What Makes a War?


J.L. Wall

J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he teaches writing to college students and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

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11 Responses

  1. Avatar M.A. says:

    I believe this clip is somewhat instructive in demonstrating how the definition of a “war” has been diluted to the point of meaninglessness.Report

  2. Avatar t e whalen says:

    “Here we see force in its grossest and most summary form-the force that kills. How much more varied in its processes, how much more surprising in its effects is the other force, the force that does *not* kill, i.e., that does not kill just yet. It will surely kill, it will possibly kill, or perhaps it merely hangs, poised and ready, over the head of the creature it *can* kill, at any moment, which is to say at every moment. In whatever aspect, it effect is the same: it turns a man into a stone. From its first property (the ability to turn a human being into a thing by the simple method of killing him) flows another, quite prodigious too in its own way, the ability to turn a human being into a thing while he is still alive. He is alive; he has a soul; and yet-he is a thing. An extraordinary entity this-a thing that has a soul. And as for the soul, what an extraordinary house it finds itself in! Who can say what it costs it, moment by moment, to accommodate itself to this residence, how much writhing and bending, folding and pleating are required of it? It was not made to live inside a thing ; if it does so, under pressure of necessity, there is not a single element of its nature to which violence is not done.”

    – Simone Weil, “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force”Report

  3. Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

    One common use of the word “war” in political theory is to refer to the Hobbesian state of nature — the undeclared, universal, lawless war of all against all.

    To the extent that a set of actions in the real world approximate something that might happen in Hobbes’ state of nature, one might find “war” an appropriate word for them. This very definitely stretches the term, because civilized countries engaging in warfare according to the rules of war are not acting in a Hobbesian state of nature; their violence is lawful, and while it may be horrible, it’s not without limits.

    All sides here sort of seem to have a point, so it does seem a case where a new term is called for.Report

  4. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    “War” is something that justifies you getting as angry about it as you possibly can, which is good, because it’s fun to get as angry about things as you possibly can. It also justifies refusing to treat the people who disagree with you as anything but a caricature, which is also good, because when you start trying to feel empathetic to the people who disagree with you it’s hard to get as angry as you possibly can at them.Report

    • Avatar Chad says:

      If your argument is that Coates calls slavery a war in order to caricature his “opponents” then you probably don’t read Coates.Report

      • Avatar M.A. says:

        I think Coates can fairly describe it as a war because that’s what the other side tended to describe it as and act as.

        Look at the actions of white supremacist organizations, patterns of guerrilla warfare in most of their political activities. Post-Civil War, you’ve got a definite current of dead-enders who expressly insisted that the “war of northern aggression” was not over and some of that sentiment persists to this day. In days of Jim Crow and civil rights and suffrage movement, treating anyone not part of the local establishment as an invader was common.

        In the context of right wing radio that I’ve been observing, the meme that “liberals are at war with america” is often quoted. I suppose in that context, the dehumanization and caricature of those who disagree with the organized talk show hosts and organized talking points that pervade the radio shows could by your definition be labeled a war, though it’s important to observe that not once have I heard someone from the left insist that they are actually at war with the right wing, while many times I have heard sentiment from the right wing that the coming election is “a war to take [their] country back from the liberals.”

        Is a war only acknowledged by one side still a war?Report

      • Avatar James K says:

        Having said that, I think DD’s characterisation is accurate for most uses of the phrases “The War On …”Report

  5. Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto says:

    On some level I think the Clausewitzian definition of war actually too cleanly separated the distinction between military conflicts and other uses of violence. Most of us with some training in western history will tend to view things in a context where war is a definable, finite conflict with known objectives and state actors fighting one another.

    Slavery by the definitions we have of that, definitely wasn’t a “war”. But if we look at organized violence and the use of state coercive power toward an end, I think it’s allowable to call it a war. That there were elements of warfare involved as well makes things even more complicated.Report

    • Avatar Jeff Wong says:

      I’ve been reading “The Utility of Force” by Rupert Smith. His definition is close to this one, but he also includes non-state actors. Even if they don’t “have” a state, a war can be any concerted use of force against non-state actors or other people to change their behavior. I think it still fits the Clausewitz “politics by other means” definition while acknowledging non-states.

      Terrorism and counter-terrorism can be considered war. The current Afghan war still fits this framework but it strains being definable. I would say it is definable because we can imagine a status of affairs which would be nice to achieve, but it may be no more achievable than a Germany stretching all the way to the Memel. It’s sort of finite because we know it has to end someday.

      Plain old repression isn’t war. I think TNC is using the definition of war as “something bad to inflict upon people”. Slavery wasn’t intended to influence the behavior of slaves because the slaves were already subdued. It was already the status quo.

      The Holocaust could be fairly considered a “war”. Hitler wanted the Jews to change their behavior of being alive or living in Europe.Report

  6. Avatar Will Truman says:

    My general rule is:

    If it involves violence and dispute over territory, governance, and/or resources it is a war. I may be missing something here, but along these lines.

    As rhetoric, I don’t have any objection to something being called a war if it involves the attempt to actually eliminate something. Drugs, terror, cancer… along those lines. If the goal is to get rid of it, I’m not going to make a fuss about calling it war.

    Beyond that, I tend to prefer that other words be use.

    Slavery is an interesting case. Because it did involve guns and looking at the slaves not as people, but as resources.Report

  7. Avatar CK MacLeod says:

    What “war” has in common in each of these contexts, from trivially war-like to obviously satisfying any common sense use of the word, is suspension of “business as usual,” in the broadest sense invocation of the “state of exception” that has been carefully examined by Giorgio Agamben and Paul W Kahn, in parallel critiques of the thinking of Carl Schmitt. There’s a moment of the state of exception even in trivializing uses like “war against illiteracy,” and also a peculiar appropriateness, since the objective of such a war would be to bring illiterates more fully into the normalized liberal democratic society, enabling them to inform themselves and therefore responsibly engage with written laws. Invocation of the word war also evokes nostalgia for “war socialism,” when customary, in democratic-capitalism foundational, impediments to organized collective action are swept away according to some perception of necessity or emergency.

    The relation to slavery, as well as to the eventual “real war” that allowed for its end, has the same structure as the “war on illiteracy” and the “war on drugs,” which isn’t to say that illiteracy and drug addiction are the same as slavery, but to note that illiterates, severe drug addicts, and slaves are all individuals whose participation in civil society is compromised if not prevented. That’s also true for soldiers who are, to say the least, critical figures: They sacrifice some or all of their free autonomy, up to and including their lives, on behalf of the society of free autonomy. So, in the modern context, “war” as undertaken by nation-states involves the temporary suspension of the norms of civil society on behalf of civil society. Thus in our own Revolution, we have soldiers “alienating” their own and others’ rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness on behalf of the inalienability of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

    Ran across a quote just this morning that sums this up in part, from Kahn’s SACRED VIOLENCE:

    Once war begins, the judge is no longer the symbol of legitimacy. He is displaced by the soldier, as the Constitution is displaced by the flag.