War/silence/dehumanization, bellum iustum, and discourses of war - part two

War/silence/dehumanization, bellum iustum, and discourses of war – part two

TransConflict is pleased to present extracts from Dražen Pehar’s book, ‘Dediscoursification – how discursive attitudes cause wars’, the key contention of which is that the attitude to language should be theorized as one of the major causes of war.

 Suggested Reading Collaborate GCCT

By Dražen Pehar

Now, assuming that the criterion concerns the use of discourse, what demands should we place on it? Obviously, the criterion demands that, faced with a party defending political or diplomatic interest(s) irreconcilable to ours, we endorse the method of negotiations as a peaceful, discursive means of the conflict settlement. This is a starting point of the criterion. This means that, like the theory of dediscoursification itself, the criterion lays the greatest emphasis possible on the notion of the human being as ens loquens who relates to other human beings primarily in the mode of discourse. Additionally, the criterion obviously suggests, or implies, that the use of discourse may fail, i.e. that the method of negotiating may fail to deliver a desirable result. In other words, the criterion does not exclude the possibility of war. It merely states that the war needs to be preceded by a condition that demonstrates unambiguously both our humanity and morality; it does not add that such a condition is likely to endure indefinitely.

Empirically, we know that, in some conditions, the negotiators are unlikely to demonstrate their ens loquens-nature fully, and that negotiations may fail. However, one needs to pose the question of why is this so? Why do some negotiations fail? Without an answer to the question, we cannot give a precise answer to the following one: is it just to declare and wage war, or not? Imagine that the failure of negotiations is our own fault, i.e. that we carry the primary responsibility for it. Also, imagine that indeed we have tried to resolve the conflict by negotiating. In such conditions, formally we have satisfied the “ultima ratio” criterion, but our declaration of war cannot be right or just.

In other words, the very criterion makes it clear that, when discourse is defeated prior to a war, an explanation of such a defeat needs to be sought to a large degree in discourse itself. This furthermore entails that the “ultima ratio” criterion is implicitly committed to the theory of dediscoursation. If the criterion needs to address the stage of pre-war negotiations, as it indeed does, it also needs to address the failure of negotiations due to some causes that lie in the use of discourse as such. A more detailed explanation of the failure in such terms hands us the key elements of the theory of dediscoursification. Hence, the theory of dediscoursification is a necessary addition to the “ultima ratio” criterion; it is a logical extension of the criterion, but, as we will see, it will guide us to some conclusions that cannot be reconciled to the key idea of JWT–that a war may be just. In such a sense, the “ultima ratio” criterion needs to be separated from the rest of JWT, and used possibly as a part of another, non-JWT context within which it may produce more reasonable effects than within the JWT.

The first, and the key, question may be put as follows. Is it possible to use the “ultima ratio” criterion to justify the following claim by a political actor: “I tried everything, including peaceful negotiations; now I have arrived at the conclusion that this conflict cannot be resolved by peaceful means, without a use of armed force; I believe that I have a just cause; hence, I decide now to wage a just war”? Actually, no actor can claim this in rational terms. It is impossible to claim that one has, through rational terms, arrived at the conclusion that a conflict cannot be resolved by peaceful means, i.e. by negotiations. If one arrives at such a conclusion, the train of reasoning cannot be rational or founded on plausible premises. Why is this so? The answer to the question is as follows: to a minimally rational agent, there is always a set of negotiated solutions that both parties to a conflict prefer over the option of war. James D. Fearon demonstrated this proposition formally (Fearon 1995, 386-388); and, he also demonstrated that the assumptions under which the proposition is valid are neither too strong nor demanding. Fearon presents such assumptions as follows: the states involved are aware that there is a true probability P that one state will win the war; the behavior of the states is either risk-adverse or risk-neutral; and, thirdly, the issues that are a subject of negotiations can be quantified in some way (Fearon 1995, 388-389). The key idea here is very simple: the view that a negotiated solution, which both parties prefer to the option of war, does not exist, or cannot be found, is a result of an irrational train of inferences. This implies that the conclusion that a conflict cannot be resolved by the non-military means of negotiation, which is a conclusion in which the application of the “ultima ratio” criterion is supposed to result, is as well founded on an irrational train of thoughts.

The only rational conclusion, to which some negotiating parties may tentatively arrive, is as follows: “At the moment, we do not recognize, or are unable to identify, the set of negotiated options that are preferable to the option of war; however, we are aware that such a lack of recognition, or identification, cannot be our final word; hence, we simply need to continue with the search and exploration, which necessarily involves further diplomatic talks.” Therefore, the very idea that “all negotiated options are exhausted” is a result of a flawed, irrational conclusion–it is impossible to conclude rationally that “negotiated options” are exhausted. This, however, is not due to Walzer’s bizarre idea that something always remains to be done prior to a war, but to the plausible thesis that, objectively, there is always a set of negotiated outcomes that, according to both negotiating parties, must be preferable to the option of war.

