Divisions within the ranks? The just war tradition and the use and abuse of history.

Author:O'Driscoll, Clan

Plato wrote in the Republic that quarrels between fellow countrymen are wont to be more virulent and nasty than those between external enemies. (1) Sigmund Freud (and latterly Michael Ignatieff and Toni Erskine) have similarly cautioned of the malice and excess that can attend conflicts that are fuelled not by antithetical oppositions, but by the "narcissism of minor difference." (2) Bearing these warnings in mind, scholars of the ethics of war would be well advised to consider the implications of James Turner Johnson's acute observation in his contribution to this special section of Ethics & International Affairs that their field of study is currently beset not so much by external opposition as by divisions within the ranks. The principal antagonism within the field, at least as I understand it, is the rift that has emerged between what I shall call historical and analytical approaches to the subject. Laying my cards on the table, the work that I have done in the past connects more clearly with the former than the latter. However, it has struck me, as it must have struck others, that the historical approach has in recent years come to assume a rather scuffed and unfashionable, even outre, appearance. It has been the subject of numerous curt dismissals, but has also, more interestingly, been tarnished by a few powerful critiques. This article will elucidate four of the most hard-hitting charges levied at the historical approach, and evaluate its continuing utility in light of them. The question then is: Have the critics of this approach landed it a knock-out blow, or can the historical approach withstand the bricks and bats that have been hurled its way?

Readers of Ethics & International Affairs will require little explanation for why this question is important. The ethics of war is enjoying a rich moment in the sun, with a wealth of interesting work currently being undertaken within its rubric. Yet this field--I will call it our field--is arguably more divided than ever, with scholars of the historical and analytical approaches hardly engaging with one another. The result is that we seem to be faced with a fork in the way, where one path leads skywards toward abstract forms of theorizing, and the other doubles back over the pockmarked terrain of history. It is a propitious time, then, to ask whether that latter path is still viable. But of course this inquiry does not just relate narrowly to academic turf wars; it challenges us to reflect on a deeper level about the very fundaments of what it actually means to think ethically about war. At stake, then, is the simple but perplexing question of how we should engage our subject.

In an effort to match the scope of this inquiry, this article will proceed via three principal steps. The first section will offer a primer on the historical approach and canvass some of the general opposition toward it. The second section will elaborate what appears to this participant-observer as the four most challenging critiques directed at the historical approach. Turning to the flip side of the argument, the third section will consider the possible ripostes and counters to these critiques, and offer a judgment on the preceding exchange. It will contend that while the historical approach has much to commend it, it is hampered by serious defects. Finally, I conclude by suggesting that these problems may, rather ironically, be resolved not by turning away from history but by embracing it all the more wholeheartedly. Viewed as a whole, then, this article is probably best understood not (following Michael Walzer) as "a moral argument with historical illustrations" but as a methodological argument for historical illustrations. (3)

The Use of History: The Historical Approach to Just War Tradition

One of the hallmarks of modernity, Stephen Toulmin tells us, is its rather frosty relationship to history, understood as the study of the past. Ever since Rene Descartes compared historical inquiry to foreign travel, quipping that both broaden the mind but neither deepens it, a queue of notables has formed to rubbish the idea that the study of the past may be a worthwhile endeavor in the present. (4) "History is more or less bunk," Henry Ford told the Chicago Tribune in 1916. "We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker's dam is the history we make today." More recently, Tony Blair articulated similar sentiments during his prime ministerial tenure. "There has never been a time," he proposed in 2003, "when, except in the most general sense, a study of history provides so little instruction for our present day." (5) Such skepticism is particularly acute when it comes to war. As armies the world over habitually prepare for the previous rather than the next battle, historical inquiry is easily derided, not just as a useless indulgence but also as a dangerous distraction.

This historical skepticism penetrates sufficiently deep that it troubles mainstream accounts of the ethics of war. Its influence is apparent in Walzer's Just and Unjust Wars, wherein he declares that his interest lies "not with the making of the moral world but with its present character." (6) This formulation--latterly taken up by scholars associated with the analytical or Anglo-American approach to the ethics of war--conveys both a reluctance to delve into the historical development of the just war tradition and a preference for a more analytical treatment of the principles that it bestows upon us today. Jeff McMahan, for example, is explicit on this point. He is skeptical of the historical tradition, variously deriding it as a form of received wisdom or unquestioned orthodoxy, and dismissing its tenets as "obviously absurd." (7) Uwe Steinhoff adopts a similar position. (8) And while Helen Frowe is less combative, she too gives short shrift to the historical tradition. As she explains in the introduction to The Ethics of War and Peace, her interest lies not in the past but in philosophy and ethics. (9) Other scholars have not been quite so forthright about their aversion to the historical tradition, but it is nonetheless conspicuous by its absence in their writing. In its place, these scholars practice a form of philosophical theorizing that values logical coherence and rigor at the expense of practical application, emphasizes individual morality ahead of the requirements of good government, and prescribes the use of right reason to both extrapolate ethical rules from first principles and apply them to real-world cases.

However, these theorists do not reject the value of history, per se. Many of them draw extensively upon case studies ("illustrations," in Walzer's idiom) of historical battles and wars to support their analyses. Rather, what these theorists object to is what they perceive as excessive deference to the authority of tradition, where tradition is understood as a very particular historical canon of thought on the ethics of war--classic just war doctrine. Their objection, then, is in some senses a very Protestant one: they display antipathy to received practice and belief, and repudiate the idea that ethical analysis of war must, if it is to be valid, be developed exclusively via the historical tradition.

Although the analytical approach to the ethics of war is appealing in its own right, aspects of its rejection of historical tradition raise certain doubts. Foremost among these is the question of whether one really can, as Walzer proposes, divorce just war past from just war present, and study "practical morality" as if it were "detached from its foundations." (10) Unconvinced, a significant but often overlooked group of just war theorists have contested this historical skepticism. Rejecting the analytical approach, they assert the fundamentally historical character of ethical inquiry into war. According to this perspective, the best way to acquire a deep understanding of the ethical categories invoked in relation to war is to study their formation and usage over time. By revealing the historical range and content of these categories, this form of inquiry both attunes us to their particularities and equips us to adapt them to contemporary circumstances.

Four Themes of the Historical Approach

The finer points of this approach are probably best introduced in relation to the major thematic commitments that underpin it. These commitments have been best articulated by James Turner Johnson and John Kelsay, but others, such as Gregory Reichberg, Alia Brahimi, Joseph Boyle, Nicholas Rengger, Alex Bellamy, and Mark Totten, have also made rich contributions to this literature. The first theme is the idea that the history of the just war tradition is worth studying because it gathers together the learning of previous generations and provides guidance for moral decision-making today. According to this perspective, the evolution of the tradition over time reveals a robust but adaptive framework that can be profitably extended to contemporary issues. In Johnson's words, it represents "a fund of practical moral wisdom, based not in abstract speculation or theorization, but in reflection on actual problems encountered in war as these have presented themselves in different historical circumstances." (11) By this reasoning, only a fool would neglect such a body of learning--a corpus that both Johnson and Kelsay describe as a storehouse of communal wisdom--when confronted by ethical dilemmas pertaining to modern war. (12) This, then, is a Burkean view that supposes that attention to historical experience, embodied in tradition, offers the best tutor for the practice of both warfare and moral reflection.

The second theme builds on the first by stressing the contextual quality of all moral rules, including those relating to war. Kelsay puts it succinctly when he states that the rules governing the use of force are the products of particular communities at particular...

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