Walzer, Michael — Moral Reality of War

Walzer, Michael. “Moral Reality of War.” Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations. New York: Basic Books, 2006. Print.

This first section of Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars includes two prefaces written years apart.  Through these, Walzer notes a disheartening lack of evolution in the state of aggression.  “The world is no less violent,” since he first wrote his book in 1977.  Since then, the “language of just war theory” has developed through its manipulation by “legitimate and illegitimate rulers alike.”

In the first part of Just and Unjust Wars, Walzer describes the way anger and violence are shaped by the words made available by previous generations of men and women and, while it would be ideal that we have no need for this vocabulary, we must appreciate that we have it at our disposal.  “Without this vocabulary,” he writes, “we could not have thought about the Vietnam War as we did, let alone have communicated our thoughts to other people.”

The language we use to talk passionately of love and war, two ever-connected concepts, contains more moral meaning than maybe any other language, which Walzer believes could only have developed over centuries of argument: “Faithfulness, devotion, chastity, shame, adultery, seduction, betrayal; aggression, self-defense, appeasement, cruelty, ruthlessness, atrocity, massacre – all these words are judgments, and judging is as common a human activity as loving or fighting.”

Strategy is the other language of war: entrapment, retreat, flanking maneuver, concentration of forces.  According to Walzer, “Strategy, like morality, is a language of justification,” used by those officials who must turn these words into violent actions without which we would have no “coherent” way to discuss war.

Walzer provides examples of the language of war from completely different time periods and cultures.  Karl von Clausewitz described war as the escalation of “reciprocal action.”  Thucydides and Thomas Hobbes believe it to be “a necessity of nature.”  John Ruskin conceptualized war as “that in which the natural restlessness and love of contest are disciplined, by consent, into modes of beautiful – though it may be fatal – play.”

Walzer contends that the rules of engagement now include a rhetorically manipulated ban on war.  As an example, Walzer points out that the United Nations does not use the word “war,” only “aggression,” “self-defense,” and “international employment.”  Walzer leaves no doubt that words cause war and continuously fuel it.  He writes that “Harsh words are the immediate sanctions of the war convention, sometimes accompanied or followed by military attacks, economic blockades, reprisals […] and, finally, it is the words that are decisive – the ‘judgment of history.’”

The range of historical evidence Walzer employs to support his concept of rhetorically controlled violence solidifies its validity.  That being said, he surely has only brushed the surface, especially if his theory is that this vocabulary has developed over generations of evolution on the tongues of our ancestors. If the words we use to describe violence were made available by the generations before us, where and when did they actually originate?  In order to change these terms must we first understand more about how they originated and developed?

The words at our disposal to describe acts of violence must be analyzed and understood.  They were left by previous generations and, without them, we would have no way to communicate our thoughts to other people. But to whom must these violent concepts be communicated?  Those involved in combat already understand.  Does Walzer mean this language benefits those living in blissful ignorance of war?  How does strategic vocabulary such as “flanking maneuver” and “concentration of forces” work in this regard, for instance?

Walzer is obviously in support of changing the direction of development of the rhetoric of violene.  He believes young men face “the Grim Reaper in uniform, armed with a sword instead of a scythe.”  They are led to this point by words — words chosen to describe the violence we need to be protected from, words that encourage the same kinds of violence upon others.

– Libby Howe

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