Nolen Gertz: The Philosophy of War and Exile


The Philosophy of War and Exile Book Cover The Philosophy of War and Exile
Palgrave Studies in Ethics and Public Policy
Nolen Gertz
Palgrave Macmillan UK
Hardcover £63.00
IX, 203

Reviewed by: Dena Hurst (Florida State University)

The subtitle of Gertz’s book is “From the Humanity of War to the Inhumanity of Peace”. While the title, “The Philosophy of War and Exile,” is helpfully succinct and descriptive, it is the subtitle that conveys the theme interwoven through the chapters of the book. We often think of war as inhumane, bloody, barbaric, violent, loud, miserable, chaotic; peace is the opposite, the humane desired state of quiet, gentility, order, normality. Gertz argues, however, that viewing war and peace as two opposing states, one bad and the other good, sets a foundation for misunderstanding the nature of war and experiences of those who live through it.

The first step in the argument demonstrates how what we know about PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) doesn’t fit the reality of many veterans’ experiences. The label of PTSD tidily packages feelings and behaviors into a framework that seems to make it easier for friends, family, members and counselors to understand why a person may act in a particular way, e.g, hypervigilant, dissociative, overcome by intrusive memories. If we can name it, we think we can understand it and fix it. Gertz’s claim, though, is that in so naming PTSD, we are imposing upon it a misunderstanding of the real concerns, and thus attempts to fix it do more harm than good for veterans.

The misalignment of PTSD treatment arises because “the predominant view of PTSD does not fit the experiences of a significant portion of PTSD sufferers, namely those who have been found to have been traumatized by acts they perpetrated against others, rather than by acts perpetrated against them.” (6) Rather than seeing fear as the primary cause of PTSD, treatment providers must realize not only that there are multiple underlying causes, but also that “moral injury” is one of those causes. (6). Gertz explains moral injury as the conflict between what soldiers believe to be moral and the immoral acts they may commit or witness under military orders. This moral injury can certainly shape the emotions and actions of returning soldiers because they are forced to confront the very beliefs that gave their lives meaning, that defined who they were as individuals prior to the war. This internal conflict arises if a soldier cannot reconcile actions deemed immoral within his or her moral system. This conflict can also entail wrestling with the complexity of actions that the soldier sees as both moral and immoral. In such cases soldiers must confront their own humanity, the sense of loss and despair that accompanies the stripping away of a sense of self and place.

The significance of Gertz’s analysis is that a new aspect of moral injury is added to the current dialogue—that of injury to morality itself. (7) Ignoring this aspect, Gertz claims, means that it is assumed that there is a morality and that it is the non-combatant experience that defines that morality. (7-8) Legitimizing non-combatant morality at the expense of the combatant experiences creates a disconnect in the treating of PTSD.
For Gertz, this is the point of intersection between PTSD and just war theory. Just war theory rests on assumptions about the morality of war based on the experiences of past combatants as described in historical reports and memoirs. These past experiences are seen as reliable guides for framing moral conduct in current and future wars. For Gertz, these experiences are viewed from the perspective of common—in other words, non-combatant—morality. “This perspective distorts the experiences of combatants by viewing them through the lens of noncombatant experience. By taking combatants and noncombatants to belong to the same moral world, just war theorists are able to overcome the challenge of realists by claiming that moral judgments can apply to war.” (8) In Gertz’s view, both the PTSD paradigm and just war theory seek to “overcome” combatant experience, to impose the “right” way of being on the combatant and the “right” conduct on war.

The book is divided into two main parts. The first part, chapters 1 and 2, addresses the notion of responsibility. Chapter 1 begins with the claim that just war theory is based on the assumption that because we are all human and share a common set of tools for describing and judging the world, we also share a common morality. (16) With this belief in a common morality comes defenders of this view, and arguing against the common morality view is to be excluded from the widespread agreement that the common morality view claims exists. It is to be seen as inhuman. (18)

Common morality lets us judge others based on a presumed understanding of how they feel based on the shared quality of being human. Extending this to combatants, it assumes that anyone, including non-combatants, can judge the moral decisions of combatants; even moreso, it assumes that combatants are making what are primarily moral decisions. In combat, it may be more accurate to say that dilemmas soldiers face are primarily existential in nature, questions rooted in their beliefs about who they think they are and how they will be perceived by others. (23) These existential questions are not addressed in just war theory. And because they are not addressed, just war theory does not not adequately consider the process of turning a human being into a combatant, of living as a combatant, and the process of transforming out of being a combatant.

