Monday, February 19, 2007

Sherman's war is hell - just war theory class discussion notes, Feb 20

Sherman's 'War is hell'. I want to begin with Walzer's account of Sherman's famous expression, war is hell. The point here is to tease out multiple meanings and ways in which that phrase can be read to express different senses of the moral reality of war. I will give three readings, starting with a "zero" reading - ie, the context in which Sherman actually spoke.

0. Sherman's war is hell speech. Sherman seems not have to spoken the line famously attributed to him. Instead, speaking many years after the war to an audience of veterans but also younger men and boys in Columbus, Ohio in 1880, he said:

"There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell. You can bear this warning to generations yet to come."

In this context - a post war context which was increasingly infusing the Civil War with a patina of martial glory and romanticizing battle - Sherman here neither justifies atrocities nor justifies war itself. It seems instead, rather, a reminder to veterans not to gloss over the horror of their experiences and to young men not to romanticize war.

On the other hand, it is also evident from Sherman's writings, his letters, and above all his superb Memoirs, that Sherman indeed regarded war as in immutable, entirely natural part of the human landscape. He was in no sense conventionally religious and, as Charles Royster has put it, for Sherman war was a "natural phenomenon, guided by nature's laws, which God had created but which operated with the consistency of mathematics, not by God's 'mere fiat'." Yet he was a firm believer in order, and that history tended toward order - this constituted progress. When humans, for example, willfully "defied the movment of history ... their deviation would inevitably be corrected either by political persuasion or by violence. In the latter case, combat was as natural, as scientifically explicable, as the thunderstorm or the movement of the planets; the ultimate result followed as ineluctably as did effects of the laws of physics."

In that sense, Sherman was profoundly religious, in a special sense, a believer in a telos of the universe in which even human actions had a purpose toward order even if battle itself partook of a disorder that could not be compassed by generals and their plans. "Wars are not all evil," Sherman wrote late in life, "they are part of the grand machinery by which this world is governed." (Charles Royster, The Destructive War.)

That latter sentiment is something quite different from a warning against the glorification of war; it does not glorify war, but it is altogether accepting of it - accepting of it as hell on earth.

1. 'War as hell' as an empirical assertion. One way of reading 'war is hell' is to treat it as an empirical assertion about the nature and experience of war. That is easy enough looking at battle, especially in the Civil War. However, we will also talk about wars, as Walzer notes, where war is not hell - it is a chosen experience, not that different from extreme sports, where the participants are voluntary and it is a conscious effort at self-testing. But those wars are the very, very rare exception - the question is what follows from the empirical observation that war is messy, nasty, brutal, hellish, etc.

The answer most often given is that wars, therefore, should be as short as possible. The most complicated and interesting factual and conseqeuntialist claim is, however, additional to what we've said so far - the claim that it is better to have a short, hellish war that might be a massive explosion of violence and horror, but which is short, than a long war which might be at most moments less violent and horrible but which, over time, is actually worse for the societies involved because of the evils of violent disorder.

There are many versions of this claim. Sun Tzu, for example, wrote of keeping wars short in order not to devastate the peasants who could not survive several years of campaigns without starving. Bertolt Brecht wrote his famous anti-war play, Mother Courage and her Children, against the backdrop of the Thirty Years War, in which the grand irony of the play is that the war itself has become the economic basis of so many people's lives that it's not clear that anyone is interested in peace - echoes of the long-running war in southern Sudan, in which over a twenty year time, international relief aid had become so built into the economy of the region that it had become a reason for continuing to fight.

Or the disasters of failed states, ruled by shifting gangs and clans and warlords - this was the world which Augustine surveyed in which he announced that the obligation of Christian rulers was to provide "ordinary" just order, with an emphasis on the virtues of order, tranquillitis ordinis, rather than dreaming of the eschatological peace of the end of days. One of the fascinating transformations in the current debate over the Iraq war has been the conversion of liberal idealists, previously taken with the idea of "no justice, no peace," coming to the realist view that order, just or not, can be a very good thing. (There is a scene arguing exactly this in the great Hungarian novel The Loser, at the time of the 1956 revolution.) So, goes this assertion, if you are going to have a war, then the best thing is that it be short and sharp, decisive even, because although war is hell, it is much better to experience that and avoid the greater disaster of long term disorder, which is the real hell.

