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Talking About War – Secular Theology and Nobel Sacrifice in Walzer’s Just War Discourse Abstract

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Ronan O’ Callaghan – University of Manchester
Talking About War – Secular Theology and Nobel Sacrifice in Walzer’s Just War Discourse

During the last decade there has been an attempt, in some quarters, to solidify debate on war around the dichotomy of just war and holy war. In this dichotomy, the just war has increasingly been depicted as the progressive secularised opposite to holy war’s antiquated religious fundamentalism. While wars argued for under the just war banner have been extensively critiqued and protested against, the rights based language of just war theory has largely escaped critical evaluation. Michael Walzer has emerged as a pivotal figure in just war theory’s modern, secular rebirth within the discipline of international relations. Walzer’s theory argues that humanity shares a singular moral vocabulary, embodied in the language of just war theory. Drawing upon the work of Jacques Derrida this paper investigates the construction of Walzer’s moral language and its ethical implications. The first section focuses on Walzer’s moral language, its structure, inconsistencies and theological underpinnings. The second section addresses Walzer’s justification for the sacrifice of combatants in defence of noncombatants, assessing the implications of this for his overall theory. The central arguments presented in this paper are that Walzer’s theory is founded upon a contradictory theological movement, and that the sacrifice initiated by this language constitutes the unjustifiable sacrifice of just war theory’s own ethical principles.


War, Walzer, language, sacrifice, ethics, Derrida


The last decade has, in part, witnessed an attempt to solidify the language of contemporary western debates on the topic of war around the dichotomy of the just war and the holy war. This dichotomy has, in turn, become increasingly cached in terms of further binaries, including rational/irrational, civilised/barbaric, modern/pre-modern and, importantly for this paper, secular/religious. Presented with the Bush Administration’s reiterated professions that America’s war on terror would ensure that justice was done, and current US President Barack Obama’s assertion, during his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, that just wars are an essential component of global peace and stability1, it appears that the conceptualisation of war as an instrument of justice has become an enduring feature of the modern era in international politics. Just war theory, of which American secularised variants have been the most influential in regards to policy, has been to the fore of this conceptualisation of warfare as a moral enterprise. Despite the potentially problematic coupling of justice with a most extreme instrument of violence, the idea of a just war has been elevated, in many regards, by humanitarian notions of rights and protection of the innocent, a thread firmly advocated by contemporary just war theorists in both academic and public domains.2 Endeavouring to detach itself from its theological heritage contemporary secular just war theory posits itself as the middle ground between, what it deems, ineffective passivism and morally redundant realism offering the definitive manual for morality in war-time designed for real world application.3 The just war, reborn as a beacon of modern secular rationalism, promises to promote civilised society, and defend human rights from the worst excesses of human barbarism. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the contemporary holy war, primarily identified in the west under the banner of Islamic Jihad, has been depicted as a relic of pre-modern religious fanaticism dangerous to the very fabric of modern humanist cultures. This war between wars has been thematised as a war between two lights, the edifying light of the enlightenment and the antiquated light of revelation. However, this is fundamentally a battle over meaning, perhaps most importantly the meanings of justice and sacrifice. We are presented with two languages of justice, the humanitarian language of rights and divinely ordained language of Jihad. Accompanying these languages are two seemingly polarised images of sacrifice, the noble sacrifice of the just war, which lays lives on the line to defend humanity’s inalienable right to life and liberty, and the modern holy war which harnesses sacrificial death in the name of conversion and annihilation. As Baudrillard argues, western society’s promotion of life is confronted by Islamic Jihad’s desire for death; “our men want to die as much as yours want to live.”4
