Sunday, February 27, 2011

Arguing About War - Michael Walzer

There is no epigraph for this post. All the chapters of Arguing about War follow a logic that requires that any quotation be put into context. Extracting a sentence out of the blue would demerit this book.

One of the consequences of postmodernism is that the pretension of objectivity is gone. In this cynical age, pretending to be objective is considered a sign of pretentiousness or folly. The corollary is that intellectuals now struggle to be perceived as “engaged” enough. Engaged intellectuals play a role in society, I guess, but they are not useful educating the public; they tell us what to think, but not how to think. Nietzsche is good to be convinced that god is dead, but Spinoza is better to know what the implications of god’s life and death are.

One could argue that it is not possible to argue in favor of a cause and show an equilibrated perspective of all the sides involved in a debate at the same time. In Arguing about War, however, Michael Walzer makes clear that, as long as the author is clear and honest about the caveats and the limitations of his point of view, he can help his reader to develop his own thinking.

In 1977, Michael Walzer wrote a book called Just and Unjust Wars, which became the cornerstone of humanitarian interventions. Just and Unjust Wars used to be the second text that the students of the democratic peace theory read –the first was obviously Kant’s Perpetual Peace. Barack Obama’s speech when receiving the Nobel Prize (probably his best public intervention since he is President) is basically a condensed version of Walzer arguments.

Arguing about War is not only an update of Walzer’s first book on war, but also an introduction to the philosophy of war. The book is divided in three parts. The first one introduces the theory of just war, in particular as far as terrorism and humanitarian intervention are concerned. The second one presents five case studies (oh, Anglo-Saxon academy!) analyzed under the prism of the just war theory: the Gulf Wars of 1991 and 2003, the First Intifada, the War on Terror after 9/11, Kosovo, and a general perspective of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The final part deals with the issue of global governance.

I would like to conclude this post by picking up Walzer’s remarks on Kant’s theory that liberal democracies do not go to war. (This used to be Kant’s original proposal, and modern political theorists have amended the dictum saying that democracies do not go to war against each other). Walzer argues that technology offers the possibility of fighting wars without sacrificing human powers. Therefore, the linkage that Kant viewed so clearly between citizens refusing to go to war is lost. Walzer is right, but he did not include the fact that democracies now hire mercenaries to fight their wars, partly because mercenaries have become common only recently. Obviously, Kant was thinking of societies with a compulsory military service, which was the norm until the Vietnam War. I guess that the twist to Kant’s theory is: “democracies do not go to war if they are willing to commit their soldiers’ lives and if they have a compulsory military service”.

Here is a video of Walzer presenting his theories about war in the context of Iraq and Afghanistan.

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