~~all of the time. I have also been blessed to have a couple of indepth conversations with Michael over the years and he is deeper and more thoughtful on issues of war, violence, peace, and non-violence than you have so far concluded. In the development of his thinking and his personhood, Catholic social teachings played a big role, which he has been quick to mention over they years. Michael Moore has a brash working-class writing and speaking style~~~consistent with his roots~~~and has never claimed to speak from the perspective of academia. While possible that Michael has not read some of the same philosophers that you have ready, Christian theology and praxis concerning these issues are deeply formative for Michael. (See the film “Capitalism, a Love Story.”) Remembering he has never chosen to be an academic, I hope you give him another try. Or perhaps, the benefit of the doubt.

  3. Dave Hollar 29 January, 2015 at 11:01 Reply

    Very well stated. As an infantry lieutenant in the US army in South Vietnam I know the difference between being a couple kilometers from the enemy and having him 20 feet from me.

    We might think that in such close encounters the soldier will exhibit bravery rather than cowardice. Both will occur.

    I am thinking that acts of bravery in such cases includes the element of What Else Can One Do? Each time I was in such a predicament I acted on the desire of self-preservation.

    After a major battle on October 2, 1969 a memorial ceremony was held at our base camp. The battalion commander referee to the three men who had died as “Brave Soldiers..”

    I would have said “Brave Soldiers For Bravery Was Thrust Upon Them.”

    • Roget Lockard 2 February, 2015 at 18:03 Reply

      Came across this site via Garett Reppenhagen, who I just discovered. I deeply appreciate the evidence of reason and civility joined with passionate inquiry, in both the essay and the commentary.

      In a paper I wrote back in the mid-80s, I observed: “I envision soldiers and alcoholics as finding themselves, by historical and circumstantial coincidence, at critical points of nexus where the contradictions of our addictive epistemology converge most poignantly. This is, intrinsically, neither noble nor ignoble — it just is. Similarly, the “facts” of power and technology just “are.” I do not take issue with either: power is just another word for energy — the ability to effect change; technology simply refers to the complex of instruments and procedures through which energy is channeled.

      “I am not even addressing the thrust of purpose in this discussion. Certainly I have my own opinions about which purposes are more worthy and which less, but what I am discussing is the nature of the will which is attached to purpose; this is more fundamental. A succinct formulation of this consideration is: surrender control; accept responsibility. It is my sense of things that a soldier who realizes these principles will be in essential harmony with the earth, and conversely, that a Peace Corps worker who is entrapped in the control epistemology will be a toxic presence within the earth’s consciousness.

      “During the Vietnam era we tended to portray ourselves as either Doves or Hawks; these characterizations suggest that we considered the intentions of one bird to be more “correct” than those of the other. What we have to learn from doves and hawks is not, however, whether one should hunt mice or carry olive branches, but how one can be in the world in such a way that every effort affirms our intimate association with the larger life in which we are participants. Animals do this with absolute grace because it is unconscious; it is our challenge and our opportunity to learn how to choose this way of being in the world.”

      For this complete paper (“Self-Will Run Riot: The Earth as an Alcoholic”) and other writings along these lines, see the “Other Writings” section of my website. For an elaboration of the key concepts see the “Overview” section; and for a trenchant application of these ideas to to the crisis states of our species, see the Prologue of the unfinished book, “Beginning With Fire” here — http://www.rogetlockard.com/bwf/prologue.php

      (I hope it’s not terminally immodest to apply the term “trenchant” to one’s own work, but that is certainly what I am striving for.)

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