Chapter 2 Reading

This is a course about the overlap between war and political repression. In a wider sense, it is about the role that normative evalution plays in a variety of competing conceptual frames for describing organised political violence. A particular feature of the course is that we will be looking at the considerable overlap between war and political repression, primarily in internal conflicts, insurgencies, terrorism, and instances of violent political repression.

This is a guide to the course vernacular. This is necessary because we’ll be covering a number of topics from different disciplinary perspectives. This creates a problem, in that a turn of phrase in one discipline might be a term of art in another. What one discipline holds to be a stable object of concern is, from the perspective of another, a contested concept. Sometimes people use completely different terms to refer to the same set of events. For instance, a strategist’s war is (in the present day) an international lawyer’s international armed conflict.

The expected reading for the course is contained in the week-by-week readings. This chapter exists as a backup in case you are having difficulty putting the pieces together. You are not expected to become conversant in a half-dozen disciplines over the course of a single module, but you are expected to have an understanding of the general ideas motivating these different ways of studying war and armed conflict.

2.1 Do I Need to Buy Anything?

No. The library should provide digital access to all resources on the course.6 If you can’t access something online, email me and I will solve the problem asap That said, there’s a couple of books that you might want to pick up a copy of, because we’ll be relying upon them a lot during the course.

We’ll be relying upon Helen Frowe’s (2015) The Ethics of War and Peace for the first seminar series, alongside Mark Timmons’ (2013) Moral Theory. In term 2, we’ll be relying upon Neta C. Crawford’s (2013) Accountability for Killing for a research series, and Austin Long’s (2016) The Soul of Armies as prep for the second seminar series.7 Your studies in term 2 will be immeasurably easier if you read these over Christmas

2.2 Okay, Where Do I Start?

There are a couple of key concepts that we’ll be using in this course a lot. If you are not familiar with them, you should try to familiarise yourself with them as soon as possible. By “familiarise” I don’t mean “read ten articles on the subject”, I mean understand the basic meaning of the word/phrase as it is generally used in discussions about war and national security. If you are unfamiliar with any of the following terms as they are used in strategic studies or security studies, here are quick links to chapters/articles that you can read.

  • War. See Beatrice Heuser’s (2010) The Evolution of Strategy, chapter 1
  • Strategy. See Beatrice Heuser’s (2010) The Evolution of Strategy, chapter 1
  • Security. See Barry Buzan and Lene Hansen’s (2009) The Evolution of International Security Studies, chapter 2
  • National security. See David Omand’s (2010) Securing the State, chapter 1
  • Political repression. See, christian Davenport’s (2007a) State Repression and the Domestic Democratic Peace, chapter 1
  • Violence. See Stathis N. Kalyvas’ (2006) The Logic of Violence in Civil War, chapter 1
  • Legitimacy. See Andrew Hurrell’s (2005) “Legitimacy and the Use of Force: Can the Circle Be Squared?” In Force and Legitimacy in World Politics
  • Ethics. See Mark Timmons’ (2013) Moral Theory: An Introduction , chapter 1
  • Norm theory (International Relations). See Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink’s (1998) “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change.”
  • Intelligence. See Loch K. Johnson’s (2017) National Security Intelligence, chapter 1

2.3 The Idea

What makes a war a “dirty war”? Why do some people state that some “dirty wars” in history were in fact instances of political repression, or one-sided violence, or state terrorism? This course examines the role that rules, and expected standards of conduct play in such questions.

The fundamental question underlying all of these is: What makes violence legitimate,8 Oxford English Dictionary definitions: “Conforming to the law or to rules.” or “Able to be defended with logic or justification; valid.” or illegitimate?9 OED: “Not authorized by the law; not in accordance with accepted standards or rules.” Let’s start with a basic unit of analysis: When is it right, or wrong, for the state to kill someone?10 Over the course we’ll be talking about violence beyond killing, and things like torture which some people consider to be worse than killing. We’ll also be talking about actions short of killing which some people nonetheless consider to be harmful or wrong. Now let’s take a step back: How do people arrive at an answer to the previous question? Typically the answer can be found in three inter-related disciplines. There’s law, where national (constitutional) law and international law both regulate the conduct of states to some degree. There’s morality, whether you want to think about a form of external objective morality, or social norms and customs. Then there’s political science and political theory, where we find discussions about the effective and/or proper limits of state authority and the use of force by state agents.11 Like: Should the death penalty exist? We find concepts running through all three disciplines, like justice, but we also find significant differences.

One such difference is the idea of status. For example, in moral philosophy we’re usually talking about the relations between individuals, but political theory is very much concerned with relations between states and citizens. Citizenship can confer different rights, depending upon the legal system, but international human rights law contains the idea that there are human rights possessed by individuals regardless of their country of citizenship. The law of armed conflict contains a whole bunch of different categories of person - combatant, civilian, etc - which denote whom it is lawful to attack in an armed conflict, and who is off limits. As such, a lot of what we will be talking about is not only the legitimation of violence, but expectations of status, and resulting expectations of behaviour.

