What's Wrong with Just War Theory? Examining the Gendered Bias of a Longstanding Tradition

By Jiri Krcek
2012, Vol. 4 No. 05 | pg. 2/2 |

The above critiques reveal that feminist thinkers (and women in general) employ a qualitatively distinct approach to the of war and . As Carol Gilligan observes, whereas male dominated discourses, including just war tradition, focus their ethical views on abstract notions of universal rights and justice, women tend to speak “in a different voice”, placing greater priority on the notion of nonviolence and a strong sense of responsibility towards the world.29 Through stressing the notion of nonviolence, Gilligan became one of the founding mothers of the normative “ethics of care” discourse, which plays an influential role for reconsidering just war discourse through feminist lenses. In the final part, I will demonstrate how ethics of care can serve as a source of moral inspiration to revitalize just war tradition.

The Ethics of Care

The advocates of ethics of care are skeptical of the dominant moral discourses that tend to abstract reasoning about an ethical issue to achieve impartiality through avoiding bias and arbitrariness.30 It is through reliance upon such abstraction that the hegemonic discourses have failed to see reality of war from women’s perspective. The just war tradition, in particular, has long neglected concerns and feelings that raise awareness of harsh reality behind the sanitized abstractions of war.31 As such, the central focus of care ethics is on the moral salience of recognizing persons as concrete and particular of whom we take responsibility rather than abstract and independent agents.32 For this reasons, those who are in have a responsibility to respond to the needs of those dependent and further transform those structures of existing social and personal relations that lead to exclusion and marginalization.33 In doing so, ethics of care prescribes to place a great value on emotions such as empathy and sensitivity, because they enable morally concerned persons in actual interpersonal contexts to better grasp what morality recommends.34

The application of ethics of care into the core of just war tradition thus changes the question about casualties in war from an abstract calculation to an interpersonal attachment.35 Rather than perceiving enemy as the abstract, depersonalized “Other” and civilians as merely hypothetical ghosts, the ethics of care embodies emotional identification with them. Feminists call for attention to the physical and emotional suffering that war generates, and the people who endure that suffering. It is through such empathy that ethics of care treats all people affected by war as equal human beings with dignity.36

Discarding abstraction in just war tradition and rather embracing empathy can further serve as foundational basis to humanize the immunity principle and remove its gender bias. Sjoberg proposes the notion of “empathetic war-fighting”, stressing that belligerent party is responsible to prevent any reasonably foreseeable impact of its warfare, not merely intend to do so. The current version immunity principle allows for civilian damage so long as it is unintended.37 Sjoberg rejects such tolerance for belligerent’s mistakes, arguing that mistakes inevitable part of the war and should be taken into consideration prior to the engagement into war. Instead, empathetic war-fighting requires belligerent to account for all of the effects of warfare – immediate, long-term or invisible.38

The empathetic war-fighting can further serve to deconstruct gender archetypes. Rather than proving the masculinity through fulfillment of the expected gender archetype to protect women, the empathetic war-fighting instructs fighters to consider all the effects of physical and structural violence on real people as a question before going to conflict.39 Embracing empathy may not end the war, however it can reveal the artificiality of immunity principle and its delusion of protecting civilians, which in reality only puts them in danger. In order for immunity principle to achieve its real purpose, just war tradition needs to stir its focus away from gendered narratives of Just Warriors protecting Beautiful Souls, towards empathy and care.40

Conclusion

The central purpose of this essay was to unveil the gendered nature of just war tradition from a perspective of poststructural and suggest a revitalization of just war tradition. In the first part, I have examined how gender archetypes of Just Warrior and Beautiful Soul resonate in the of non-combatant immunity principle, perpetuating the dualistic gender hierarchy. Looking particularly at the identity transformation of Private Jessica Lynch, I have demonstrated how gender essentialism serves as moral legitimacy to the practice of war-making. As a result, the immunity fails to achieve its genuine purpose of protecting civilians, and instead puts civilians even in a greater danger for the sake of upholding masculine values.

