Too many pundits, politicians, and priests nowadays treat war as a relic of a barbaric past. President Obama speaks for many when he denounces ISIS and other terrorist groups by invoking the date on the calendar. Nevertheless, he has found himself re-entering a war in the Middle East that he first opposed and then claimed to have won, appearing more interested in the short-term need to be seen “doing something” than in pursuing and articulating a coherent strategy for victory.
Such ambivalence about war is very much the spirit of the age in the industrialized West. But militants such as ISIS care not a wit what year it is. Now as much as ever we need clear thinking on the nature and proper conduct of war, ideally in an accessible form.
Happily, J.R.R. Tolkien offers a rich and extended meditation on the Just War tradition in his novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, an exploration the Peter Jackson movie adaptations hint at but hardly exhaust.
The Just War tradition has its roots in the great minds of Christendom, from Augustine to Aquinas. Given Tolkien’s background, we should not be surprised to find him in sympathy with it. He was a world-renowned Oxford scholar of medieval languages and literature, an orthodox Catholic, a combat veteran of World War I and a thorough conservative. The Just War tradition was very much his tradition.