While the language of holy war and the sacrifice it directs have been extensively condemned and critiqued in academic and public domains, the language of just war has largely escaped critical evaluation. Although the intensive public protests against recent wars argued for under the standard of just war criteria have been well documented, the rights based language of just war theory has conversely been reified, with protesters primarily arguing that these wars are morally repugnant because they do not meet the criteria of human rights doctrine. In short, the fault is seen to lie, not with the language but in its application; it is a problem of correctly representing the language of rights, not a problem with the language itself. Presented with the increasing relevance of the rights based language of just war and its claim to represent the ordinary language of war5, it is crucial that we critically reflect upon its discursive strategy and the implications thereof. My central argument posits that the division between just war and holy war is not as straightforward as contemporary just war theorists suggest. Focusing on the work of Michael Walzer, largely considered to be father of just war theory’s modern secularised rebirth within the field of international relations, this paper argues that not only is just war’s language of rights inconsistent within itself, this language is only possible through a theological movement at its very inception. The first half of the paper will map the development of Walzer’s language of rights, its inconsistencies and the theological undertones it expounds, despite its desire not to. Drawing on the work of Jacques Derrida, I contend that the language produced by Walzer’s theory embodies a form of “secular theology.” By this I mean that the moral vocabulary required by Walzer can only be founded by faith in a mystical and unavowable origin of universal morality, which subsequently forms the bedrock of an inelastic moral dogma. Further to this, I argue that Walzer must necessarily hide this mystical foundation in order to justify his overarching argument that the morality expounded by his theory constitutes a palpable ontological reality. The latter half of the paper will discuss the meaning of sacrifice that Walzer’s language of rights inaugurates, paying specific attention to the impact of this for Walzer’s notions of justice and morality. This analysis will focus on Walzer’s justification for the killing of combatants in war. The main argument presented in this section contends that Walzer’s justification for the killing of combatants proves inconsistent within his overall theory of morality, and, therefore, the sacrifice of soldiers’ lives outlined in his theory also constitutes the sacrifice of just war theory’s own ethical principles. Two parables will be employed as illustrative guides to navigate our way through the issues raised in this paper. The first section will present Andrei Tarkovsky’s cinematic interpretation of Stanisław Lem’s science fiction classic Solaris as parable of the mystical dimensions of the genesis of meaning, while the second section will draw upon Søren Kierkegaard and Derrida’s readings of the biblical narrative of The Binding of Isaac as a parable of the ethical implications of sacrifice.
Solaris: A Parable of the Mystical

Tarkovsky’s imagining of Solaris tells a story of Kris Kelvin, a psychologist who is about to be dispatched to a space station orbiting a distant and mysterious planet called Solaris. Solaris is believed to be a sentient being and research is being conducted to understand the essence of the planet’s nature. However, after many years of study, the scientists aboard the station have made little progress in their mission. Kelvin is travelling to the station to investigate strange events experienced by its crew believed to be the result of psychological afflictions arising from the properties of the planet, and to asses the viability of continuing with the project. At the beginning of the narrative Kelvin is introduced to Henri Burton, a former space pilot who was involved in the Solaris project, at his elderly father’s estate. Together with Kelvin’s father, the three men watch Burton’s recorded testimony of mystical events he witnessed while flying above the planet, testimony that was unsupported by video evidence obtained from Burton’s craft. Despite Burton and his father’s plea to take this testimony seriously, Kelvin rejects it declaring himself to be a man of science concerned with evidence and reality. Kelvin then bids adieu to his father, knowing he will not see him alive again, and leaves for Solaris.

Upon arrival at the station Kelvin is confronted by a number of, what he believes to be, physical apparitions derived from the strange properties of the planet culminating in the appearance of his late wife Hari who committed suicide some years before. Kelvin, dismayed with this manifestation of Hari, lures her to an escape pod and launches her into outer space. Kelvin enacts a type of ritualised sacrificial expulsion of the mystical in an effort to affirm the real; knowing the true fate of his wife he violently expels the illusionary mirage. However, Hari returns and upon the realisation that she is a conscious being and will return despite any attempts to banish her, Kelvin embraces her, later declaring “you mean more to me than any scientific truth.”6 In juxtaposition, Hari is completely unaware that she is a mere manifestation of Kelvin’s memories of his dead wife and not a real person. Upon the revelation of what she is, she chooses suicide as an escape only to involuntarily resurrect again. At the climax of the story Kelvin’s brainwaves are transmitted to Solaris and the apparitions cease to appear on the station. Kelvin is then left with a choice, to travel back to the real world or to journey to Solaris in search of everything he has lost on earth.
