Divisions within the Ranks? The Just War Tradition and the Use and Abuse of History

| February 14, 2013

Plato wrote in the Republic that quarrels between fellow countrymen are wont to be more virulent and nasty than those between external enemies. Sigmund Freud (and latterly Michael Ignatieff and Toni Erskine) have similarly cautioned of the malice and excess that can attend conflicts that are fueled not by antithetical oppositions, but by the “narcissism of minor difference.” 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 outré, 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?

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Category: Article, Issue 27.1, Special Section: Just War and Its Critics, The Ethics of War and Peace

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