Nina Power reviews Judith Butler’s Frames of War for The Philosopher’s Magazine
October 7, 2009 by versouk
Nina Power reviews Judith Butler’s Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? with Killing in War by Jeff McMahan (Oxford University Press) in tpm’s October issue:
War is losing the battle for hearts and minds. Never very popular, the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have come to be seen as ever more futile, expensive and interminable. As increasing numbers of young soldiers die in Afghanistan, the British government is under serious pressure to pull troops out at the same time as the US becomes yet more entrenched. Meanwhile, the last man in Britain to have fought in World War I, Harry Patch, who died recently at the age of 111, far from being proud of his involvement, claimed that “war is organised murder, and nothing else.”
Two authors of recent books on war, Judith Butler and Jeff McMahan, whilst taking very different approaches to the topic, would in the main agree with Patch. What the two books share, apart from a deep antipathy to recent military campaigns, is a desire to rethink classical approaches to war. For McMahan, this takes the form of a highly persuasive critique of just war theory, with a particularly acute attack on Michael Walzer, its leading theorist. For Butler it involves rethinking the “frames” of war, the way we conceive of different lives, the way some lives seem to “count” while others barely feature at all. As such, Butler’s approach focuses on the media, particularly photography, whilst McMahan’s approach effectively combines analytic moral philosophy with historical and contemporary cases. Both are vital contributions to an important, but often surprisingly neglected, debate about the morality and ethical status of war.
McMahon’s book offers some fine, clear answers including a call for an “impartial international court” to adjudicate upon the rightness or otherwise of waging war, whilst Butler’s book leaves open the question of the extent to which we are all complicit in the way in which lives are counted and framed. Both thinkers should be central in any careful discussion of war, and even more so in the frequently reckless decision to wage it.”
Read the full review here.