This leads us to recognize that the “ultima ratio” criterion, as envisaged by the JWT, cannot be applied to two key conditions in which, according to the JWT, we ought to be able to make a right and non-opposable decision to wage a just war: first, which is nearly self-explanatory, it cannot be applied to the condition of self-defense, a necessary response to an aggression; secondly, it cannot be applied to the condition of the longer lasting negotiations aimed at conflict resolution. It is, therefore, clear that something must be wrong with the application of the criterion within the context of JWT. My proposal is to detach the criterion from the context and retain only the part that is reproduced within the theory of dediscoursification. The next few paragraphs will deal with two additional issues: first, does the “ultima ratio” include economic sanctions? Secondly, can war be just from the perspective of the theory of dediscoursification? The answers to the questions are mutually related, and we will see that the answer to the first question leads easily to an answer to the second.

From the angle of the theory of dediscoursification, economic sanctions are a means of coercion and, in such a sense, do not differ from the means of armed force. Their specificity, however, lies in the fact that they do not involve directly the killing of the enemy. That is why their status within the “last resort” criterion is prima facie controversial. Additionally, if we claim that we have exhausted all the negotiated options, and we therefore now need to introduce sanctions, such a claim is flawed too, as demonstrated above. Hence, in such a sense, economic sanctions are, like war itself, based on an irrational train or mechanism of reasoning. Still, it seems that sanctions are more moral, or rational, than the use of armed force because they seem to produce a lesser evil. Most importantly, however, once we adopt the key ideas of the theory of dediscoursification, this part of the “ultima ratio” criterion becomes clear too.

From the angle of the theory of dediscoursification, negotiations fail primarily due to the process of dediscoursification. Dediscoursification, however, takes place due to some violation of the moral matrix of discourse. Its final point is in the rational conclusion that one party to negotiations left the medium of discourse and thereby justifiably deserved some negative moral attributes. In other words, prior to a war or sanctions, one party must have already formed the view of the other party as immoral primarily in the sense of the latter’s attitude toward discourse. By this the state of war has already started. Nothing else needs to happen, and no additional force needs to be applied directly. One party has already formed the view that the relationships will either have to be steered by the factor of force, or coercion, or not hold at all. At least one party, the dediscoursifying one, has formed such a view on the basis of an irrational mechanism. The other party, the dediscoursified one, has formed the same view on the basis of its conclusion that it could not apply an alternative, i.e. discourse-friendly, type of conduct in partnership with the dediscoursifying, or irrational, party.

However, the dediscoursified party is also aware that the communication problem cannot be resolved by force. To the party, war, like the use of force in any other form, can serve only as a means of preventing the immoral party from imposing their own view; i.e. a means of forcing the immoral party to accept a stalemate which, however, simply amounts to the state of affairs immediately prior to the outbreak of war: this means that, to a dediscoursified party, war can serve only as a means of preserving the pre-war condition. All other options are irrational from the angle of the theory of dediscoursification. In such a sense, no war can be considered just. The only rational consideration and aim is to prevent and oppose an enforced change of the conditions in which agents, political or diplomatic, find themselves at the moment of the cessation of communication. From the angle of a rational discourse, all forms of a change produced by war are imposed; hence, they cannot confirm a rational discourse. “War” here can be replaced with “sanctions,” and we obtain the same result. This means that, from the perspective of the theory of dediscoursification, economic sanctions are not a part of the “last resort” criterion. “Ratio” in “ultima ratio” is exhausted at the very moment when discourse is discontinued.

This conclusion can be easily demonstrated by a thought-experiment. Imagine that, instead of economic sanctions, we decide to apply the strategy of the purchase of an attitude/view. Imagine that our partner has closed himself to a discursive kind of influence, i.e. that he left the medium of discourse. Is the option of the purchase of a change in his attitude rational? It is clear that a force will be applied, but it is an attractive, not pushing but pulling, kind of force, one of money; of course, this is a kind of bribery.[1] However, such an option is not viable either; it does not count as persuasion. It may prompt the partner to declare a change of his attitude due to, say, his greed. The partner will nevertheless be inclined to preserve his or her original attitude internally; at best, s/he can endorse a declared change in attitude as long as it brings him, or her, a tangible benefit. Also, we know that this is not a real, sustainable or substantive, change. Additionally, this kind of influence depends on some, however minimal, amount of truthfulness as well. But, how to keep trust when our partner has left the medium of discourse? Hence, this kind of strategy is irrational too.

