Academic journal article Social Justice

Toward a Cultural Criminology of War

Academic journal article Social Justice

Toward a Cultural Criminology of War

Article excerpt


TO STAY RELEVANT, THE CRIMINOLOGY OF WHITE-COLLAR CRIME MUST EXPAND TO include large-scale, systematic collective violence (Hallett, 2009; Hogg, 2008; Maier-Katkin, Mears, and Bernard, 2009) and must adopt a more global framework (Friedrichs, 2007: 5-6). This includes ending its parochial avoidance of the white-collar crime of aggressive war. Little of social life is untouched by war (Brighton, 2011), but criminology has rarely considered war a legitimate topic: "In a [twentieth] century literally awash with human blood and reeking with the stench of corpses, mainstream criminology seemed to inhabit another world" (Morrison, 2006: 52). Smeulers and Haveman (2008a) allege that criminological disinterest in international crimes, including war, amounts to a "criminology in a state of denial."

In response to these suggestions, this article offers an initial theoretical framework for examining indirect contributors to aggressive war, particularly culture and ideology, that exist long before military action. A sociocultural approach to the criminology of war reveals that elite criminal military action depends on the partial ideological "enlistment" of the public. Just as we will never understand street crime without paying attention to the culture and society in which it is committed, we must consider the structural and cultural processes that form the background to war. My argument focuses on the United States, but applies broadly to all contemporary nation-states.

When criminologists consider war, it is most often as a form of governmental white-collar crime. There are three ways to define governmental crime: as actions prohibited by a state's laws, as violations of international law, or as actions violating some other criteria of harmfulness. Herman and Julia Schwendinger have offered the best-known early argument for criminalizing war, defining governmental crime on the basis of human rights and social injury rather than legal criteria, and calling imperialist war a crime (2001: 88). More commonly, criminologists discuss "war crimes." This directs criminological attention to criminality during war rather than to the crime of war itself. On the other hand, criminological attention to war's causes tends to focus on the social forces leading to militarism and war, such as political-economic structures and dynamics as well as elite interests (Chibber, 2008; Kramer and Michalowski, 2006a).

Criminologists rarely examine the social and cultural forces that make it easier for elites to engage in aggressive war. One such force is what Smeulers and Haveman (2008a: 493) call the indirect involvement of otherwise law-abiding citizens in international crimes. Although war is not democratic, the participation of the domestic public, always important, is increasingly relevant today. This raises the following questions: How do elites legitimate criminal wars? Why and to what extent do domestic non-elites accept or support such wars?

This article expands upon the criminology of war by focusing on how culture and public opinion contribute to the opportunities for war seized upon by policymakers. (Culture and public opinion can also serve as a control on war, but that is not my focus here.) The successful elite promotion of war in the public mind is indirectly criminogenic, or at least crime-enabling. In this case, the public is not a perpetrator. A long intellectual tradition contends that publics have at least sometimes been volatile or hawkish about war, and accordingly blames the drive for war on its victims. Contrary to this tradition, it is likely that "at most times most people have regarded war as a human problem" (Sills, 1968: 466). The public is not the cause of war; rather, the political, cultural, and ideological process through which war is made "reasonable" to individuals should be seen as a macrosocial analogue of interpersonal crime neutralization.

Some writers acknowledge that war legitimation is partly successful. …

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