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On the Political Animal and the Return of Just War
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On the Political Animal and the Return of Just War


As recurrent, bellicose arguments over the legitimacy of ‘rogue states’ attest, we are today witnessing a momentous struggle to assert a new international order, wherein recourse to the force of arms can once again be deemed ‘just’ (Elshtain, 2001; see also O’Donovan, 1995). Strikingly, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, which took place on 11 September 2001 and would seem to have done much to advance the legitimacy of this new order, the President of the United States spoke of ‘terrorist parasites that threaten . . . the peace of the world’ (Bush, 2002). Three years later, when commenting on another, arguably related, terrorist attack, this time on Madrid, the President of the European Union warned against ‘a terrible animal’ spreading across the world. Although he did not speak of ‘parasites’ in any explicit way, he also called for greater international cooperation to remove the terrorists on ‘our skin’ (Prodi, 2004). Such repeated zoological figuration of the foe, which would justify the consolidation of the new international order, calls into question the renewal of ‘just war’ as a legitimate juridical concept.

Aristotle once argued that ‘man is by nature a political animal’ (Aristotle, 1992: 59; see also Miller, 1995: 27–66). On a conventional reading of this foundational dictum, the meaning of ‘animal’ is relatively secure and ‘political being’ is an additional qualification, appertaining to humans alone. Consequently, those who would transgress the bounds of political life are ‘animals’. The above zoological figuration of the foe is therefore unsurprising. On the other hand, the classical tradition also maintained that war could only be ‘just’ when the parties confronting each other shared a common ideal, be it the realisation of the polis or imperium, but disagreed about who should be sovereign. From this perspective, war against ‘animals’ could only be rendered as ‘just’ with the greatest difficulty, if at all, because this would require the very recognition of something shared that is in fact excluded by the characterisation of the foe as ‘animal’ (Tuck, 1999: 51–77; see also Muldoon, 1979: 1–28). The matter is made more complicated still by an official report, which articulates the new mode of war that goes by the name of ‘network centric warfare’ and seems increasingly important to securing the new international order (Arquilla & Ronfeldt, 1997a; see also Dillon, 2003). Athena’s Camp, as this report is entitled, is replete with images of animals, but they are no longer reserved for the foe alone. These images are instead integrally important to fleshing out the following, future scenario of war:

Small numbers of your light, highly mobile forces defeat and compel the surrender of large masses of heavily armed, dug-in enemy forces, with little loss of life on either side. Your forces can do this because they are well prepared, make room for maneuver, concentrate their firepower rapidly in unexpected places, and have superior command, control, and information systems that are decentralized to allow tactical initiatives, yet provide the central commanders with unparalleled intelligence and top-sight for strategic purposes (Arquilla & Ronfeldt, 1997b: 23).

Learning how to ‘swarm’ is critically important to the realisation of this future scenario, and the gist of Athena’s Camp is simply that, to secure the new order against those ‘animals’ that would contest its legitimacy, we who will enjoy its benefits must begin to act as if we were ‘animals’, if we must not in fact become something that is neither ‘human’ nor ‘animal’. In this essay, I seek to consider the meaning of ‘just war’ as the boundaries between ‘human’ and ‘animal’ are thus blurred.1 More importantly, however, I wish to argue that Paul Verhoeven’s ‘Starship Troopers’ (1997) and Ridley Scott’s ‘Blackhawk Down’ (2001), films that are concerned with the theme of ‘just war’ and more or less explicitly present the foe against whom such war is to be fought as ‘animal’, serve very usefully to articulate some important, but often overlooked, conceptual aspects of the contemporary juxtaposition of war, politics and the figure of the ‘animal’.

Securing the peace of the world

There can be...