In the first graded section of this course, we talked about virtue ethics as it has evolved from heroic societies of Homer, the democratic city-state of Athens, the senatorial empire of Rome, and the chivalric ideals of Medieval Europe. Helping us along the way has been Alasdair MacIntyre and Hilde Lindemann, whose philosophies emphasize the importance of character and narrative in the moral formation of human persons. Our focus throughout has been on military personnel, namely the way in which the dominant narrative has been dangerously dualistic; research from veteran service organization GotYour6 helped us see how both veneration and vilification both act to marginalize military communities.
The second graded section forced us to look at the role of drama in forming individual and collective identity and perception. In fact, Robert Meagher’s interpretation of Herakles Furens provided the lens through which narrative polarization is seen for the destructive force that it is, the half-blood hero we know as Hercules belonged to neither the divine pantheon nor the human community. Herakles is a liminal figure, and, as a prototype of the warrior class in western literature, he shows us that the effect of placing veterans upon pedestals is, in effect, the same marginalization as if we subordinate their humanity as monsters.
It is no coincidence that it is a combat veteran, Euripides, who revised and augmented the dominant narrative by troubling the mythic qualities of the Hero. It should not surprise us that contemporary veterans likewise often violate the expectations of a society increasingly insulated from the reality of war: York and Remarque in WWI; Murphy and Doss in WWII; Kovic and Moore in Vietnam; Swofford and Kyle in Iraq. As individuals with direct experiential knowledge, what Aristotle (And Aquinas) would call practical intellectual virtue, modern liberal societies should promote their perspective over and above those without military or combat experience.
But history suggests that is not the case, and their autobiographies do not match the popularity of feature films based thereupon, an art form we’ve seen ignore, alter, or fabricate elements of the martial story in pursuit of interests rarely aligned with those of the veterans themselves or of empirical notions of “truth.” The actual lives of veterans sometimes interfere with and challenge the story modern societies want to tell about them. This is why virtue ethics is so important, because the circular momentum of dominant narratives creates what Lindemann calls damaged identities. Society desires and actively seeks out soldier stories, but on terms detached from the embodied reality in which they are embedded. Stories pulled into this self-referential echo chamber create unrealistic and ideologically driven characters by which doom future generations to fail; the soldiers themselves face the battlefield woefully unprepared for the moral density of actual combat, while civilians lack the moral backdrop by which to recognize their participation in the same.
For the last few weeks, we’ve looked at the story of soldiers and veterans, identifying the deep dissonance between soldiers and the society that sends them to, and receives them back from, war. I hope that we have seen that the military-civilian gap is a moral problem which universalizes pre-determined ideological assumptions; progressives expect soldiers to self-flagellate as damaged monsters or baby killers, while conservatives expect soldiers to reinforce a self-congratulatory triumphalism as heroic victors (at best) or dark knights at worst. So what about war itself, does war have a story that has become detached from reality in similar fashion?
If you asked a typical political scientist, since this course is being offered through that discipline, they will give you a particular story of war. They will likely drop the names of a few dead white dudes, like Machiavelli, Hobbes, or Clausewitz. If they’re really cosmopolitan and politically correct, they might drop Sun Tzu. These names dominate in part because of their writings, which are predominantly deal with military strategy. If the winners write history, then it makes sense that the story of war, or its modern account, revolves around a consequentialist foundation. The question of war is a question of winning.
But what if the story itself carries moral significance, and the final effect or telos of war is not to win, but to fight for our values, our ideals? What if survival is not a virtue, but justice and humanity are? At the very least, these questions force us out of a strict consequentialist ethical framework.
We will tackle these questions on Thursday, but for now, let’s expand on this type of story just a bit. The story of war I want to discuss today may possibly swing us from consequentialism to deontology, a rules-based model, insofar as we will be discussing the western laws of warfare, But a close look reveals a virtue (or at least morality) based framework, one which asks ‘what kind of a polis are we, such that we deem some goods worthy of defending with force?’
Hugo Grotius, whom you have read about for today’s lesson, provides a helpful bridge between the Medieval period’s chivalric ideal and the emerging modern liberal enlightened era. Historically situated between the two, he was a Dutch theologian who would have been aware of Machiavelli’s The Prince (1513) and whose own major work predated Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651). De jure belli ac pacis, or On the Law of War and Peace, was a Latin work published in Paris in 1625. Its language and location suggests a religious background and a cosmopolitan intent. Latin institutions in France were usually catholic, and Grotius was one of a growing number of Christian intellectuals engaging with the wider secular world post-reformation.
I want to be clear that I am not privileging Christian perspectives so much as I am trying to be honest about the historical reality of the western world as it made its way out from under the thumb of the Holy Roman Empire. The close link between Catholicism and martial ethics is disclosed on your other reading for today, from James Gaffney, writing in a Catholic academic journal. The way political scientists and politicians think about war in our world centers on its justification. They want to win, sure, but they also don’t want to feel bad while “making the other poor, dumb bastard the chance to die for [their] country” while doing so… So the story of war we usually inherit is one which is concerned with justifying war morally. Rather than a story, it is usually called a theory or a tradition, one known simply as “Just War.”