In the second part, I have critiqued the abstract character of just war tradition for its tendency to ignore horrors of war and portray enemy as inhuman “Other”. Here, I have closely investigated into the highly abstract, euphemistic language of nuclear strategists, who ignore the destructive capacity of and portray victims of war as merely hypothetical people. Furthermore, I have emphasized the fact that abstract image of enemy as inhuman “Other” contributes towards denial of his humanity, magnifying the war’s bloodthirstiness.

Given the above analysis, I conclude that the wrongness of just war tradition lies not in its specific guidelines, but in its reliance upon the hegemonic male-derived understanding of ethics. Assuming the existence of a single mode of ethical interpretation, the masculine discourse of just war turns a blind-eye on the concrete, horrific reality of war. Moreover, it perpetuates the gendered assumptions about women’s role in warfare. For this reasons, I have proposed to rethink the ethical assumptions behind just war tradition through the lenses of standpoint feminism, in particular, the ethics of care. As applied to just war tradition, the ethics of care and its emphasis on the value of empathy eliminates the abstraction by taking the humanitarian damage more seriously. Through this perspective, just war theories can find a new compass to war-making that is free of its negative gendered effects.


References

Carpenter, Charli (2005) ‘Women, Children and Other Vulnerable Groups’’: Gender, Strategic Frames and the Protection of Civilians as a Transnational Issue‘, International Studies Quarterly 49 (2), pp. 295-334.

Charlesworth, Hillary, and Chinkin, Christine (2000) The Boundaries of International Law:a Feminist Analysis. Manchester: JurisPublishing/Manchester UniversityPress.

Cohn, Carol (1987) ‘Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defence Intellectuals‘, Signs 12 (4), pp. 687-718

Cohn, Carol, et. al., (2005) ‘The Relevance of Gender for Eliminating Weapons of Mass Destruction‘, Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, p. 4.Available at: http://www.un.org/disarmament/education/wmdcommission/files/No38.pdf [accessed December 5, 2011]

Elshtain, Jean Bethke (1987) Women and War. New York: Basic Books.

Gardam, Judith (1993) ‘Gender and Non-combatant Immunity‘, Transnational Law and Contemporary Problems 3, pp. 345-370.

Gilligan, Carol (1982) In a different voice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Gray, Jesse Glenn (1970) The Warriors: Reflections on men in battle. New York: Harper Colophon.

Held, Virginia (2005) The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Howard, John, and Prividera, Laura (2004) ‘Rescuing Patriarchy or Saving "Jessica Lynch": The Rhetorical Construction of the American Woman Soldier‘, Women and Language 27 (2), pp.89-97.

International Committee of the Red Cross (1949) Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, Geneva.Available at: http://www.icrc.org/ihl.nsf/385ec082b509e76c41256739003e636d/6756482d86146898c125641e004aa3c5 [accessed November 28, 2011]

Peach, Lucinda (1994) ‘An Alternative to Pacifism? Feminism and Just-War Theory‘, Hypatia 9 (2), pp. 152-172.

Schott, Robin (2009) ‘Gender and “Postmodern War”‘ Hypatia 11 (4), pp. 19-29

Sjoberg, Laura (2006a) Gender, Justice, and the Wars in Iraq. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Sjoberg, Laura (2006b) ‘Gendered Realities of the Immunity Principle: Why Gender Analysis Needs Feminism‘, International Studies Quarterly 50 (4), pp. 889-910.

Sjoberg, Laura (2008) ‘Why Just War Needs Feminism Now More Than Ever‘, International Politics 45 (1), pp. 1-18.


1.) Laura Sjoberg (2006a) Gender, Justice, and the Wars in Iraq. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, p. 8

2.) Jean Bethke Elshtain (1987) Women and War. New York: Basic Books, pp. xii – xiv.

