A Note on War as Hell

I read with pleasure Ron Jacobs’ “Making War Usually Means More War” (CP 28 March, 2023), which was a review of my book War is Hell: Studies in the Right of Legitimate Violence (Rowman and Littlefield, March 15, 2023).  His title neatly captures one of the main themes of that book, that the situations that seem to allow no solutions but war are usually situations created by earlier wars, and the wars that are aimed at solving those situations create more situations for which war again seems to be the only solution.  On short, war breeds war.  But the corollary to this is that non-violent action, while not equally effective in all situations, has the unique power to create situations in which it is effective.

But I want to make a small correction to Davis’ review.  He writes, “According to Lummis, Sherman’s statement [that war is hell] reflects the absence of morality and law; neither exists in hell; neither exists in war”.  This is an assertion we often hear, but it is not the argument made in this book.  Rather, the point I wanted to make is that what war and Hell have in common is not only their horror, but the fact that in each, the horror is authorized by the highest ethical authority in their respective sphere: In the religious sphere, hell is authorized by God, and in the secular sphere, war is authorized by the giver of law, the state.  By claiming that it’s the absence of law and morality that brings about these horrors, we imply that the proper application of law and morality will mitigate or eliminate these horrors.  But while hell is understood as a great evil, it is also, so the  hell story goes, the place where evil meets its worst enemy, the place where justice is meted out to us sinners.  War takes a different form, but it is similar in that puts law and justice in the service of actions our common sense understands as despicable.  Ron Davis is right that the actions we are required to do to carry out a war ought to be declared illegal, but the fact is that they are not.  War is legal, and that’s the problem: legitimate violence.