Jim and Pedro

Geoffrey Best

The self-effacing authors of this excellent book aim to contribute some clear-headedness and penetration to what ought to be our great debate, but is too often our puzzle-headed mumble, about war. So exemplary is the clarity of their rich, varied and powerful argument that their hopes may well be realised. Good books about ethics and warfare – that is, books which can meet the military and political ‘realists’ on their own grounds, without sacrificing moral principle – are not as rare as they used to be. Gallie and Walzer come at once to mind. But none is as unusual as this: a book co-authored by a philosopher and a historian, both of whom are possessed by the notion that people are more likely to take ethics seriously if connections with hard, familiar cases are not shirked, and who share a standpoint of modified Kantianism which encourages them to believe that moral awareness and concern can be elicited and educated from even the rather unpromising human subjects which most of us are.

It does not at all diminish their creative achievement to note the help they have received from their working environment – the War Studies Department of King’s College London – and from several metropolitan groups and seminars, not exclusively academic, all of which they gladly acknowledge, and have evidently used well. Such a background will particularly please those of us who have argued in justification of ‘war studies’ that they can be peace studies too. Paskins and Dockrill place a devastating shot in our locker.

The task they set themselves is that of the benevolent gadfly: a mixture of Socrates, Kant and Liddell Hart. They announce their book as ‘an experiment in practical philosophy’, inviting common and uncommon reader alike to join them in carrying it further: not just from ‘a proper respect for the humanity within oneself’ but also in the interests of that ‘public moral ethos’ from which our individual consciences, so to speak, take off. They find our ethos in a poor way: ill-informed about the ethical terms in which war has, historically, been evaluated, and unaware that they can still usefully be applied; punch-drunk from trying to discern and digest the lessons of two world wars, stunned by kilotons and overkills, bemused by the jargon and pretentious scientism of the strategic debate, and resigned to passivity in respect of ‘defence’ policies and decisions as if it were now all too difficult for mere common readers to understand, let alone make up their minds about it. That any man or woman ought to wish to ascertain his moral bearings, they do not doubt, nor do they blink ‘the frightful demands that morality makes on the good man’. Through what course of argument do they lead him?

The first hundred pages present three hard cases: area bombing from the First through to the Second World War, nuclear deterrence theory and terrorism. The next chapter opens the debate between war and pacificism; several popular definitions of war, including Quincy Wright’s, are rejected, and recognition of what they call ‘the military dimension’ is proposed as more adequate to the facts of the matter. Their analysis of pacifisms sympathetically distinguishes ‘the pacifism of scruple’ from other types, on the persuasive ground that its objection to committing one’s killing capabilities to military organisations and strategies utterly beyond one’s personal control is not inconsistent with allowing one to kill that legendary enemy soldier intent on raping one’s sister.

Pacifism as a direct question thereafter takes a back seat while the military dimensions of social and moral existence are exhaustively, but never heavy-handedly, investigated, with help from not only Homer, Shakespeare and Nietzsche, many contemporary philosophers and international relations experts, but also Jim and Pedro, those standard protagonists of a moral dilemma whom Paskins and Dockrill met in Smart and Williams’s Utilitarianism: For and Against. Pedro, a dangerous and lawless military man, is fortunately soon left behind, but Jim pops up repeatedly – a modified Kantian after the authors’ own heart and an invaluable tester of the arguments which constitute a kind of obstacle course through the themes of ‘Virtue, Proportion and Discrimination’ and ‘The Idea of a Just War’. Their handling of the latter is refreshingly free from theological aridity and political naivety. These chapters lead to their closing theme, ‘Judgment’, which includes lively tussles with the so-called political realists and with that ‘scepticism about moral judgment ... which arises from popular and philosophical ideas of relativism and subjectivism’.

Endlessly open to counter-argument, their purpose is not to prescribe ethical judgments but to help people make their own about war and methods of warfare so as to do justice equally to their moral self-respect and to the complicated but not unravellable facts of external situations. In the last resort, as they well put it: ‘War is something that people do, not something that happens.’

As a historian of the laws and customs of war, I gladly confess that I have never read a more exciting modern treatment of the ethics of war. Philosophers – who may like the book no less – will review it differently, no doubt taking the authors up at the points where they admit they are crossing philosophical minefields. I, too, could take them up at certain places, and would enjoy doing so, especially at some open colloquium, for which their book would be a great preparation. I would, for example, want to query their view that the lawless tendencies of strategic bombing theory up to Dresden and Nagasaki were particularly due to a world shortage of informed ethical guidance, and I would, however regretfully, wonder whether they are not being too optimistic about the academic community’s capacity to provide the same now. But that the world in ‘our dark late Seventies’ badly needs such guidance, who can doubt? Paskins and Dockrill will become for many of us a work of reference as well as a shot in the arm. Its moral force is immense. Yet the old Adam persists. I have to confess that its modified Kantianism has not completely possessed me. The question left at the top of my mind is, alas: couldn’t Jim have killed Pedro?