In the closing scene Kelvin is back on his father’s estate, he appears to have chosen the real. Nevertheless, the mystical is also present as we witness rain falling indoors on his now presumably dead father. Upon greeting his father, Kelvin drops to his knees embracing him in a plea for forgiveness, the camera zooms out and we can see that Kelvin is now at home in the mystical, on Solaris. But what can be said about this father from whom forgiveness is sought? A father, although familiar to sight, contains within himself a secret that knowledge cannot gain access to. A secret that has taken the shape of a father to reveal itself to a son but in doing so hides the ultimate truth of its being. This image recalls Levinas’ conception of the non-thematisable Other, “an alien outside of oneself”7 that is “immemorial, unrepresentable, invisible,” and can only show itself at the price of its own betrayal.8 An unknowable Other, which in Derrida is connected to the mystical foundations of language, an absolute Other that is represented and personified (and thus betrayed) by the name God; “the intelligible face of the sign remains turned toward the word and the face of God.”9
Minimalism and the Language of Just War

Walzer’s seminal work on war, Just and Unjust Wars, was primarily a response to what he perceived to be an ethical debasement of the subject spearheaded by realist thinkers. What is perhaps most interesting about Walzer’s response is that it fundamentally challenged realism on its own terms. Foregoing the traditional liberal stance that morality was something that needed to be worked into the mechanics of war, Walzer argued that morality was already, and always had been, a tangible component of the reality of warfare. In this way Walzer challenged realism, not with what could simply be dismissed as moral naivety or good intentions, but with reality itself, claiming that the reality espoused by realism constituted a fictitious language utilised to justify immoral actions; “we don’t have to translate moral talk into interest talk in order to understand it; morality refers in its own way to the real world.”10 In contrast, to the deceptive language of realism, Walzer describes the language of just war theory, at various junctures, as the ordinary langue of war, a common heritage, the most available common moral language and a moral doctrine that everyone knows. The underlying argument is that, when we discuss the issue of war, we “talk the same language” and only the wicked or the simple would reject this language.11 Although Walzer states his intention to defend the business of arguing about war, he quite literally wants to fix the terms of the debate; “it is in applying the agreed-upon terms to actual cases that we come to disagree.”12 So to summarise Walzer’s linguistic theory, he presents us with a universally agreed-upon common language that reflects the moral reality of war, embodied by the language of just war theory. Walzer poses an ontological argument, that just war’s moral vocabulary and the language it expounds show us war as it really is; “what we do when we argue is to give an account of the actually existing morality.”13 Mirroring the study of Solaris in our parable, Walzer is concerned with uncovering the true character of genuine morality. Therefore, it is essential that we investigate the evidence of Walzer’s universal dialect, its origin, its structure and its saying. For if we are to be restricted to a singular means of talking about war, it is imperative that we test the suitability and consistency of this discourse with all available rigour.

However, Walzer’s conceptualisation of moral language proves more complex than it first appears, for in his linguistic theory there are two distinct, but not mutually exclusive, languages of morality; thick and thin. Thick or maximal moral language constitutes the shared meanings of a political community, and represents their collective conscience and common life.14 Morality is negotiated thickly within specific communities between its members, ultimately constituting a common social vocabulary. Yet crucially, for this paper, thick morality cannot be universalised. Walzer assures us that the authority of maximal morality is rooted in the singular community and any attempt to enforce thick moral standards in another community (by an outside party) violates the universal rule of self-determination. Therefore, we must turn our attention to the language of thin or minimal morality, the universal moral vocabulary, and the non-colloquial dialect of war. This search for minimalism mimics the scientific exploration of Solaris, what we are looking for lies behind the apparitions and below the strange events. When it comes to minimal morality we are trying to crack the core of the planet; the universal core of just war’s moral language.
