Karma Nabulsi

in Traditions of War

Published in print October 1999 | ISBN: 9780198294078
Published online November 2003 | e-ISBN: 9780191599972 | DOI:

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This short introduction describes the approach taken by the book and gives a brief outline of its contents. The story is about wars and military occupation, and the ideas underlying them, and the search for these ideas is carried out in the domain of the laws of war by addressing the challenge posed by a particular principle in these laws: the distinction between combatant and non-combatant, a concept which has been recognized as the fundamental principle upon which the entire notion of ‘humanity in warfare’ rests (and has also been acknowledged as the most fragile). The forces underpinning this distinction (more precisely, a distinction between the lawful and unlawful combatant) are explored by presenting three ideologies, each representing a distinct political tradition of war, and each rooted in incommensurable conceptions of the good life; the overall argument of the book is that this incommensurability lay at the source of the failure fully to resolve the problem of distinction between lawful and unlawful combatants between 1874 and 1949. The book makes use of concepts and methods borrowed from a range of intellectual disciplines: political thought, history, and the ‘classical’ traditions of international theory. In the case of the latter, it examines the influence of key thinkers on war, such as Machiavelli, Grotius, and Rousseau, but differs from this orthodox approach in two ways: first, it is not seeking to ascertain the ‘true’ meaning of their philosophies, but rather to find how their political thoughts were interpreted and shaped by later generations; second, the examination is not restricted to abstract theorists and philosophers but is centrally concerned with paradigms constructed by practitioners of war, both professional and civilian.

Keywords: Grotius; history; ideologies of war; international theory; lawful combatants; laws of war; Machiavelli; military occupation; political thought; Rousseau; traditions of war; unlawful combatants; wars

Chapter.  1420 words. 

Subjects: International Relations

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