This means that, once we enter the period in which a discursive kind of influence has ceased to be exerted because dediscoursification has taken its toll, a non-discursive kind of influence can play no role except one of preserving the conditions that prevailed immediately prior to the cessation of communication. However, such conditions were bad enough and, more importantly, no party can, nor should, view them as an embodiment of justice.

The JWT proponents usually claim that war is just when it is necessary, and it is necessary when it is a war of self-defense. To this one should reply that the necessity concerned is not of a discursive, but of a physical-material kind. Any entity that applies a force to some other entity is bound to receive an amount of counter-force in some form. One who physically defends him- or herself from a physical attack acts not as a discursive, but as a natural being. It is for such a reason that the attribution of moral categories in this condition makes no sense. Besides, it is possible that those who defend a military-political entity in fact defend a carrier of some unjust ideas or projects. Such a self-defense cannot be considered just either.

Secondly, it is quite possible that the dediscoursified agent, one who respected the moral matrix of discourse throughout the period of verbal interaction, launches a first attack. Such an attack may be launched due to a plethora of causes–by accident, misinterpretation, misperception, even prevention…In such conditions it seems that the dediscoursifying agent has justice on his side as he only defends himself. However, we need to recall that the dediscoursifying agent is either a liar, or one who breaks his or her promises with no regrets, or one who is incoherent and irresponsible with the use of discourse. Hence, his being a target of an attack is to a large extent an outcome of his own discursive strategy–by his use of discourse, he effectively removed both parties from the medium of discourse. That is why his self-defense can in no way be interpreted as the implementation of justice, or as something of which one can claim is right in a moral sense. Of course, one can view his self-defense as a necessity, which is comprehensible in purely natural or physical terms. However, it would not make sense to claim that he, as the dediscoursifying agent, has somehow partially revoked, or overruled, his own discursive immorality by waging a “just” war. I believe that, for example, Alija Izetbegović can be cited as a pertinent illustration of such agency.

War can be said to serve two purposes: it defends the reasoner, but it does not defend a reason; and war attacks the reasoner, but does not attack a reason. The fact that a war defends a reasoner has no bearing upon the war as a defense of a reason. It is quite possible that a war is fought to defend the reasoner who offered a flawed or implausible reason. Hence, it is quite possible that a war is fought also to attack the reasoner who offered a sound and plausible reason. It is also possible that a war is fought to defend the reasoner who offered a sound and plausible reason. However, it is not necessarily so. Additionally, from the angle of one who offered a sound and plausible reason, the defense of him as the reasoner is, in light of the reason, a waste of time. S/he knows that a reason cannot, and should not, be defended by armed force. Hence, a reason cannot be challenged by armed force either.

Drawing on Clausewitz, Orend in his essay on war states as follows: “War is the intentional use of mass force to resolve disputes over governance. War is, indeed, governance by bludgeon. Ultimately, war is profoundly anthropological: it is about which group of people gets to say what goes on in a given territory” (Orend 2008). It is exactly in such a sense that war is a fundamentally flawed practice. “Which group of people gets to say what goes on in a given territory,” to the extent that it is determined by a war, is determined in a senseless way; it is something that can, and should, be determined only by reasons. If it is not thus determined, it is not determined at all even when the victorious party to a war and a superior, or error-free, reasoner coincide in a single person or a group.[2]

Hence, the theory of dediscoursification is opposed to the JWT in many ways. Both theories embody a moral discourse of war, but the JWT is not a moral discourse concerning discourse, except in a small part. That part, so-called “ultima ratio” criterion, can be properly employed by the theory of dediscoursification. We also learned that, due to a number of reasons, including primarily Fearon’s demonstration, the “ultima ratio” criterion cannot be used as the JWT intends it. Hence, put metaphorically, the criterion is an Achilles’ heel of JWT. In contrast to the JWT, the theory of dediscoursification deals primarily with discursive aspects of the causes of war. It defends the view that every war is a result of a failed diplomacy in the sense of a use of discourse; such failed diplomacy can be explained by an attitude to discourse that removes discourse as a medium of interaction between individuals or groups.

