Allison Jarboe, Arts Editor
Leaving a bitter taste on the tongue upon its utterance, casting a shadow on the mind upon its contemplation, it is something historians have had to utter and contemplate for millennia.
The question, “what is just war?” often arises from attempting to interpret wars in the past. In his book, “A More Civil War,” Dr. D. H. Dilbeck, professor of history at OBU, examines how Americans living during the Civil War tried to answer this question.
“I’m coming at that question as a historian,” Dilbeck said. “Instead of definitively trying to answer what a just war is, and passing a final judgment on people of the past, I wanted to take them on their own terms. How did they define what a just war was? And did they live up to their best definitions?”
Dilbeck’s novel follows the experiences and work of a man named Francis (or Franz) Lieber, the author of the Lieber Code during the Civil War.
“Leiber was responsible for writing the most important code of military conduct: a set of rules union soldiers were supposed to follow to wage a just war,” Dilbeck explained.
“He’s an expert in this field. So what I’ve found important, tragic, is that even while he is a scholar approaching this question of justice in an intellectual way, at the very same time, he has three sons fighting on different sides of this war,” Dilbeck continued.
“One of them dies. Another loses an arm. In fact, he begins work on this code of conduct just weeks after his son dies. I think it’s important because it provides a very moving dimension.”
Although this story characterizes the sense of urgency and emotional heaviness surrounding questions of war and morality, the stakes weren’t only high for Lieber.
“The matter of what is a just war, or how to wage a just war, is a life or death question,” Dilbeck stated. “Lives hang in the balance.”
Dilbeck explained the book’s genesis, and described his pursuits as a published author as a recent endeavor.
“It started as my doctoral dissertation at the university of Virginia,” Dilbeck said. “Afterwards, I spent time refining it, and getting it ready for publication. I didn’t always want to write a book. Not any earlier than graduate school, and I suppose I’ve come late to it in that sense.”
Dilbeck hoped his book would be informative for the scholarly community with which he is most familiar.
“I was mostly writing for fellow historians–Civil War historians,” Dilbeck said.
“A lot of civil war historians lately have emphasized grim, terrible aspects of the war—and there were a lot of those,” he explained. “In part, what I wanted to show in this book was that, no—in fact, many of the people living through this war gave thought to these important moral questions on how to wage a just war.”
“A More Civil War” investigates the moral efforts being put forth to establish ethical methods to wage war.
“They tried to come up with good answers. And their answers made, at the end, a positive difference on how the war was waged, curtailing the destruction and death.”
The application of these moral debates and their conclusions surround warfare today and standards of contemporary thought regarding war.
“I think it is true that a lot of our modern international rules of warfare that we still have and live with today—the Geneva conventions, and others—came out in part from the civil war,” Dilbeck said.
“Although now we have things like drones, and military capabilities that they could never have imagined, the underlying moral problems remain the same.What is a just war? What are things we should never do in a war? Why shouldn’t we do them? What does it take to wage some kind of moral war?”
If war brings about justice, is it inherently just? What makes a just war?
Historians have delved into the shadow of war in order to assess these questions, tasting their bitterness, in part to bring about greater contemplation for the future.
“A More Civil War” was released on October 24 and is available for purchase at popular booksellers, as well as on Amazon.com.