The Arab World Geographer
Forum on The 2003 War on/in Iraq

The Tale of the Just War—A Post-Structuralist Objection

Paul Reuber

Institut für Geographie, Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster, Robert-Koch-Strasse 26    48149    Münster    Germany

The tale of the just war—one might assume—is as old as mankind. Throughout all ages of history humans have assaulted each other and have made themselves believe that all the killing is for a “good reason,” that there is a moral justification for marching out to meet the enemy in the field, for drawing the dagger, for pulling the trigger, for dropping some bombs, or for manœuvring an aircraft into skyscrapers.

It is this “just reason” that interests me as a political geographer and that I want to reflect on in this short contribution; because when I am asked to comment on the war of these days from a scholarly point of view, I want to be careful to avoid treating the inevitably tragic events like a rover from battle to battle. I also refuse to play my part in propagating the conjectures, fears, and censored “truths” that keep the wheels of both the media and the military machinery in motion. Otherwise, I would be merely another prey-hungry trendsetter in pursuit of his own profit out of the horror at the flanks of war.

When I, as a political geographer, try to think about the unimaginable in these days of war, I cannot but be riveted on the BEFORE, on the question, By means of what conjuring games of language and of geopolitics has the carnage been transformed into a “just war”; in other words, By means of what rhetoric, by what discourses about the putatively Other, the putatively Evil, and the putatively conquerable has the violence been legitimized. Such a critical view analyzes what means of language have not only constructed, but also demonized, the Other in discourse and how the Own has been presented as the putatively good, right, and morally superior.

Geopolitical dualizations and divisions are the weapons in this war of discourse. “If you’re not with us, you’re against us,” claimed George Bush—there was no middle ground left. Those who designate “rogue states” and put them on a map precisely establish the discursive representation and legitimation for going to war against such countries. That in doing so, one implicitly designates all the people in this country as rogues, however diverse they be in their opinions and worldviews, not only is often tacitly and approvingly accepted but is the ineluctable means in this discursive struggle for power and space in international geopolitics. It is precisely this nexus of culture and territory that in geopolitical discourse forms the basis for the territorial conflict, for the armed conflict that is war.

In deconstructing such geopolitical discourses, political geography elucidates the central role that language plays in the preparation of physical violence. Referring to Foucault, such a perspective points out that the old saying of “war as politics pursued by other means” can be reversed: Politics is war pursued by other means. More precisely, geopolitics is a war of discourse on space, power and politics. It is the instrument not only to define Good and Evil, but also to locate and confine such stereotypes in space, creating different territories separating between “us” and “them.” By recourse to a constructivist, anti-essentialist post-modern ontology critical geopolitics can show that such dualisms are not based on the groundwork of “natural” social, cultural, or spatial differences but are woven from the networks of language—and exclusively from these. The logic of war is nothing but a socio-spatial construction and convention, which lacks a basis in essentiality and never will find one. The cognitions of philosophers such as Latour, Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, and many others indicate that all the values people hold to be “the right ones” and all the convictions they believe in are not to be justified but by the power of construction and reiteration in discourse. No matter how firmly some of us may believe them to be the last stable truth, in the light of scholarly deconstruction, they all turn out to be no more than stipulations, conventions, and agreements, which attain the status of ostensible truths only by the power of what Foucault describes as the “hegemonic discursive formation.”

The same accounts can be offered—maybe even more obviously—for those territorial units that seem to be “at war” against each other for the sake of some such values: Without exception, they are nothing else than historical constructions with a comparatively short lifespan. Furthermore, if the leaders of some countries in this world try to make us believe that the U.S. and their allies are obliged to fight the Iraqis (and vice versa), their thinking is caught in what John Agnew calls a “territorial trap”: They tend to forget all too soon and all too willingly that between the people inside such state-containers the differences in attitudes and opinions may sometimes be more obvious than between the people on either side of those demarcations constructed in geopolitical discourse to separate nation states, regional cultures, civilizations, or whatever. Nation states are not enemies by definition; they only become enemies by means of spatial constructions and divisions in discourse. Cultures and civilizations are neither entities nor enemies “by nature”; they have only become taken for granted since an ever increasing number of people, in particular of politicians, intellectuals of statecraft, journalists, film producers, and many others have begun spreading the new grand geopolitical narrative of the clash of cultures since the end of the geopolitical grand narrative of the Cold War.

That many people trust this rhetoric of simplification all too willingly is a matter not of factual differences, but of the persistent power of the discourses that have developed over long periods of time and that shape the minds not only of the geopoliticians, but even of common people, in everyday life. In fact, they have been so deeply internalized in the “great lore” of the people that not only are they regarded as “truths” but, as a matter of course, serve as justifications for the wars of the new millennium.

Political geography can break up such powerful geopolitical imaginations. It indicates that oppositions that lead to such wars as we have to witness once again in the Gulf are not following any kind of essentialist geospatial logic but have developed from the tidal waves of geopolitical discourse. Only along this line it is explicable how both parties, with God and the Good on their own sides, can attack the Evil, the Other. Only along this line is it explicable that suicide bombers and soldiers are ready to sacrifice their own lives and those of others.

Finally, it has only been possible along this line, that once again a tremendous military machine could be set in motion in the Gulf in the name of freedom, democracy, and human rights, the soldiers going to war now, once again, against the ostensibly Evil, in their tow all the ostensibly neutral observers of the global media-maniacs, who report how the bombs hit not only the bunkers and arms with “surgical precision,” but also villages, farmers, women, and children. Political geography—I must admit—feels faint in such times of war. Its own struggle against the generalizing power of language, against the sirens’ songs of geopolitics, which constantly prepare and justify the violence anew through the construction of the Own and the Other, the Good and the Evil, takes place first and foremost when the arms are silent (again), in the so-called peace or, in other words, in the calm before the next (desert?)storm.

What political geography wants to make people aware of and visualize with its analyses, one can read in principle in the great books of all the religions: “In the beginning,” so it goes, “there was the Word.” The war in Iraq is (once again) the result of a most influential formation of words, a new, global geopolitical discourse about space, power, and culture. A critical perspective, a critical geopolitics, aims at the disclosure and the deconstruction of such geopolitical rhetoric and language-games. It aims not only at tolerance, but at the people’s active awareness of what the geopolitical imagination of the Own and the Other effects in our heads. Precisely such discourses are the sources, where time and again in history, the powerful and the demagogues with their wrathful faces and their “holy sobriety” have found their rhetorical instruments, the ostensible “good reasons,” to wage the next round of war and death, in New York and Afghanistan yesterday, in Iraq today, and very likely somewhere else in the world tomorrow.

(Submitted 14 April 2003)
© The Arab World Geographer

Editorial: Falah 

Contributions: Dalby / Dijkink / Lustick / Hixson / Farhan / Shuraydi / Khashan / Reuber / Sidaway

Commentaries: Wesbter / Murphy / Agnew

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