So, in the end, this latter reading of 'war is hell' is an empirical assertion underlying a consequentialist judgment about what produces the best long term results - war is hell, but a short time in hell is better than long term disorder and violent insecurity.

2. 'War is hell' as realist argument for unlimited war. We have already walked through the argument by which descriptive realism becomes a moral justification for unlimited war - this is the Hobbesian spin on Thucydides that we discussed last time. I won't spend much time here on it, just to note that you can easily read 'war as hell' as shorthand for that argument. War is hell, you are, when in war, in the state of nature itself, and so it cannot be limited. This is realism as an argument for unlimited war.

3. 'War is hell' as argument from 'superjustice'. The final way I propose to read 'war is hell' is, strikingly, an argument not from realism but from justice, and yet an argument for unlimited war. It is probably the argument closest to Sherman's deepest views on the moral nature of war - and while it an argument for unlimited war, it is not an argument from realism. Sherman argues that because the South has rebelled against the Union, it has violated what might be seen as natural law. The consequence is a reaction that Sherman himself seems to contemplate in almost physics-like terms - a violation of the natural moral order begets an opposite and equal reaction, and it is one that is irrespective of the agency of those who carry it out. Notice how Sherman, in Walzer's summary, denies responsibility for the things that his army does to the South - because they morally did the wrong, he says, the consequences are both as natural as an opposite and equal reaction to reestablish the status quo, and not in any sense his fault or even doing - what he does is simply what the South did to itself.

Now, this argument is troubling on many grounds, starting with the peculiar and untenable shifting of agency. It will obviously not do for Sherman simply to deny that he and his army had any choice or agency in the matter; of course they did. They could have let the South secede.

More interesting is the claim of natural law that underlies the denial of agency. It is not a claim of necessity in the realist sense, not even in the Hobbesian sense. It is not an argument from the necessity of our survival. It is, on the contrary, an argument from the most profoundly offended sense of justice. And the sense of offense is so great that it permits any form of response - war unlimited in every sense - to right the wrong. We are accustomed to thinking of the concept of justice in war as one which limits war, both its causes and its conduct. But that is not necessarily the case - justice, instead, can also be a profound argument for denying that war can have limitations. No justice, no peace, taken to a very grave extreme. And that is what, at bottom, Sherman is saying. He affects the passive equanimity of a hammer in the hands of a 'natural' response; it is not his doing or his agency. But what drives the hammer blow, it turns out, is a sense of justice that will not admit of any limitation on its drive for justice.

The drive for absolute justice, without limit, is the subject of much literature from the Greeks, who, with their sense of moderation, as hubris and a source of traged, down to today. Durrenmatt's The Visit of the Old Lady, for a modern example; or Albert Camus' very great essay, The Rebel. But Sherman - and this seems to be pretty close to what the man actually believed - was not finally a realist, but a fanatic for justice. I want us to bear this in mind as we look at moral claims to limit the scope of war - the standard account of the ethics of war tends to see, with Walzer, realism as the primary way by which unlimited war is justified. But in many ways, it is even easier to get there with a claim of genuinely unlimited justice.

***
The other thing we will discuss, or start discussing, on Tuesday, February 20, is why war is wrong. I will follow Walzer's discussion quite closely. The fundamental question is what makes war wrong for Walzer - the key is that it is a form of tyranny, of coercion, of denial of natural liberty to individuals as to a political community. And I will suggest that it is this element of Walzer - this focus on the denial of liberty - that most importantly makes Walzer's account of just war theory a secular one. It is not merely that Walzer seeks an account that does not explicitly appeal to God or God's laws or commandments - it is, even more, that Walzer's seeks a theory that affirms the basic secular tenets of modernity, starting with liberte, egalite, and fraternite. I will start off into this discussion in class.

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