Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

War, Schemas, and Legitimation: Analyzing the National Discourse about War

Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

War, Schemas, and Legitimation: Analyzing the National Discourse about War

Article excerpt

In June 1966, a U.S. Army helicopter pilot in Vietnam sent a letter to Dr. Benjamin Spock, author of a famous childrearing tome and outspoken war critic. The pilot wrote: "What I do is deliver men into battle to fight and die, a useless task.... I am sure most of the super patriots would call me unpatriotic or worse.... I see the results of war every day, and I shake my head and wonder why we human[s] shall never understand its futility." (1) Dr. Spock's letter in response was returned several weeks later stamped: "Verified Deceased. Return to Sender." (2)

War can stimulate discussion on nearly every intellectual and emotional plane. The pilot, in a simple letter never intended for public consumption, captures many themes used to question the validity of war as a means of human interaction. His view of war lacks the gilding notions of patriotism, honor, and bravery, instead portraying the cool efficiency of his mission: taking men to a battle in which they fight and die. (3) He sees and rejects the most powerful script that helps us maintain our self-identity in war--patriotism and its curious need to question all those who do not conform. In contrast, a veteran of both World Wars wrote to Dr. Spock with a very different perspective:

   I know at first hand the horrors of war, and am certainly no "hawk"
   in this situation. But this country only became great because, when
   necessary, its citizens had the guts you seem to so conspicuously
   lack, to stand up and pay the price to try to end such horrors
   imposed by others. (4)

This veteran portrays war as necessary and views it as central to the country's greatness. (5) Further, he implicates the powerful ideal of sacrifice for the greater good--"to try to end such horrors imposed by others." Finally, he casts Dr. Spock not as an insider but rather as differentiated from those who "had the guts [Dr. Spock] seem[s] to so conspicuously lack."

Underlying the differences between the two views is a contrast in the cognitive patterns, or schemas, that describe war. The World War veteran implicated strong scripts of nationalism, honor, and sacrifice--the hoary qualities invoked to justify war for thousands of years. The pilot in Vietnam, witnessing the inner workings of war, rejected the same nationalist and patriotic scripts. The strong divergence in views of war makes it remarkable that countries enter military actions with such seeming regularity and ease. In the United States at least, tremendous public support for war tends to accompany the onset of military actions. This Note explores the public discourse that leads up to the decision to enter a war. It blends elements of just war theory and critical realism to present a framework that illuminates the channels through which discussions about the propriety of a given war flow. A recognition that the discourse not only follows established rhetorical paths, but also is influenced significantly by them, can reveal important distinctions of form and substance within the debate. A better understanding of the psychological phenomena that affect our thinking about war also has implications for legal doctrine. As this Note discusses, cognitive biases may lead us into wars we later regret, suggesting a need for structural safeguards that could help prevent such outcomes.

Part I introduces critical realism and schema theory. Part II proposes a "just war" schema derived from elements of just war theory, through which political leaders validate potential wars. Examples drawn principally from public rhetoric preceding the recent American military action in Iraq illustrate the existence of this schema and suggest how an administration attempting to lead its citizens into a war can trigger the schema by following well-established rhetorical patterns. Part III examines the interaction of the just war schema with traditional ingroup and outgroup cognitive structures and heuristics, in particular looking at the potential impact of the fundamental attribution error on war decisionmaking. …

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