This means that a particular feature of this course will be its focus upon the competition between multiple frames of evaluating, justifying, excusing, explaining, or criticising the use of violence. The question is therefore not so much “Did x do wrong to y?” but how different ways of evaluating the actions of x can give entirely different answers. A key commonality of the course is therefore the “is/ought” problem in the context of war and political violence.12 This construction is taken from David Hume, who made the point better than I could a could a couple of hundred years ago. See Cohon (2018) By this, I mean the way in which we jump from the empirical analysis of human behaviour to normative standards by which we judge said behaviour. However, and this is important, there is a world of difference between the “should” that one encounters in moral philosophy, and the “should” that one encounters in strategic theory.

2.4 Okay, So How Do We Explore That?

Read a book. Or, rather, pick a perspective that interests you from the list below, and read the relevant book over the Christmas break.

  • Strategic thought or strategic studies, read one out of: Beatrice Heuser’s (2010) The Evolution of Strategy, Colin S. Gray’s (2010) The Strategy Bridge, or Lawrence Freedman’s (2015) Strategy: A History.
  • Security studies, try Barry Buzan’s (2007) People, States & Fear.
  • International relations, try Vivienne Jabri’s (2010) War and the Transformation of Global Politics.
  • Political violence, try Christian Davenport’s (2007a) State Repression and the Domestic Democratic Peace.
  • Political theory, try Judith Butler’s (2016) Frames of War.
  • War, try Stathis N. Kalyvas’ (2006) The Logic of Violence in Civil War, or Christopher Coker’s (2009) War In an Age of Risk.
  • Ethics, read Helen Frowe’s (2015) The Ethics of War and Peace.13 Sharp-eyed readers will note that we’re reading this anyway for the course this year, so it’s a fall-back position by default
  • International law, try reading Stephen C. Neff’s (2014) Justice Among Nations. If you are doing the International Peace & Security MA, you might want a more technical book, so try Gary D. Solis’ (2016) The Law of Armed Conflict.
  • The lecturer’s opinion,14 Hey, some people are interested in that sometimes… try Jack McDonald’s (2017) Enemies Known and Unknown.

After you’ve picked a book/subject, start picking it apart for the following clusters of questions:

  • The problem and legitimacy of violence
  • Power structures and objects of analysis
  • Knowledge and uncertainty
  • Ideas and objectivity

2.5 The Problem and Legitimacy of Violence

A good way to read a text through on a first pass is to keep in mind the problem of violence. Or, rather, read the text to see if the author frames violence as a problem, and how central the concept of violence is to the argument that they are making. In some texts, violence might be the central object of concern, in others, violence might be an important factor, in others, it might be a secondary issue. Moreover, some texts will depict violence as aberrant, whereas in some disciplines, the fact of violence and violent interactions is taken as something of a given.

The point here is that we might be concerned with violence, but violence is not the central concern of many texts or disciplines in which violence features as a concern or problem. Even though article 2(4) of the UN Charter and international humanitarian law are uber-important in international relations, we should keep in mind that reading international law for issues related to the use of force is a bit like skinny-dipping in a discipline.

A second concern is to read the text for the structure of legitimate force, if it exists. By this, I mean that each will text will have something to do with the legitimacy or illegitimacy of violence. Most texts contain some discussion of what makes violence legitimate, or from a more neutral perspective, legitimate to participants. Some texts, however, won’t contain a “pro” violence argument. The absence of such an argument doesn’t necessarily mean the author is a pacificist, more that their work doesn’t seek to provide a legitimating structure for violence.

2.6 Power Structures and Objects of Analysis

A second cluster of questions you should keep in mind while reading a text is the way in which it defines, or assumes, power structures or relations between agents. Does, for example, the text take the problem of adversity seriously? Or, rather, how are people or states meant to respond to hostile opponents? Again, the absence of answers to adversaries doesn’t necessarily indicate ignorance, rather a different perspective on the matter.

Bear in mind that relationships between adversaries and agents may be completely implicit in a text. For example, states are often treated as equals in the big-S sense that States form an international system of States. That said, in many cases discussion of power relationships and hierarchies will focus upon particular asymmetries or differences, e.g. the relations between states and rebels, or discussion of the role of violence in hegemonic or post-colonial world orders. The point here is to read a text for both its presumptions of equality and inequality, alongside the way it frames particular power relations or structures. Depicting a pair of states as entirely free to choose how they relate to one another not only presumes the equality of the actors, but also brackets out the power structure implicit in the context of international society.

