Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Should We Justify War?

This was a busy week at Bard and the Hannah Arendt Center. In addition to two wonderful talks by Thomas Meyer on Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt, we co-sponsored a great speech by Peter Beinart on his new book The Crisis of Zionism. In addition, Bard played host to a joint Bard-West Point conference on Just War. I was honored to give the keynote address at the Just War conference on Tuesday.

My argument is quite simple: we should continue to talk about the morality of war and the justice of war, but we should cease our efforts to come up and implement standards for the justification of war.  Arendt is often overlooked in discussions of just war theory, and yet this is a mistake. She wrote quite a bit about war and the laws of war in books ranging from The Origins of Totalitarianism, On Revolution, and Eichmann in Jerusalem. For example, Arendt attacks one pillar of just war thinking, namely that wars today can still be useful:

For Hannah Arendt, the modern just-war theorizing that we encounter today is a response to the radical innovation in the violence of war witnessed in World War I. "The notion that aggression is a crime and that wars can be justified only if they ward off aggression or prevent it acquired its practical and even theoretical significance," she writes, "only after the First World War had demonstrated the horribly destructive potential of warfare under conditions of modern technology." At a time when war threatens Armageddon, the justification for war cannot proceed on utilitarian and rational grounds—the very idea of a useful war loses its purchase when the consequences of victory as much as defeat might mean annihilation.

The only justification left for war in the modern era is the absolute justification: we fight for freedom and for existence itself. "In other words," Arendt writes, "freedom has appeared in this debate [over the justification of war] like a deus ex machina to justify what on rational grounds has become unjustifiable."  Just war theory emerges as a theory, in other words, precisely when rationality and utility cease to function as meaningful justifications for war.

Discussion of justified warfare rarely concedes that war today is unjustifiable. While war is thought to be hell, the effort is to articulate norms, conventions, and laws that allow us to say when war is and is not justified. Above all, we seek to justify war, to tame it, and make it more humane.

What is often overlooked in the rush to justify war is the nagging and unpredictable question of what the impact of justifying war might be. "Wedding war to justice" may well usher in an era of humanitarian warfare; the effort to make war more humane might, however, inaugurate an unprecedented era of legalized, bureaucratized, and justified violence. Just war theory works to justify war, something made ever more possible when there is almost nothing that cannot be justified in the name of freedom, especially when it is legitimated by its attention to legal rules.

The full essay won't be published for a bit, but you can read it here as your weekend read. And, as always, comments are welcome.



Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".