Furthermore, the theory of dediscoursification deals with much longer periods of interaction between the agents who at some point decide to wage war. JWT, in contrast, is normally focused only on the period that coincides with a decision to wage war, or on one immediately preceding it. Of course, to understand fully the causes of war, we need a long-term perspective as the theory of dediscoursification suggests. The theory clearly offers a more detailed view: for instance, a view in which the Rambouillet negotiations are of a key importance to elucidation of the NATO “Allied Force” operation. It makes no sense to deny that the parties entering the arena of war form a view of one another through their discursive interacting prior to the entry. Such discursive interacting generates discursive responses that may be just or unjust. In contrast to the JWT, the theory of dediscoursification considers, and aims to explain, such interactions and responses. Also, the theory of dediscoursification deals with moral issues primarily in the form of the questions concerning a moral use of discourse. When, in contrast, one reads Walzer, one has the impression that a relevant moral analysis starts with an unequivocally critical situation, a bombardment, a troop movement, or similar. However, such an analysis must start much earlier and cover the long-term period of discursive interacting between relevant political agents; according to the theory of dediscoursification, the analysis also ends earlier than according to the JWT. One should not forget that the parties who enter the arena of war have formed the view of each other as immoral or morally dubious, even as evil or non-human, agents long before the actual start of the armed force collision.

The theory of dediscoursification aims to explain (not justify) war in terms of discourse, attitudes toward discourse, and discursive interacting. However, in terms of the theory, war itself is not a part of discursive universe. Despite the fact that wars break out because of the attitude toward language, they are not a part, or a pattern, of language. War cannot be “a lesson,” a “defense of democracy,” “promotion of freedom,” “protection of human rights,” or similar. JWT, however, views the matters through a reversed lens: it does not explain war in terms of specific discursive attitudes, but tends to describe wars as a part of a discursive universe. Such a view cannot be reconciled with the status of the human being as a being of Logos, ens loquens, nor with the fact that, in terms of value-orientations, the civilized people prefer a conflict resolution by negotiations to one by the armed force. Hence, JWT should perhaps be interpreted as but a kind of traumatic response to the periods of war-caused destruction, killing, maiming, or plundering; a response that aims to organize narratively our traumatic past, and make it relatively meaningful or at least bearable.[3]

From the angle of the theory of dediscoursification, the key problem, one which sets the key preconditions for an outbreak of armed conflict, is in the silence of the special kind, one which marks the loss of trust in the other both as a discursive and moral agent;[4] the silence which indicates that discourse, a key medium of social/political problem-solving, is taken out of the equation, and that one cannot talk to the other as “a human to human:” the mutual discursive relationship is broken due to the fact that the relationship between an individual, or individuals, on the one hand, and moral-discursive standards, on the other, had been severed. The severance of discursive relationships involves both moral and anthropological dimensions, because the agents who experience the harm of dediscoursification disqualify one another morally and also view one another as insufficiently human.

This now means that wars need to be considered through the prism of animal clash, as an aggregate consisting of purely animal energies and instincts. Such energies and instincts may be partly disciplined, or domesticated, by wars, but wars cannot reconnect them to the discourse guided by moral standards. Now, one crucial question is as follows: how could such a relationship of war, marked critically by the problematic silence of the dediscoursified humans, be changed? I believe that it is sound to assume that the only positive kind of change, or a “cure,” ought to be sought in the direction of re-discoursification; however, a more detailed description of a human and discursive relationship that could lead us in such a direction is beyond the limits of this study.

Dražen Pehar has a PhD in politics and international relations from Keele University (SPIRE 2006), holds an assistant professorship (BiH) in the philosophy of law and in politics with sociology. Dražen is a DiploFoundation Associate, and previously served as Chief of Staff to the BiH Federation President (1996) and as a media analyst to the OHR (1999/2000). Dražen is also part of the Institute for Social and Political Research (IDPI), a member of the Global Coalition for Conflict Transformation

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.


  1. In a sense, the application of a lethal force is comparable to bribery; on the one hand, I offer to my enemy an absolute loss–should he oppose my view, he would pay with his life; on the other hand, I offer to my enemy an absolute gain too–should he endorse my view, I would spare his life which, to him, is the worthiest gain.
  2. One also needs to have in mind that decision-making in the conditions of war is characterized by some paradoxes that cannot be resolved rationally; for instance, as Mitchell (1981, 152) emphasized, every party who apply lethal force increase the value of the political project for which the opposite party wage the war; once the latter are forced to make a sacrifice, the value of their political project will necessarily increase in their own eyes, thus making them even more willing to launch counterattacks and sustain an additional amount of sacrifice; this means that a party who apply lethal force produce some conditions in which the probability of their success is decreased, which means that, by applying such a force, the party act against themselves.
  3. For another critique of JWT, see Werner (2013)
  4. Hence, the silence of the kind is bound to influence one’s perception of a threat as well as to contribute causally to one’s misperception of a threat, which is not explicitly thematized in a valuable and lucid study by Stein (1993).