Inter arma enim silent leges

12 May 2010


The war crimes of Srebrenica happened during the life time of most people alive today. The Bosnian War is over, but its legacy of horror lives on.

The ancient Latin epigram Inter arma enim silent leges tells us that the laws are silent in the time of war. And for good reason. Morality is transformed during a time of war. The laws that address the morality of peacetime must fall silent when the morality of wartime has displaced the other. As much as we try to govern war and create civilized laws and rules for war, the beast once unleashed will not be contained. Atrocities escalate in a spiral of revenge and retaliation, and soon we are numbed to the horror and it requires a horror of monumental proportions to make us realize what we are doing — and then this realization only dawns slowly.

A few days ago in Moral Borderlands I suggested that during periods of rapid social change the morality associated with one stable period coming to an end is in conflict with an inchoate morality of a dawning new age, and this moral borderland between the past and the future is in many ways like the geographical borderlands between adjacent nation-states.

It occurs to me now that wars are also moral borderlands — a contrived and even, in a sense, a purpose-built borderland between the ordinary morality of peacetime and extraordinary morality of wartime. Like the Moral Borderlands I previously described, the moral borderland of war is a temporal borderland, but in the case of war rather than being the border between past and future, it is the border between a time of madness and a time of sanity. More than a temporal borderland, wars are temporary borderlands.

All of the patient work of civilization to turn men into good and obedient citizens who are horrified at the thought of killing their neighbors is suddenly suspended, and not only suspended, but men are trained to kill and put in a situation in which they are expected to systematically kill, and are rewarded for the efficiency and heroism of their killing. And then this indulgence of violence must come to an end, and the instinct for violence, allowed briefly to run riot, is to be tamed again and returned to the cage of civilization. That this is not easy and not always successful is well known.

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