Walzer quickly asserts that minimalism is best understood as an effort to recognise and respect a doctrine of human rights, with the rights of life and liberty standing as absolute values, what he describes as a form of ultra minimalism.15 The centrality of rights to Walzer’s exposition of minimal morality is underscored by the declaration that war can only be justified in the defence of rights, and that justice in war is guaranteed by upholding the rights of life and liberty.16 In this sense, Walzer’s meaning of justice and morality is embodied in his conceptualisation of rights with significant eminence attached to the meaning of the right to life and liberty. Walzer unveils minimalism by presenting us with the image of protesters in Prague carrying signs demanding “truth” and “justice”:
I knew immediately what the signs meant – and so did everyone else who saw the same picture. Not only that: I also recognised and acknowledged the values that the marchers were defending – and so did (almost) everyone else.17
For Walzer, minimalism is to be understood as a form of temporal revelation; moral language reveals itself thinly on special occasions.18 In short, we know the minimal language when we see it. This intimate, passive and spontaneous understanding and recognition of minimal language is unsurprising given Walzer’s belief that the rights underlying the minimal vocabulary are attached to our sense of what it means to be human.19 However, this is not an unproblematic concept in Walzer’s linguistic theory, for minimal morality can never be revealed minimally, it can only be stated maximally:
Minimalism when it is expressed as Minimal Morality will be forced into the idiom and orientation of one of the maximal moralities. There is no neutral (unexpressive) moral language.20
Walzer’s minimal/maximal dichotomy recalls Levinas’ distinction between the saying and the said. For Levinas, language, which is the province of the said, is motivated by a pre-original saying that constitutes a foreword preceding languages.21 However, in Levinas’ dichotomy, this pre-original saying does not move into language, indeed, it becomes counterfeit as soon as it is conveyed before us; this is the price of its thematisation.22 Walzer’s theory presents us with a minimal moral language inherent to the essence of being that, although silent and essentially unsayable, can be innately extracted from the myriad of maximal moral languages. This image mirrors Derrida’s analysis of Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages23, in which Derrida argues that Rousseau depicts man in the state of nature being moved to song and subsequently to speech by a compassion natural to man but foreign to nature.24 Derrida contends that this movement constitutes a progression-regression cycle by which man leaves nature, through progress, only to rejoin with a nature that is more secret, ancient and archaic; “Beginning with an origin or a centre that divides itself and leaves itself, an historical circle is described, which is degenerative in direction but progressive and compensatory in effect.”25 In Walzer’s narrative, man must leave the natural world of minimal morality if he wishes to express morality through language, however, man can return to this secret nature through the spontaneous recognition of the minimal motivations behind maximal codifications. When we try to speak minimally, the thin words are immovably lodged in our throats, nevertheless, our eyes and ears can still recognise, and attest to this unpronounceable signifying system through an innate passivity indigenous to humanity. Although maximal language takes us away from minimalism, we are rejoined with minimalism via temporal recognition. In this movement maximal language preserves minimal morality.
Yet, there are further difficulties in Walzer’s conception of morality, as he assures us that we must interpret the language of morality. He dismisses the two alternative moral schemas of discovery and invention due to their mystical structures. Moral discovery is disregarded as it requires God to reveal the moral language to us; “someone must climb the mountain, go to the desert, seek out the God-who-reveals, and bring back his word.”26 While moral invention is disqualified as the inventor assumes the role of God; “they create what God would have created if they were a God.”27 Ultimately Walzer asserts that we do not need discovery or invention as we already have what they pretend to provide; when we interpret the moral world we give an account of the already existing morality.28 Once again Walzer argues on the basis of reality; the mystical world of discovery and the mythical world of invention are unnecessary in the face of interpretation, the first hand experience of authentic real world morality. Nonetheless, an interpretative real is also a contested real. How then do we recognise the genuine moral interpretation amongst a sea of competing fraudulent interpretations? Walzer resolves this problematic by positing a democratically ordained rule of reason, in which everyone is allowed to speak and the most persuasive interpretation is adhered to.29 Although this model of interpretation is somewhat consistent within Walzer’s conception of maximal morality (that is to say in relation to particular democratic cultures), Walzer holds the interpretation of minimal morality to a higher standard; we experience minimal morality “as an external standard, the standard of God or of other people…it only justifies what God or other people recognise as just.”30 Indeed, Walzer maintains that minimal morality cannot be extracted from democratic culture as this culture is maximalist in itself.31 Walzer describes a minimal morality, presented in maximal language, which can only be justified by God or humanity. However, the interpretative model offered by Walzer to adjudicate over what constitutes authentic minimalism is unable to assure the justness of its judgement. Walzer’s rights based model proclaims that minimal morality is encoded in the maximal language of just war, and its minimalism can only be discovered through a democracy of interpretation. Yet, this maximalist model of interpretation is incompatible with the minimal external standard it strives toward. Walzer installs a maximal conception of interpretation at the foundation of minimal morality, and now the maximal language that promised the ontological manifestation of the minimal word threatens it with usurpation.