As a last set of issues to consider in this cluster, you should read the text to understand the ontology it is mapping out. Does, for instance, it talk about social groups, or social networks? Is the worldview of the text cosmopolitan - taking individuals as equal regardless of things like citizenship or community, or are the building blocks social institutions like military organisations or states? How does, for example, the text describe the relationship between individuals and social groups? How complex are the social relationships under consideration? Bear in mind that any single piece of analysis by definition foregrounds some social features and flattens or sidelines a whole bunch of social complexity.

2.7 Knowledge and Uncertainty

What assumptions does the text you’ve chosen make about knowledge? This is a big topic. The best way to approach it for this course is to read your text for its treatment of uncertainty. For example, does it even consider the uncertainty, or does it presume knowledge of certain features of the world? Given that imperfect information and epistemic uncertainty are constitutive factors in political conflict or war,15 And that’s before you get to disagreements over the interpretation of facts… does your chosen text engage with these problems, or largely avoid them?

The point here is that some disciplines are essentially built upon a worldview of human fallibility and ignorance. Strategic studies and intelligence studies wouldn’t really exist in a world of omniescent hominids. Other disciplines, for instance moral theory, acknowledge the imperfections of the “real” world, but the bulk of the discipline is built upon discussions where facts under consideration can be fixed for the purposes of discussion. This isn’t to diss the latter category of disciplines, but each approach serves as a mirror to the other.

2.8 Ideas and Objectivity

The last set of questions to consider relate to the role of ideas. Some people think ideas are really powerful, that they shape our whole world. Other people think ideas matter, but that there are underlying structures that are independent of ideas themselves. It is extraordinarily difficult to compare and contrast the role of ideas across disciplines. You should, however, read your chosen text with an eye for the impact, if any, that human ideas and the imagination are meant to have on the world around us. Do shared sets of ideas and concepts constitute our reality? Moreover, what role does the text presuppose for the reconstitution of reality via changing ideas? Will, for example, persuading everyone of some idea make for a better world? How?

A key element to consider here is the role that objectivity plays in your selected text. Often objective or universal positions are presented as somehow value neutral. The text you have chosen might equally be an open or veiled criticism of this kind of abstract universal thinking.16 Sometimes universal pretence masks underlying power dynamics, etc. So in a wider sense while reading your text for the role of ideas, it is often a good idea to note where and how discussions of objectivity and subjectivity fit into the structure of the work, or discipline, and why that is so.


Butler, Judith. 2016. Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? London: Verso.

Buzan, Barry. 2007. People, States & Fear: An Agenda for International Security Studies in the Post-Cold War Era. Second. ECPR Press.

Buzan, Barry, and Lene Hansen. 2009. The Evolution of International Security Studies. Cambridge University Press.

Cohon, Rachel. 2018. “Hume’s Moral Philosophy.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Fall 2018.; Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.

Coker, Christopher. 2009. War in an Age of Risk. Polity.

Crawford, Neta. 2013. Accountability for Killing: Moral Responsibility for Collateral Damage in America’s Post-9/11 Wars. Oxford University Press.

Davenport, Christian. 2007a. State Repression and the Domestic Democratic Peace. Cambridge University Press.

Finnemore, Martha, and Kathryn Sikkink. 1998. “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change.” International Organization 52 (4). [MIT Press, University of Wisconsin Press, Cambridge University Press, International Organization Foundation]:887–917.

Freedman, Lawrence. 2015. Strategy: A History. Oxford University Press.

Frowe, Helen. 2015. The Ethics of War and Peace: An Introduction. Routledge.

Gray, Colin S. 2010. The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Heuser, Beatrice. 2010. The Evolution of Strategy: Thinking War from Antiquity to the Present. Cambridge University Press.

Hurrell, Andrew. 2005. “Legitimacy and the Use of Force: Can the Circle Be Squared?” In Force and Legitimacy in World Politics, edited by David Armstrong, Theo Farrell, and Bice Maiguashca. Cambridge University Press.

Jabri, Vivienne. 2010. War and the Transformation of Global Politics. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Johnson, Loch K. 2017. National Security Intelligence. Second. Polity.

Kalyvas, Stathis N. 2006. The Logic of Violence in Civil War. Cambridge University Press.

Long, Austin. 2016. The Soul of Armies: Counterinsurgency Doctrine and Military Culture in the Us and Uk. Cornell University Press.

McDonald, Jack. 2017. Enemies Known and Unknown: Targeted Killings in America’s Transnational Wars. Oxford University Press.

Neff, Stephen C. 2014. Justice Among Nations. Harvard University Press.

Omand, David. 2010. Securing the State. London: Hurst & Company.

Solis, Gary D. 2016. The Law of Armed Conflict: International Humanitarian Law in War. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Timmons, Mark. 2013. Moral Theory: An Introduction. Second. Rowman & Littlefield.