Blogs > HNN > Michael True: Review of Michael Walzer's Arguing About War (Yale, 2004)

Dec 6, 2004 10:04 pm

Michael True: Review of Michael Walzer's Arguing About War (Yale, 2004)

Michael True is the author of An Energy Field More Intense Than War: The Nonviolent Tradition and American Literature (1995) and is a member of the International Peace Research Association Foundation.

“The vanquished know the essence of war—death…. They see that it is a state of almost pure sin with its goals of hatred and destruction.” --Chris Hedges

Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars has provided a reference and context for discussions about going to war since it first appeared twenty-five years ago. In Arguing About War, Walzer, Professor of Social Science, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University, returns to and expands these philosophical considerations within the context of recent interventions and wars--the Gulf War, Kosovo, the Intifada, the “four wars” between Israel and Palestine, terrorism, and the present war in Iraq. In general, as he explains in thoughtful and precise language, he finds it easier and easier to override the presumption against intervention. At the same time, he urges a better understanding of how intervention works, including a theory of justice-in-endings that engages actual experience of such interventions. A concluding chapter, “Governing the Globe,” imagines “possible political arrangements of international society” with varying degrees of centralization, while lamenting the low level of participation, compared to what is required to build a global civil society.

Reflecting a knowledge and understanding of classic debating points regarding decisions about war, Walzer rightly emphasizes the importance of the just war theory since Augustine. It is not, as he says, an apology for any war or a renunciation of war itself, but a scrutiny and an immanent critique of it. “Disagreements don’t invalidate a theory; the theory, if it is a good one, makes the disagreements more coherent and comprehensible.”

Although he argues carefully and valiantly against those who maintain that the theory of just war is obsolete, I remain uncertain whether he succeeds in this effort, principally because several issues central to the argument are only briefly mentioned or ignored.

The thrust of the book is sometimes more journalistic than philosophical. Its ethical considerations, for example, seldom venture beyond conventional rhetoric associated with power politics and language, or what he calls “just war argument.” In the first section of the book, he occasionally sounds pretentious—or pompous-- when he resorts to the papal “we.” And I am troubled by his assumption that “politics is a form of peaceful contention, and war is organized violence,” as if politics and war belong to different realms of discourse.

Walzer assumes that his occasional objections to war represent the via media or middle road between pacifism and militarism, and that war is in a sense governable. He does so without engaging thoughtful considerations or refutations of various pacifist positions. Although such concerns may be beyond the scope of his extended essay, they render his arguments regarding the validity of war somewhat hollow.

His belief “that war is still, sometimes, necessary,” the basis of his evaluation, leads one to question the seriousness of his attempt to accurately evaluate it, particularly from the viewpoint of the victims. At one point, he discusses the moral responsibilities of soldiers and commanders to the American people. And although he maintains that “innocence is inviolable,” he says little about the moral responsibilities of soldiers and commanders to victims. On this and other occasions, one feels that his general philosophical stance prevents him from considering important issues that an ethical argument about modern war inevitably imposes. It’s hard to imagine that anyone who experienced the full horror of war would limit him or herself to the few options that Walzer considers.

Without meaning to, Walzer sometimes sounds like those modern Machiavellis that, he says, “practiced being cool and tough-minded, while teaching the princes how to get results though the calculated application of force.” When he says, rightly, that “just war was an argument of the religious center against pacifists, on the one side, and holy warriors, on the other,” he seems to be describing himself. At the same time, one remembers Hannah Arendt’s caution that in choosing the lesser of two evils, one still chooses evil.

At no point does Walzer seriously mention arguments informing, for example, the UN Decade for the Culture of Peace and Nonviolence 2001-10, and defining force not in terms of violence, but of nonviolence, or Gene Sharp’s thoughtful treatises regarding nonviolent civilian defense. Walzer is either unfamiliar with or ignores extensive scholarship, research, and experience evoked by numerous incidents of nonviolent movements around the globe since the 1980s. Although he discusses the implications of sanctions, including those against Iraq, he leaves the impression that there is little middle-ground between doing nothing and going to war--or as he would put it-- between “appeasement” (Europe’s approach to Iraq) or “war” (the U.S. approach).

Wars have long been justified by emphasizing the peculiarities of a given conflict. Again and again, American citizens are told that the present conflict (Vietnam, Granada, Panama, Iraq) is an “extreme emergency,” without careful delineation of why a particular conflict merits that designation. In present American foreign policy ”extreme emergency” is often the principal justification, and carries considerable weight among American intellectuals such as Walzer, who appear less and less likely to risk a truly anti-war position. They address the issue, one might say, under conditions that resemble the embedded journalists in Iraq, who understandably identify with the troops—or in Walzer’s case, the military-industrial-university complex that defines America culture.

Is this criticism unfair, asking more of a book of modest length than it promises? On a topic central to the lives, deaths, and fortunes of so many, one expects more of a writer who has thought long and hard about relevant issues, but perhaps ignored others central to a book entitled “Arguing About War.”

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