We shall return to Solaris to illustrate the predicament. Like Walzer’s minimal morality, Solaris can only manifest itself through a maximal projection. Indeed, the various representations of Solaris also constitute an interpretative experience. Solaris takes a maximal form that is familiar and understandable to the interpreter, but in doing so Solaris’ essence, its minimalism, remains absent, hidden and secret. Hari, although spawned from Solaris, does not illuminate Solaris’ true form, she is composed from Kelvin’s memories; Solaris and the interpreter are mutually engaged in the construction of this maximal representation. Solaris, as the minimal provocation, motivates Hari’s appearance, while simultaneously erasing itself from her maximal representation. Hari cannot recall or recount her origin, and Kelvin cannot see into the true nature of her being; Solaris’ minimal essence cannot be extracted from its maximal thematisation. This account brings us toward Derrida’s conception of différance and the logic of the supplement. Différance is a play on the French word différer and its dual meaning, to differ and defer. Derrida argues that différance constitutes both a differing between meanings and a deferral of ultimate meaning; the delay inherent in signification and the difference that founds oppositional concepts. Derrida asserts that self-present meaning is the ideal of western metaphysics, however, this ideal proves impossible because différance inhabits the very core of what appears to be immediate and present.32 He contends that in language, the sign, which is a representation of the thing, stands in place of the thing to preserve the thing’s presence, but in doing so heralds the disappearance of the thing’s natural presence; “that what opens up meaning and language is writing as the disappearance of natural presence.”33 As illustrated in the examples of Walzer’s minimal language and Solaris’ manifestations, natural presence, the core that we were searching for, could not appear outside of representation, but as soon as this representation took place natural essence was lost.
Derrida insists that every search for an origin, like this, will find a nonorigin; invariably what we will discover is not a singular starting point but a chain of supplements with meaning already contested at its roots.34 The supplement, which plays an important role in Derridean thought, is maddening as it is neither presence nor absence, but a mid-point between the two, what Derrida calls a floating signifier that puts play into play.35 In Walzer, maximal languages and their interpretation supplement minimal morality by empowering its real world articulation. Yet, these supplements are dangerous, as in their promise to compliment natural presence they simultaneously threaten to supplant it; the minimal vocabulary is itself silent within maximal systems of expression. Although the supplement threatens to usurp natural presence, it is also the only way to protect against this danger; “a terrifying menace, the supplement is also the first and surest protection against this very menace. This is why it cannot be given up.”36 Without the maximal, the minimal could not become the palpable feature of the real world, which Walzer requires it to be, however, when incorporated within a maximal system we have no way of extracting the minimal dialect except through a maximal judgement of interpretation. Therefore, Walzer’s theory is premised upon a reactivation or rebirth of the origin, an originary presence returning untouched from the detour of the supplement. A return exemplified in Walzer’s moment of intuitive temporal revelation, in which we all recognise the minimal values that lie behind the maximal expression of rights, thereby allowing us to join with the Prague protesters. Nevertheless, this recognition of a minimal language, which is never properly spoken or written, relies on a movement of faith. It is founded on the faith that the minimal language has always existed, and that this language is returned unscathed from its maximal detour. It is predicated upon the faith that the recognition of minimal values is authentic regardless of the maximal context; we will know Solaris’ true nature no matter what form it takes. Walzer relies upon faith in the breath of an inarticulate langue, a breath that Derrida links to theology; “its principle and end are theological, as the voice and providence of nature…inspired in us by God and may address only Him.”37
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