Philosophy of War

Steve Smith  smithsg
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Philosophy 2752 (03)
Fall 2003

What are the true dimensions of the phenomenon of war, its most important variables, its most important values?  How does the phenomenon of war reflect on human nature and the human prospect?  Can war be eliminated?  Should it be?  What are the most compelling positions that can be taken on these questions?  What makes them compelling?

Is ethical conduct of war possible, or is it obscene even to think of such a thing as “ethical war”?  What ethical decisions can actually be made in a war?  Which war decisions have been historically important because of their ethical value?

The primary purpose of this course is to gain insight into the meanings of war with reference to our history and to issues that face us currently.  The secondary purpose is to develop our philosophical skills of analysis, articulation, and critical reasoning.

Grades for the course will be based on class participation (20%), shorter writings (20%), a 5-6 page essay (30%), and a take-home exam (30%).

The required books, available in the bookstore, are:

Michael Gelven, War and Existence
Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars

Some required readings will be in e-mails and handouts.



Note:  evening screenings will be scheduled early in the semester for two films, All Quiet on the Western Front and Sergeant York.

Aug. 26  Introduction to the class.  Defining war.

Aug. 28  Ideas on the fundamental causes of war.

READ:  Harva, “War and Human Nature”

Sept. 2  The philosophical description of war.

READ:  Gelven, Chaps. 1-2

Sept. 4  Description of war, cont.

READ:  Gelven, Chap. 3

Sept. 9  Description of war, cont.

READ:  Gelven, Chap. 4

Sept. 11  The We-They principle.

READ:  Gelven, Chap. 5

Sept. 16  Gelven’s conclusions.

READ:  Gelven, Chaps. 6-8

Sept. 18  The challenge of just war thinking.

READ:  Walzer, Chaps. 1-3

Sept. 23  Preventive war and intervention.

READ:  Walzer, Chaps. 4-6

Sept. 25  Restraints on the conduct of war.

READ:  Walzer, Chaps. 8-10

Sept. 30 “Irregular” war; terrorism.

READ:   Walzer, Chaps. 11-13

Oct. 2 Claims of necessity overriding ordinary restraints.

READ:  Walzer, Chaps. 14, 16-17

7:30 p.m.  Don Beck, “Value Systems Shaping Our Many Worlds”


Oct. 7 Assigning responsibility in war.

READ:  Walzer, Chaps. 18-19

Oct. 9 Conclusion:  prospects for war and peace.

READ:  James, “The Moral Equivalent of War”


Final exam due October 13.



  1. Definition of the problem. By the end of your introductory paragraph, the reader should know what issue you are addressing in your paper.  It should be an issue that you care about and that is worth everyone’s wrestling with.  Some general areas in which important issues will be found include:

Is there a legitimate claim that war is “natural” or “essential” to the human condition?

Are there coherent and usable criteria for just war?

How does the pursuit of war affect social organization, the use of language, religion, etc.?

How might our evaluation of war be affected by a critique of human bias or distortion in the (a) “masculine” and/or (b) “civilizational” values to which war is strongly related?

Is there any way to tell whether the alleged positive values of war outweigh the alleged negative values or vice versa?

Is there a conceivable social, political, and/or cultural reorganization (like world government) that would eliminate war or reduce its impact?

Is there a compelling metaphysical or religious or moral insight that must change its holder’s attitude toward war?

  1. Explanation of the problem. Show why the answer to the question you are posing is not obvious and straightforward.  Usually this involves setting forth conflicting points of view on it, and especially the view that stands as a strong objection to the one you are going to defend.  You want to show, as best you can, the plausibility of the conflicting views, and especially of the one hostile to your own.
  1. Solution of the problem. Now explain the right way to think about the issue and the reasons that should decide us in favor of this way.  Here you may or may not be helped by readings you have done, but in any case, you are taking responsibility here for the solution.

Remember to be reasonable.  Don’t preach.  Don’t dogmatize.  Don’t simply report opinions.  Don’t be totally facetious.  This is a philosophy assignment.  A good philosophical essay probes for convincing justifications.

  1. Defense of the solution. Since you did such a good job of presenting an objection to your own view in step #2, now you need to handle the objec­tion.  Show the mistake in it, or show how to interpret that point in such a way that it harmonizes with your view.  Possibly you were able to do this in step #3, but in most cases it will be worthwhile to write an extra paragraph or two just for this purpose.
  1. Enjoy. What could be more rewarding than seeing your own thought take shape on a vitally important question?  If you turn in your essay on time you will certainly have the opportunity to rewrite it, so don’t be too anxious to make it perfect on your first go‑round.  Care about it, but don’t worry about it.  The best reasoning often comes out in response to questions and challenges from the reader.



Much of what is said above applies to this sort of paper too–it’s an alternate way of reaching the goal of philosophical insight.

