It was the crowning achievement of early-modern public law to have channelled generalized collective violence — an ongoing European civil war — into a ‘war in form’, conducted exclusively among legally recognized states according to certain rules and conventions. This move entailed, according to Schmitt, a clear distinction between belligerents and neutrals, combatants and non-combatants, states of war and states of peace. Schmitt referred to these achievements as the ‘bracketing of war’, which he lauded as the civilisation, rationalisation and humanisation of war. Modern inter-state warfare came to be conducted among equals, according to certain inter-subjectively agreed and commonly binding legal conventions […] which also implied the positive making of peace.

— Benno Teschke. New Left Review, page 64, issue 67 (February-January 2011)

We can apply the same logic to the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ as a return to that condition of generalised collective violence. Of course, any reading of Schmitt does come with some fairly significant caveats, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be studied.

Here’s a very simplified idea of how people did war between 1648 and the Napoleonic era: standing armies of professional soldiers gathered in a field to kill each other. When the slaughter was over, the generals and statesmen got together to write out a treaty whereby the losing side had to pay the winner a certain forfeit. After signing the treaty, both parties shake hands, acknowledge each other as equals, and go back to doing whatever it was they were doing before the war.

This presupposes the Westphalian model of war as a means of diplomacy, whereas the dominant model of (post-)modern war is borderless insurgency between a myriad of militias. In those conditions what constitutes a victory is difficult to define, and the terms of peace are equally blurry. Conflict is often still motivated by elite power struggles, but the soldiers don’t see their opponents as equal, they’re mobilised by ideology or identity, each side believing themselves to be fighting a just war.

Nuclear conflict is probably the last remaining form of legitimate war today, but even that begs the question: is there such a thing as a legitimate war? Or for that matter, is there such a thing as a just war? And is it possible to even ask those questions without treading on shaky ground?

Teschke is a lecturer at the university, I think I’ve seen him around. When I’ve got a free afternoon I’m going to read through his discussion with Gopal Balakrishnan in the later issues of New Left Review.