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Social Text 20.3 (2002) 149-175

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Theses on the Questions of War:
History, Media, Terror

Rosalind C. Morris

Why does the history of the East appear as a history of religions?

—Karl Marx

Then the war in which we refused to believe broke out, and brought—disillusionment.

—Sigmund Freud

The spectacle of war is increasingly supplemented by that of "terrorism."

—Samuel Weber

In 1915, as the nations of Europe summoned the world to total war, calling up the bodies of their respective colonies in the service of emphatically European national goals, Sigmund Freud wrote his remarkable essay "Thoughts on War and Death." 1 Timely then (implicitly avoiding more Nietzschean aspirations), the essay has since been invoked in other times of war and repeatedly remarked for its continued timeliness and uncanny prescience. Freud framed the essay as a response to the sense of disillusionment that was afflicting the European noncombatants of the war, who believed that a civilized relation to war had been lost and that, in its stead, Europe had been returned to a violently primitive (and primitively violent) state. The task of "Thoughts for the Times" was at least partly to determine in what senses the war of Freud's time constituted a return to primitivity, and in what sense it marked the emergence of a new and particularly civilized form of barbarism.

We might pose for ourselves a similar task today, as we are returned to war, and as the events of September 11 are swept into a discourse that imagines such return as a return to the possibility of just war. Freud was not concerned with just war, of course, but with civilized war, with a question of means rather than ends. And he was responding to a sense of disillusionment that is, for the most part, lacking in the United States, where the affect of shock predominates. Disillusionment, for Freud, entailed both the colloquial sentiment of disappointment and malaise, but also the more rigorously etymological sense of revelation. Turning on this word, his essay asks what the war reveals about the civilized nations of Europe, and finds that their disappointment is misplaced, for they have been [End Page 149] deluded about the nature and extent of their own advancement. First, however, he defines what a civilized war might have been.

The delineation is simple, though it contains virtually all of the elements that would later be formalized under the Geneva Conventions. First, says Freud, a civilized war immunizes noncombatants against injury and suffering to the greatest extent possible. It also protects their property, which remains sacrosanct even when territorial jurisdiction is in question at the national level. Second, a civilized war must respect children and save them from injury, for they are the ones with whom future generations will live in peace, at the end and after war. And finally, a civilized war must recognize the international institutions by which the termination of war will be effected and through which war will be metamorphosed into trade. Thus a civilized war, for Freud, is one that maintains a distinction between war and "not-war," that anticipates its own termination, and that paradoxically acknowledges the institutions that will enframe and limit it. In other words, civilized war understands itself to be encompassed by its other, to be sustainable only when subsumed in and by "not-war" (which is not, in the end, reducible to peace). Freud does not raise here the demand that the international law to which even combatants of a civilized war must submit be enforceable, a fact that would reverse his formula for the dependence of war on not-war, returning him to a more Hobbesian position. But he claims (with Clausewitz, among others) that war cannot limit itself, and that unlimited war is indistinguishable from criminality, from murderousness.

If Freud's contemporaries were disillusioned, we are shocked. Neither they nor we could imagine the eruption of that kind of war that respects neither noncombatants nor children, neither property nor the institutions of international law. But if what disillusioned Europeans was the emergence of...


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