3.) Laura Sjoberg (2006b) ‘Gendered Realities of the Immunity Principle: Why Gender Analysis Needs

Feminism‘, International Studies Quarterly 50 (4), pp. 889-910, (p. 895)

4.) International Committee of the Red Cross (1949) Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, Geneva: Available at: http://www.icrc.org/ihl.nsf/385ec082b509e76c41256739003e636d/6756482d86146898c125641e004aa3c5 [accessed 28 November, 2011]

5.) Judith Gardam (1993) ‘Gender and Non-combatant Immunity‘, Transnational Law and Contemporary Problems 3, pp. 345-370, (p. 360) 

6.) Hillary Charlesworth and Christine Chinkin (2000) The Boundaries of International Law:a Feminist Analysis. Manchester: JurisPublishing/Manchester UniversityPress, pp. 386-387

7.) Charli Carpenter (2005) ‘Women, Children and Other Vulnerable Groups’’: Gender, Strategic Frames and the Protection of Civilians as a Transnational Issue‘, International Studies Quarterly 49 (2), pp. 295-334, (p. 296)

8.) Sjoberg, ‘Gendered Realities of the Immunity Principle‘, p. 896

9.) Gardam, ‘Gender and Non-combatant Immunity‘, p. 348

10.) Sjoberg, ‘Gendered Realities of the Immunity Principle‘, p. 896

11.) Sjoberg, ‘Gendered Realities of the Immunity Principle‘, p. 898

12.) Sjoberg, ‘Gendered Realities of the Immunity Principle‘, p. 898

13.) Sjoberg, ‘Gendered Realities of the Immunity Principle‘, p. 899

14.) John Howard and Laura Prividera (2004) ‘Rescuing Patriarchy or Saving "Jessica Lynch": The Rhetorical Construction of the American Woman Soldier‘, Women and Language 27 (2), pp.89-97, (p. 92)

15.) Howard and Prividera, p. 92

16.) Howard and Prividera, p. 93

17.) Howard and Prividera, p. 93

18.) Howard and Prividera, p. 94

19.) Sjoberg, ‘Gendered Realities of the Immunity Principle‘, p. 899

20.) Lucinda Peach (1994) ‘An Alternative to Pacifism? Feminism and Just-War Theory‘, Hypatia 9 (2), pp. 152-172, (p. 158)

21.) Peach, ‘An Alternative to Pacifism?‘, p. 158

22.) Carol Cohn (1987) ‘Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defence Intellectuals‘, Signs 12 (4), pp. 687-718, (p. 690)

23.) Carol Cohn quoted in Peach, ‘An Alternative to Pacifism?‘, p. 159

24.) Cohn, ‘Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defence Intellectuals‘, p. 691

25.) Carol Cohn, et. al., (2005) ‘The Relevance of Gender for Eliminating Weapons of Mass Destruction‘, Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, p. 4. Available at: http://www.un.org/disarmament/education/wmdcommission/files/No38.pdf [accessed December 5, 2011]

26.) Jesse Glenn Gray (1970) The Warriors: Reflections on men in battle. New York: Harper

Colophon, pp. 131-132

27.) Gray, The Warriors, p. 133

28.) Gray, The Warriors, p. 134

29.) Carol Gilligan (1982) In a different voice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 174

30.) Virginia Held (2005) The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 11

31.) Robin Schott (2009) ‘Gender and “Postmodern War”‘ Hypatia 11 (4), pp. 19-29 (p. 22)

32.) Held, The Ethics of Care, p. 10

33.) Laura Sjoberg (2008) ‘Why Just War Needs Feminism Now More Than Ever‘, International Politics 45 (1), pp. 1-18, (p. 8)

34.) Held, The Ethics of Care, p. 11

35.) Sjoberg, ‘Why Just War Needs Feminism Now More Than Ever‘, p. 8

36.) Sjoberg, ‘Why Just War Needs Feminism Now More Than Ever‘, p. 8

37.) Sjoberg, ‘Gendered Realities of the Immunity Principle‘, p. 905

38.) Sjoberg, ‘Gendered Realities of the Immunity Principle‘, p. 906

39.) Sjoberg, ‘Gendered Realities of the Immunity Principle‘, p. 907

40.) Sjoberg, ‘Gendered Realities of the Immunity Principle‘, p. 908

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