Of War and Law

Of War and Law

Of War and Law

Of War and Law


Modern war is law pursued by other means. Once a bit player in military conflict, law now shapes the institutional, logistical, and physical landscape of war. At the same time, law has become a political and ethical vocabulary for marking legitimate power and justifiable death. As a result, the battlespace is as legally regulated as the rest of modern life. In Of War and Law, David Kennedy examines this important development, retelling the history of modern war and statecraft as a tale of the changing role of law and the dramatic growth of law's power. Not only a restraint and an ethical yardstick, law can also be a weapon--a strategic partner, a force multiplier, and an excuse for terrifying violence.

Kennedy focuses on what can go wrong when humanitarian and military planners speak the same legal language--wrong for humanitarianism, and wrong for warfare. He argues that law has beaten ploughshares into swords while encouraging the bureaucratization of strategy and leadership. A culture of rules has eroded the experience of personal decision-making and responsibility among soldiers and statesmen alike. Kennedy urges those inside and outside the military who wish to reduce the ferocity of battle to understand the new roles--and the limits--of law. Only then will we be able to revitalize our responsibility for war.


War is a profound topic—like truth, love, death, or the divine. Intellectuals from every field have cut their teeth on it: political scientists, historians, ethicists, philosophers, novelists, and literary critics. But war is not one thing, always and everywhere. People write about the wars of their own time and their own country.

The wars of my time and my country—the America of the “postwar” half century—have been varied. We have fought a cold war, postcolonial wars, and innumerable metaphoric wars on things like “poverty” and “drugs.” Our military has intervened here and there for various humanitarian and strategic reasons. the current war on terror partakes of all these. When framed as a clash of civilizations or modes of life—secular and fundamentalist, Christian and Muslim, modern and primitive— the war on terror is reminiscent of the Cold War.

Like the Cold War, the war on terror seems greater than the specific conflicts fought in its name. It transcends the clash of arms in Iraq or Afghanistan. On their own, those wars resemble postcolonial and anticolonial conflicts from Algeria to Vietnam. When we link the war in Afghanistan to women's . . .

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