  1. Choose a work that promises to make a significant contribution to our understanding of an aspect of war that interests you: the causes of war, the values of war, the ethics of war, the cultural impact of war, etc.
  1. The goal of your review is to advance our understanding by improving our understanding of a specific thinker’s arguments. Your review must, therefore, carefully establish what a thinker’s reasoning is on a given problem, and also evaluate that reasoning.

a. In the part of the review that is devoted to making your author’s own case, you have to decide what’s most relevant. Don’t try to explain more than you can explain sufficiently.  Be sure to pay attention to the author’s reasoning, not merely her or his opinions.

b. In the evaluative part of your review, do not merely agree or disagree with your author. Offer reasons of your own for thinking that the author’s treatment of the given problem is right or wrong, adequate or inadequate.  You can be a good philosophical partner to the author and be creative and honest at the same time.

  1. CITATIONS. The purpose of citations is to enable readers to find what you are referring to or drawing on.  You also want to do this as unobtrusively as possible.  When a single text will be referred to many times, a good approach is to footnote your first reference like this:

1A. Jones, “The Meaning of War,” in B. Brown, ed., Perspectives on War (New York:  Smith & Sons, 2000), pp. 100‑125.  Page references in text are to this essay.

Thereafter you can refer to the Jones essay like this:  “But, on the other hand, Jones claims:  ‘Attacking noncombatants is often necessary in war ‘ (117).”


(from a vast literature)

Hannah Arendt, On Violence.  New York:  Harvest, 1970.  A political philosopher’s                      reflections on the turbulent 1960’s in America.

Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Love and Hate.  The Natural History of Behavior Patterns.  New             York:  H. Holt, 1972.  The pioneer of human ethology studies the natural history of   bonding and aggression.

Jean Bethke Elshtain & Shelia Tobias, eds., Women, Militarism, and War.  Essays in History, Politics, and Social Theory.  Lanham:  Rowman & Litlefield, 1990.

Erich Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness.  New York:  Holt, Rinehart &      Winston, 1973.  A classic psychological analysis.

Glenn Gray, The Warriors. Reflections on Men in Battle. Lincoln:  Bison, 1998.  A philosopher’s analysis of his World War II combat experiences.

Susan Griffin, A Chorus of Stones. The Private Life of War.  New York:  Doubleday, 1992. A study of intersections between private lives and the large-scale disasters of war.

Howard P. Kainz, Philosophical Perspectives on Peace.  An Anthology of Classical and Modern Sources.  Athens:  Ohio University Press, 1987.

Sam Keen, Faces of the Enemy.  Reflections of the Hostile Imagination.  San Francisco:  Harper & Row, 1985.  Well illustrated from popular culture.

Rollo May, Power and Innocence.  A Search for the Sources of Violence.  New York: Norton, 1972.  A philosophically oriented psychologist.

John Nef, War and Human Progress.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1950.              Critique of the idea that war has been an engine of social progress in modern times.

Paul Ramsey, The Just War.  Force and Political Responsibility.  Lanham:  University Press        of America, 1983.



This starter list does not try to include the many films that have impressively captured what a particular war experience was like (like The Cranes are Flying or Saving Private Ryan, for example).  The focus here is on philosophically interesting questioning of war.

All Quiet on the Western Front (dir. Lewis Milestone, 1930)

Grand Illusion (dir. Jean Renoir, 1937)

Sergeant York (dir. Howard Hawks, 1941)

Hiroshima, Mon Amour (dir. Alain Resnais, 1959; screenplay by Marguerite Duras)

Johnny Got His Gun (dir. Dalton Trumbo, 1971)

Apocalypse Now (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)

Dr. Strangelove (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1964)

Kagemusha (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1980)

Platoon (dir. Oliver Stone, 1986)

The Thin Red Line (dir. Terrence Malick, 1998)

A good war film directory  is provided by David Hart at



Homer, The Iliad

Virgil, The Aeneid

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, August 1914

Ford Madox Ford, No More Parades

George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead

Elie Wiesel, The Gates of the Forest

Michael Herr, Dispatches

Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried



  1. Class Attendance. Being in class, being engaged with the work of the class, and behaving courteously are all expected.  One discourtesy to avoid is coming into class late.  Better late than never, definitely; but lateness counts as half an absence.

One percent of the course grade will be lost for each absence from class for any reason, beginning with the second absence.  (For example, someone who missed class 6 times would thereby lose 5% of the course grade, or half a letter grade.)  The reason for this:  our in‑class inquiry is a crucial and irreplaceable part of the substance of the course.

  1. Late papers. Written assignments turned in late will lose a letter grade or equivalent.  Homework may not be turned in more than one week after its due date.  No work of any kind will be accepted after the last day of final examinations.  Exceptions to this policy will only be granted to the victims of unforeseeable and uncontrollable circumstances.
  1. Plagiarism. Using the words or ideas of others without acknowledgement‑‑that is, passing them off as your own‑‑is a fraudulent practice called plagiarism.  Plagiarized work will receive no credit and will be referred to the college Honor Council.
  1. Incompletes. An “Incomplete” grade for the course will only be given to students who, due to unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances, find themselves unable to complete course requirements during the term and can reasonably be expected to complete them within a few weeks after the term’s end.  The “Incomplete” must be requested and appropriately justified before the end of final examinations.
  1. Disabilities. Students with documented disabilities should discuss their needs with the instructor at the beginning of the semester.