Skip to content

Rousseau’s War

November 3, 2010

Sorry if the picture's pretty crappy, it's the best I could do with powerpoint editing.

War and slavery.

Perhaps two of the darkest words in the english language, but words that come up quite frequently nonetheless. Both have been discussed, or eluded to, in practically every reading that has been assigned in class, probably due to their importance in politics and civil society. But what hasn’t come up in every reading was Rousseau’s take on these two.

Rousseau takes care to strictly define war and who is envolved. According to him, war is not “a relationship between one man and another, but a relationship between one state and another”. Rousseau uses this fact to say that an individual need only worry about his life and possessions if he is actually fighting in the war, but as soon as that person lays down their arms and surrenders they can no longer be harmed.

If this doesn’t seem like a giant leap in the civilness of war to you, history can help. When the Mytileans revolted against the Athenian Empire they were quickly defeated… so far so civil (or as civil as war can be). But upon surrender, Athens decreed that all the men on the island be put to death and all the women and children be sold as slaves… “Alright, that was just one bad judgement” you might say, but think of the firebombing of Japan during WWII. If you’ve seen “The Fog of War”, the fact that we (the United States) killed over  500,000 civilians through firebombing, and then another couple hundred thousand with the atomic bombs should’ve stuck out. If he was still alive, I think Rousseau would’ve had a thing or two to say to the U.S. government at the very notion of bombing civilian cities.

Although many examples can be drawn from wars after Rousseau’s time suggesting that we didn’t learn anything, I think we did. My proof is the Geneva Conventions. All four conventions, held at various points from 1864 to 1949, were aimed at humanitarian goals with respect to war. They created the Red Cross, protected prisoners of war, and civilians. Out of all of them, the last convention is really what shows that we are at least attempting to move towards a Rousseau-ean idea of war. It specifically prohibited any violent or humiliating act towards a soldier that has laid down their arms and defines the status and treatment of protected people (civilians). Armies were no longer allowed to collectively punish, meaning that an individual or group could not be harmed in person or possession because of something they didn’t do.

In case you’re wondering how slavery applies to this post, the legal definition is “A civil relationship in which one person has absolute power over the life, fortune, and liberty of another.” Under this definition, Nazi Concentration Camps were a form of slavery, and that’s just one example; forcing captured soldiers and citizens to work is nothing new. The Geneva Conventions also aimed to ensure that this treatment of soldiers and citizens would be illegal and out of practice. According to Rousseau,

“the right of slavery is null, not simply because it is illegitimate, but because it is absurd and meaningless.”

Even in war when there is a right to kill, it cannot be substituted for a right to slavery.

Rousseau’s notion of war and slavery was idealistic and ahead of his time. So much so, that even after more than 200 years, we still haven’t achieved it. If the his ideas of war were truths of how the world operated, it would be a much better place. I think that the one chapter discussing slavery holds more in it than volumes upon volumes of some texts could ever hope.

  1. mbhilton permalink
    November 3, 2010 2:54 PM

    Rousseau’s theory of treatment during war is an ideal. While it would indeed make war something far more bearable, the truth of the matter is that war is, and always will be, ugly. The rules laid down in the Geneva Convention only hold as long as someone who upholds them is present. After all, it is the soldiers that fight the wars even though nations start them and create the rules; and even though soldiers receive rigorous training, they are still human and in the middle of battle, their only concern will be to stay alive and get home.

  2. Nick Weeks permalink
    November 3, 2010 9:07 PM

    Interesting article, yet Rousseau’s theory still stands up with your example of the Mytilean revolt. To execute the male population and to enslave the women and children was the original decision, yet the Athenians changes their minds and did not harm those who surrendered. This is accounted with Diodotus’ speech in Book 3 of Thucydides’ “History of the Peloponnesian War” Also, with the example of the Atomic and fire bombing of Japan, Rousseau said that war is a relationship between one state and another, and that one must surrender to not be harmed. The people of Japan were part of the state and had not surrendered to the US. The US was still in conflict with the state of Japan when it attacked. Thus in this light Rousseau’s logic still holds.

    • nickcolaccino permalink
      November 4, 2010 4:37 PM

      I agree with you on the fact that, thanks to Diodotus, the Athenians changed their mind, but I left that part out because it doesn’t matter. If Rousseau’s idea of war had been in application from the beginning, the very thought of killing and enslaving would never have been proposed. The fact that the Athenians seriously considered killing and enslaving an entire population after surrender (even sending the ship to carry out the orders) shows that Rousseau’s idea of war was not applied.

      As far as the atomic bombing of Japan is concerned, it is true that the Japanese government refused to surrender to the United States, but that was the government. Rousseau makes a point to say that the people, including those fighting, are not held accountable for the entire war or any crimes not directly committed by them. Sure, an individual soldier could surrender, and so could a civilian, but those people could not surrender on behalf of Japan itself. Yes, these people were part of the state, but that does not make them accountable in the eyes of Rousseau. The United States violated his idea by killing civilians (who could never actually surrender, because they weren’t fighting in the first place) and soldiers (who were never given a chance to surrender).

      One more point, It is discussed in the “fog of war” and most history books that the purpose of the firebombings, doolittle raid, and nuclear bombs were not to defeat the Japanese militarily, but to demoralize the people. The U.S. was well aware that they were targeting civilian areas, but deemed it a necessary evil as in Dresden in the European Theatre. It is often argued that if the allies had lost the war, many of our leaders would’ve been put on trial for war crimes, just as the axis leaders were.

  3. yequan permalink
    November 4, 2010 12:52 AM

    When I was reading that part of On Social Contract, I felt that Rousseau’s idea is such great that even many of people nowadays do not understand the meaning of war and what sort if actions can be done during warfare. For now there still might be unfair punishment to soldiers who already surrender or give up fighting.
    Also, Rousseau’s view about slavery is significant and modern at his time. Three hundreds years ago, it was common that many countries regard slavery as a fair system. Even the United States took a long time to eliminate the slavery.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: