“It was the war, the whole bloody war”

I’ve written on this subject before (at considerably more length) but I wanted to offer a couple of reflections on responsibility and the “ethical moment” in war…

I recently rewatched the rather brilliant (and long – oh, so very long) The Cruel Sea. In one of the films most iconic scenes, we witness Captain Lockhart racked with guilt having, he believes, caused the unnecessary deaths of a number of sailors. Finding Lockart in this state,  Ericson tells him:

“No one murdered them. It’s the war, the whole bloody war. We’ve got to do these things and say our prayers at the end.”

The scene is generally seen as depicting a typical mix of tragic stoicism and, perhaps unusually, a consciously anti-war sentiment.

There is something else though – a pathology of absolving of responsibility for violences done in wartime. This idea has been explored throughout the history of IR and War studies, perhaps most thoughtfully by Waltzer in Just and Unjust Wars. 

It strikes me that there is more work to be done on understanding how this logic (or pathology, or common sense – or narrative, even?) of inter arma silent leges and of the brutality of humanity in extremis is responsible for conditioning engagements with autonomy and technological management (yes, management) of killing in war.

This immediately echos some of Foucault’s ideas about dissolved responsibility through governmentality, and in fact, this has been touched on by (among others) Cockburn, Bousquet, Amoore.

Even with a relatively passing consideration, it seems clear that responsibility and the ethical experience of war and violence is being transformed by technoscience – and the notion that a “deliberate” or “pre-assumed” drive towards diminished responsibility is one certainly worth considering further.




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