War Needs a Better Tagline

Long before I ever read the classic On War by Prussian war theorist Carl von Clausewitz, I was familiar with its most famous line--the one in which Clausewitz says, “War is merely the continuation of politics by other means.”

Yes, I realize that Clausewitz offered dialectic arguments and his insights on war are profound and nuanced, but my concern is that many citizens--and more importantly, politicians--to the extent that they know anything about a theory of war, accept uncritically what they have heard--that “war is merely the continuation of politics by other means.”  It’s not Clausewitz’s fault (nor anyone else’s) that his complex theory has been reduced in popular culture to a superficial tagline, but it has, and the result, I think, is morally problematic.

The German term that Clausewitz used, Politik, can mean “politics” or “policy.”  Both meanings of the term discount the importance of a war being morally justified.

Is war merely policy?  I think not. The decision to go to war is distinct from all other expressions of policy in that it forces people to kill and be killed on a large scale. Diplomatic statements are policy; tariffs and economic sanctions are policy. Although those types of policy affect people (and thus have an ethical component), they do not directly result in the intentional, large-scale killing of human beings, which wars inevitably do. War, then, should not be viewed as one tool among many in international policymaking; rather, war should be viewed as a last resort, to be utilized only when all other policies have failed to protect the people’s fundamental human rights.

Is war merely politics? Listening to our politicians, many of whom appear to base their war-authorization votes on the whims of poll results and the election cycle, one wonders if they do indeed view war as mere politics--as a means to help them and their party increase their political power. That wouldn't mean that they are necessarily bad people; they might be good people who know little about the moral reality of war and thus treat it as they do any other issue with political implications.

So, what might be a better, more ethical tagline for war? One that keeps at the forefront of everyone’s minds the fact that any decision to go to war must overcome a high moral hurdle? My first cut is:

“War is a last-resort defense of collective human rights.”

What do you think of this tagline? What do you think war’s tagline should be? I invite and welcome your critique and suggestions.


P Haas said...


I like the tagline, but I think it reflects a normative aspiration of what war ought to be rather than what war actually is. War ought to be a last-resort defense of collective human rights. Or perhaps, a morally justified war is a last-resort defense of collective human rights.

Pete Haas

Pete Kilner said...

Pete (good name, BTW), you are absolutely right that my proposed tagline is a normative aspiration.

Ethics, of course, is all about normative judgments--what we "ought" to do, how things "should be," as opposed to the descriptions ("this is how it is") of the social sciences.

Most people don't want to be known for doing immoral acts, which is why it's important to help our leaders (military and political) to understand that moral judgments can and should be made on their decision to enter into a war.

War isn't just "politics by other means"; it's also state-ordered killing of classes of people, aka, "killing that must be justified."

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