Symposium — War is Human

15 September 2013, 1015 EDT

EJT_19_3_cover.inddEditor’s Note: This is a  guest post by Christine SylvesterIt is the 19th installment in our “End of IR Theory” companion symposium for the special issue of the European Journal of International Relations. SAGE has temporarily ungated all of the articles in that issue. This post refers to Sylvester’s article (PDF). A response, authored by Lauren Wilcox, will appear at 11am Eastern.

Other entries in the symposium–when available–may be reached via the “EJIR Special Issue Symposium” tag.

Other entries in the symposium–when available–may be reached via the “EJIR Special Issue Symposium” tag.

…War is human. People fight…in the years preceding our last two wars, thinking about defense undervalued the human as well as the political aspects of war.

So says H.R. McMaster, the intellectual army major general who led the American third armored cavalry regiment in Iraq in 2005 and 2006. Writing in the “Week in Review” section of the New York Times on July 21, 2013, he decries the revolution in military affairs that had the US fighting its recent wars with wishful thinking loaded onto distance computers, rather than with common sense and a common touch on the ground. It backfired: “we learned [that] American forces must cope with the political and human dynamics of war in complex, uncertain environments. Wars like those in Afghanistan and Iraq cannot be waged remotely.”

McMaster and I live in different worlds: I, for one, would not be keen on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq no matter how they were waged. Nonetheless, he and I are both convinced that war is human: humans plan, prepare, arm, assault, resist, hide, trade, and flee collective armed violence. War can certainly be understood in other terms, as it usually is in IR. It can be conceptualized as an element of system dynamics, as national or military/paramilitary operations of armed conflict, as changing strategy or changing weaponry, as a set of causes and correlates, as the military-industrial media-entertainment network and so on. Such “other ways” differ in many important respects, but each one abstracts war away from humans to what McMaster indicates are illusions, leaving war’s executioners bereft of important knowledge about the “social, economic and historical factors that constitute the human dimension of war.”

 That could be one punch line of my article in EJIR’s special issue –except that I’m not talking there about what the US military per se needs to learn, but what much of IR might benefit from learning; in fact, though, the military and IR could both think more about people and their experiences. In the article, I consider how IR has moved from a field of singularities to a field of great differences, as people–diverse humans with diverse ideas about the world–infiltrate a once small realm of habitation. That post-cold war repopulation of IR has been life saving for the field, I’d say. But it hasn’t gone far enough. The irony is that most new camps of IR continue the tradition of sidestepping the people question, which, stated most simply, is: in what ways do ordinary, everyday men, women, and children, as well as scholars coming to IR from countries outside the usual great powers traditions of thinking, understand, experience, and behave in key areas of international relations? Instead, the IR myth-in-practice that agency (power) is lodged at some remove from “us” and from ordinary life seems undiminished. Even critical camps eager to change IR show remarkable fascination with theorists, theories, and theorizing that take the scholar–and maybe no one else in international relations–to a more “elevated” level. As just one example, people in war zones are still largely missing as subjects of analysis in much of the new IR. Groups of people might be mentioned briefly, get substituted by college students in experiments about conflict, or be lamented as starving or raped in the DRC. But here’s the wrench: those people of war do not usually get to tell their stories and thereby help set agendas of IR research. The field knows better than they do about how to think about war and international relations (surely common people can’t have real and lasting agency in the “out there” of powerful states and militaries…). Feminist IR in some of its many incarnations provides an exception to this unfortunate habit of thought. A new generation goes to ground to view war as human experience, studying up from people rather than down from parsimoniously abstract theory.

In that regard, I believe the post-cold war end of a narrow field of IR/theory is only the beginning of an afterlife that still must take a turn d’apres. That is to say, it must consider international relations according to people who, in a variety of ways, do international relations, watch it, suffer it, win or lose as a result of it, and even shape aspects of “it” as it shapes them. The field would be advised to embrace what McMaster calls common sense, which is not the same as scholastic forms of rationality. There’s no need to throw all abstraction into the sea; after all, human experience is itself conceptual and contested with regard to its many hidden and overt dimensions. Rather, the main to-do is to bring more human presence and sense to a field that still excises people, notwithstanding “decision makers” that often come across as calculation machines. McMaster is right: war is human. It requires humans in order to operate, and presumably so do other activities of relations international. If war remains a discipline-defining element of IR, then it behooves us to supplement our knowledge base now with some truly down-to-earth research.