In chapter 2, Gertz takes on the notion of responsibility, which is “best understood as a matter of identity rather than of morality as to become responsible is to become someone not only capable of becoming responsible, but someone…capable of becoming who a situation calls for…” (63) We become who we are by having experiences that reveal what we are capable of becoming as a rather compelling example of a child soldier demonstrates. The significance of this claim becomes apparent in the three chapters that follow.

The second part of the book builds on the work of the first two chapters by examining three aspects of the combatant experience: torture, drones and cyberwar, and PTSD and exile. Torture presents the moral dilemma of having to act immorally for the sake of morality, of torturing the terrorist to save innocent lives. The paradox this dilemma presents for just war theory is that a good man would not want to torture, even to save innocent lives, while a bad man would be willing to torture and bring about a greater good. The reality of torture is not so neatly drawn, as the torturer can be both hero and monster and the relationship between the torturer and the tortured is complex.

“A killer can take away your life. A jailer can take away your freedom. But a torturer has the power to take away your ability to be in control of your own thoughts and feelings, of your own body and voice,” and can “use your own mind and body to make you…torture yourself.” (69) Torture reduces the tortured to a “plaything”, something less than human. (69) Compounding the brutal nature of torture is the nature of the torturer, the kind of person that could carry out such acts. It is easy to see them as the monsters they are portrayed to be, as people who enjoy torturing and would do so no matter the cause. It is harder to recognize that the torturer may see himself as a person doing good who happens to torture. Or the torturer may feel trapped, helpless, forced into such a position by the tortured whose actions caused the torture.

To abstract torture away from its reality, Gertz argues, sets up implausible scenarios. Torture is carried out in a “torture regime.” (72) To understand torture in its context it is necessary to know how a person becomes a torturer. Gertz outlines the systemic nature of torture and aptly shows how a torture regime creates the conditions in which torture takes place, “thus in creating both the torturer and the tortured.” (78) In a cycle of dehumanization, “torture can turn a victim into a perpetrator and a perpetrator into a victim.” (78) The only way to stop this cycle is to recognize how responsibility is distributed in a torture regime. It is up to each of us to accept who we really are, “beings who are willing to sacrifice both torturers and torture victims alike…so that our consciences can remain asleep before our suffering and the suffering of others…” (90-91) We become responsible for torture when we become human.

As a representation of our disembodiment and shunning of responsibility, Gertz next turns to drone warfare, unmanned warfare. We labor under the illusion that this kind of warfare is much cleaner, more sanitized, that it separates combatants from the trauma of war. With clear illustrations Gertz shows how the process of identifying and tracking targets, combined with the “clarity of the drone’s optics,” bridge both the geographic distance and the existential distance between combatants. (100) Because the drone operator sees through the drone, and thus this type of combat is an embodied experience. The virtual can be visceral, and “what is drone warfare can be real warfare.” (112)

The final chapter of the book ends with an exploration of “exile,” the treatment of combatants returning to home life as a class of people set apart by their experiences. Combatants feel out of place in a peace, and as Gertz has revealed, this is not only due to the unfamiliar terms of peacetime life, a life they can’t quite understand as the beings they have become, but also because those who live in peace refuse to accept responsibility for the war and war regime that created the combat experiences. It is much easier to place the problem on “them” and to insulate ourselves by compartmentalizing their thoughts and feelings into a diagnosable and treatable disorder, PTSD. By portraying returning combatants as heroes we make ourselves feel better because we do not have to face what we have done to force them into such a role. (149)

Gertz states that philosophy, and phenomenology in particular, can go beyond its traditional roles with regard to public policy: clarifying questions, pointing out inconsistencies, and offering critiques. Philosophy can help move public policy toward creating a world in which there is no war. (11) To do so requires that we recognize that we are not at home in the world, and that our attempts to avoid or disguise this very human feeling is the underlying cause of war. (152) If we share something in common as human beings, it is our phenomenological connections, our embodied mortality. (152) The path to peace is through understanding, not judging.

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