Outlawing War: Reforming the Language of War Is the First Step toward Ending It

By Moran, Gabriel | National Catholic Reporter, November 7, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Outlawing War: Reforming the Language of War Is the First Step toward Ending It

Moran, Gabriel, National Catholic Reporter

On April 6, 1927, Foreign Minister Aristide Briand of France communicated the following message to the United States: "France would be willing to subscribe publicly with the United States to any mutual engagement tending to outlaw war, to use an American expression, as between these two countries." After some discussions about enlarging the agreement to include other nations, the treaty was signed in Paris on Aug. 27, 1928. It was ratified in 1929 by the United States Senate with only one dissenting vote. There were 15 other signatories.

This agreement was the fruit of 10 years of effort by a committee for the "outlawry of war." In light of World War II and subsequent decades, this movement has been dismissed as an embarrassingly naive episode. Or more contemptuously, the attitude reflected in the "outlawry of war" is seen as emblematic of the weakness that led to Hitler's rise.

Undeniably, the movement was afflicted with naivete, although perhaps not so much as is usually assumed. The movement began while World War I was still being fought. The leaders of the movement realized that simply passing a law would not eliminate war. Nonetheless, they thought that making all wars illegal could be a step in the right direction. They proposed an international criminal court, recognizing a need that is only beginning to be fulfilled eight decades later. Surely it is a strange fact that terrorism, assassination and torture are illegal but war is not.

John Dewey, agonizing over whether to support United States entry into World War I, tried in several essays to distinguish force and violence, force and war. Dewey never carried through consistently on his distinctions. His efforts were dismissed by commentators who pointed out that in international conflicts, "force" and "war" are used interchangeably. That criticism is true, but it is a statement of the problem, not a reason for dismissing the question. Until the language of power, force and war is reformed, discussion of war will always be between "realists" who are certain that war is an inevitable fact of human life and "idealists" who think that the use of force is immoral.

World War I

The First World War had changed the nature of warfare or the very meaning of the word "war." The entire populace of nations was mobilized for the war effort. War was no longer a battle between competing armies. The line between combatant and noncombatant could never again be clearly drawn. The people who wished to outlaw war recognized the potential for horror that had been brought on by the "Great War." Whatever justification for war had been advanced in the past, all wars henceforth were stupid, criminal and immoral.

The 1920s and 1930s proved to be inept in developing the means to stop war. By the end of the 1930s, Europe was faced with a horrendous situation; there seemed no alternative to war. As a result, World War II, despite the slaughter of 50 million people, is widely hailed as a "good war," one that was justified by the evils of Nazism.

The Committee for Outlawry of War at first acknowledged the need for "organized force" to control violators of international law. However, after 1921 the group's position was that reliance should be solely on organized moral sentiment. They claimed it was a false analogy to compare a domestic police force and an international use of force. Although it is the nature of analogy to "limp," the comparison of domestic and international policing functions seems quite appropriate.

In the 21st century, organized moral sentiment is a powerful force but it is still insufficient to restrain all criminal activity. At the same time, the nature of war has shifted again. The technology that changed the nature of war in 1914-1918 has now reached dizzying levels of sophistication. The potential for violence has escalated immeasurably. But used wisely, the technology could be used to lessen the violence in international conflict.

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Outlawing War: Reforming the Language of War Is the First Step toward Ending It


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