“The tyranny of war is often described as though war itself were the tyrant, a natural force like flood or famine or, personified, a brutal giant stalking his human prey”
“For as long as men have talked about war, they have talked about it in terms of right and wrong.” So begins Michael Walzer’s exploration of the role of ethics, morality and rules in conflict, Just and Unjust Wars. Through the greater portion of history, he continues, men have derided such talk. War being perceived as a realm of necessity and duress, its true character escapes the reach of regular considerations of ethicality or legality. “Inter arma silent leges: in the time of war the law is silent” (Walzer, 1977, p. 3).
The Athenian generals Cleomedes and Tesias, in whose name a great many violences have been claimed anodyne, spoke thus of the sacking of Melos: “[We] have done nothing… contrary to ordinary human behaviour, if we not only accepted an empire when it was offered but also did not let it go, submitting to the great forces of prestige, fear and self-interest –[…] since the rule has always existed that the weak is held down by the stronger” (Lattimore, 1998, p. 37). From Hobbes to Clausewitz and from Morgenthau to Waltz, it is possible to trace the prevalence of this impression throughout the intellectual lineage of mainstream International Relations.
The locus classicus of realist IR, the Melian Dialogues, is frequently still a core component of undergraduate and taught masters programmes in IR and security. And, whilst the text and its arguments may be problematised (to a varying degree, depending on the critical bent of the academic leading the course), the poetic tragedy of a brutal, lamentable, but ultimately inescapable, recourse to violence and bloodshed remains persistent in its grasp of the imagination. We seem – as a discipline – to find something compelling in this particular narrative.
The naturalisation of this narrative – the historical common sense that war is both inevitable when declared and ungovernable when conducted – is arguably one of the great tragedies of International Relations. There is, however, scarce value in such abstract observations unless they can, in some way, equip us with a distinct ontology upon which to pursue further study and understanding. As such I argue that the crucial task for critical scholars of security and, particularly of political violence, is less that of exposing the tragedy of war per se, but rather, with offering new modes of problematizing the hegemony of its representation.
There are, of course, numerous ways of taking up this task. In the past, I have written about the problems and inadequacy of security studies’ almost universally non-critical and generally unconscious anthropology. The unthinking transposition of Hobbesian man in the state of nature onto the state in the international is rarely reflected upon and justification that goes beyond the circular is almost non-existent. It seems an uncontroversial critique to say that we should be demanding better of ourselves. Indeed, Thucydides himself argued that, in the final telling, war is best defined as “the human thing” – yet some two thousand years later, most of those concerned with its study are remarkably unconvincing in their descriptions of what that might mean.
Most of my own work is concerned with understanding the development and use of novel advanced technologies in war, and whilst classical texts and ruminations of the existence or character of human nature may seem a peculiar place to dwell in this pursuit, I’d argue that these debates are worthy of far more sustained attention. Much has been written on how the scope of current innovation in military technology promises to transform the way wars are fought and won. But rather little has been offered on how these technologies – autonomisation, artificial intelligence, cybernetics and human augmentation, neurally embedded digital networking, biotechnology, biomimetics and digital algorithmic decision-making – may transform the relationship between humanity and violence and, indeed, the fundamental nature of humanity itself.
Narratives of war often serve a curiously dual purpose. In speaking of how war is inevitable and its cruelty unavoidable, we accomplish two things: Firstly, we absolve ourselves of responsibility and of blame; and secondly, we perpetuate the correctness of our own assertion. That is to say, if war is inevitable, we can scarcely be held to blame for its conduct, and in going to war on this premise, we are able to (blamelessly) prove ourselves right.
Reflecting on this for a moment, I’m reminded of Hannah Arendt’s concept of Infallible Prediction. Arendt deploys this idea in order to explain how (totalitarian) leaders have the power to create certain realities. She argues that their predictions are in fact statements of intent. By phrasing intentions as predictions, they can hide from blame. That “war is hell”, then, can be understood less as a description and more as a modus operandi.
This stakes in this debate should not be mistaken for toying with semantics or ivory tower theorising. In problematising core aspects of our discipline in this way, we are able to put the human – and consequently the political and the ethical – back in centre stage in a far more productive, critical fashion. Necessity becomes contingency, objective becomes subjective and inevitable becomes chosen. Questioning the taken for granted and common sense realms of security creates the space for students to interrogate the political acts that are belied by the notion of necessity and duress.
I believe, in line with Steve Smith, that there is a ‘danger of seriously underestimating the capacities of this discipline to turn the outrageous into the normal’ and that critical engagement with these unchallenged ontologies is necessary, lest critical security studies risks “singing into existence” the very world it aspires to understand.
A brief, closing thought:
I’ve become increasingly troubled by the monsters that are written into the study of political violence. That which cannot be incorporated neatly into theory and order is often excluded, and “left outside” in the realm of chaos and unknowability. This, in some ways, can be seen as a mirroring of the quest for knowledge and control in the applied counterpart to academic IR and security. A full discussion of my thoughts here is best left as a task for another entry, but here I want to reflect briefly on the presence of these monsters in our rationale and justifications of war.
As Walzer describes in the quotation that opens this piece, “the tyranny of war is often described as though war itself were the tyrant, a natural force like flood or famine or, personified, a brutal giant stalking his human prey.” Thomas Sackville offers the following poetic description of war:
“Lastly stood War, in glittering arms y-clad,
With visage grim, stern looks, and blackly hued;
In his right hand a naked sword he had
That to the hilts was all with blood embrued,
And in his left (that kings and kingdoms rued)
Famine and fire he held, and therewithal
He razed towns, and threw down towers and all.”
When I think on this tendency – which can be equally well observed in the speeches and statements of generals and politics throughout the ages – It gives me pause to consider the very real nature of what I (of what we) are attempting to do in my (our) work.
Whether in long-form written analysis, seminar presentation, industry consultation or, indeed, casual conversation, the central purpose of much of my work is in understanding the hows and whys of the act of war. I want to understand what is happening, and why its happening, and crucially, how that might change in light of technological and social transformations. I want to do this in the hopes that better understanding may beget better outcomes – less war, less death, more peace and more justice.
It seems to me that characterising warfare as a latent, unstoppable force (whether cynically or as common sense) is only likely to be an impediment to such an understanding.
I close with the words of Yasin Bey – whose wisdom on Hip-Hop could well be applied to War:
People talk about Hip-Hop like it’s some giant livin in the hillside
Comin down to visit the townspeople
We are Hip-Hop
Me, you, everybody, we are Hip-Hop
So Hip-Hop is going where we going
So the next time you ask yourself where Hip-Hop is going
Ask yourself: where am I going? How am I doing?
’til you get a clear idea