War and the Politics of Ethics

Presented by: Professor Maja Zehfuss, The University of Manchester

War is destructive and deadly. The First World War is often thought to have shown that war is futile.  Yet the Second World War, although even more spectacularly horrible and deadly, lent itself to being represented as a – or indeed The – Good War, the war in which good triumphed over evil, freedom and democracy over genocidal racism and totalitarianism.  This apparent success in making the world a better place through war has since provided not only a trope through which war can be justified but – more than that – a moral imaginary that powerfully suggests the appropriateness or even need to wage war for the Good. This has been visible in contemporary Western war as ethical war.  From Kosovo to Iraq, the West has seen itself as delivering a better world to populations suffering from oppression, genocide and other serious human rights abuses, while protecting freedom and democracy at home. We are trapped in a dilemma, however, if what we do risks killing those we ostensibly seek to protect.  This paper argues that this long-standing and powerful dilemma requires us to move beyond existing ways of conceiving the ethics of war to understand war as a politics of ethics.

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