Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution 1.2 -- Reviews


Michael Gelven: War and Existence: a Philosophical Inquiry

1994.  University Park, Penn: Penn State University Press.  271 pp.  $40.00 Cloth, $16.95 Paper.

In War and Existence, Michael Gelven seeks to define "war" in order to facilitate rational thought and philosophical examination of this complex issue. Additionally, by exploring the connection between war and the we-they principle, he attempts to explain why war seems to be inevitably linked to the human condition.

Gelven sets out to provide a philosophical definition of war as an existential phenomenon. He sees war as one of the base paradoxes of the human condition and believes that a meticulous definition of war will allow a more rational approach to the subject. Because Gelven is producing a philosophical inquiry, he believes his analysis is independent of moral concerns.

In order to produce his definition, Gelven begins with a description of war, moves to a discussion of the marks of war and finishes with an analysis of what he sees as the most basic element of human nature which allows war to often be preferred over peace: the we-they principle. Gelven's definition itself is not overly complex and, thankfully, is spelled out early in the work. He considers war to be "a vast and violent struggle between the we and the they with historical significance and communal values, organized on rational principles and exacting sacrifice from its heroic participants in a horrified game whose goal is victory for what is ours and defeat for what is their's" (22).

The definition produces nine marks of war, which Gelven goes on to explain. If an event is not vast, organized, communal, historical, sacrificial, violent, a game, horrific and heroic, then it is not a war. The analysis through these sections is thorough and includes many illuminating examples, but occasionally strays from philosophical objectivity into a romanticization of war. Also, some of the lengths to which Gelven goes to provide a philosophical precedent for his argument are probably not necessary, but do not seriously impair his position.

After explaining the marks of war, Gelven moves to the crux of his analysis: the we-they principle. This is the fundamental, existential condition which allows for war. We define ourselves through contrast with that (or those) which are the other and from the other we derive ourselves. This is a primary concern and because it deals with how we give meaning to our lives, it always comes before universal, moral concerns, such as prohibitions against killing. We must be willing to defend ourselves against they, or we risk losing the differentiation which allows us to be meaningful individuals. Gelven believes it is only through the understanding of this principle that war can become intelligible.

At this point, Gelven has completed his task, but has also left his readers with a bleak outlook for our future. Since the we-they principle is inherent to the human condition, at least as long as we hope to make sense of our existence, it would seem we are doomed to periodic struggles between we and they for all time. However, in the final chapter of War and Existence, Gelven explains why this may not be the case.

After a comprehensive analysis of war, Gelven moves to an admittedly brief examination of peace, which he defines as not merely the absence of war. He sets out different types of peace, the most desirable (and in fact the only one desirable in itself) of which occurs after a transformation of the notion of we-they to we-ye. In the we-they principle, the other is always seen as threatening, but in we-ye, differences are recognized, but not seen as threatening.

Although it is possible to achieve a we-ye outlook without violence, it is unlikely. "Through war, as a means of achieving peace, the they is defeated so as to allow a ye" (253). This is because Gelven believes that only a nation which is secure can move from we-they to we-ye. As a result, he suggests that to ensure the best possible peace, nations must be prepared for war. This leads Gelven to argue that the absolute pacifist holds an untenable position. If anyone is unwilling to fight to maintain their sense of their own meaning, they lose everything and cannot be said to be at peace. Gelven's prescription for peace is armed respect for the differences of others.

The most distressing concern with Gelven's analysis is that by starting with war and working back to the we-they principle, he may have overstated the relationship between the two. His explanation of the we-they principle and the necessity of seeing it as a fundamental element of human nature is reasonable, but he does not adequately go from this to the necessity of war.

First, the we-they principle does not directly support the marks of war developed by Gelven earlier in the book. If an individual chooses to use violence to regain a sense of meaning of self which has been lost, this would clearly be an action motivated by the we-they principle, but would not qualify as a war. Although the we-they principle is necessary for Gelven's explanation of why war occurs, it is in no way necessary for the definition of war. Gelven does not (and I believe cannot) explain how the we-they principle means that war is vast, organized or historical or any other unique characteristic and it is only by looking outside the principle that he is able to support his definition. What this means is that the elements of war which make it a separate phenomenon from other violent actions do not derive from the principle. If this is the case, then why must we prepare for war, as opposed to preparing for smaller, less organized, unhistorical violence?

Second, the notion of we-they does not even lead to a conclusion that violence, in any form, is necessary. Gelven believes that because the construction of we requires a they, we must value security and be prepared to defend ourselves and our way of life, however he oversimplifies the concept "security."

As many commentators have noted in relation to national security, security is more than freedom from invasion. Economic and environmental issues can now relate to security. Perhaps the most relevant notion to Gelven's discussion is cultural security, epitomized by recent French efforts to protect French culture from what it sees as the threat of being absorbed into American culture. The French response to this threat to security (at least security within the concept of the we-they principle) has not been violent, however. Instead, France has used legal and cultural means to attempt to maintain the integrity of French culture. As such, it has supported the we-they principle without resorting to war.

War and Existence is a fascinating and well-written book, and is sure to add much to the debates of war and peace. It is not, however, a perfect representation of the issue. Gelven's arguments do need to be examined critically. The end result is a piece that fulfills its overall goal: to make the reader think.

By Derek Sweetman, editor


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