The rule of war

ADS_274_300por300The latest issue of Lisbon’s Análise Social has a special section devoted to the work of historical sociologist Michael Mann (all in English).  I’ve admired Mann’s historical and geographical range – and his combination of narrative and analytical power – ever since I read the first volume of his Sources of social power (1986; new edition 2012).

In the course of an interview with Miguel Bandeira Jéronimo, Mann describes the conceptual changes he has introduced as his multi-volume project has progressed, and he draws particular attention to his attempt to clarify the distinction between political power and military power:

Political power is the institutionalization of power relations over a given territory, backed up by mostly non-lethal, routinized and rule-governed coercion. Military power is the deployment of lethal violence which is aimed deliberately at terrifying, killing, and wounding people, and which is minimally or not at all institutionalized or rule-governed. Geopolitics lies between the two and can be either an extension of political or military power, according to whether inter-state relations contain matters of peace or war. The former are subject to negotiated rules and international courts and tribunals, the latter are not.

Leaving aside Mann’s claims about geopolitics, which I leave to my friends who work in that area, and the idea of a ‘given territory’ (on which I suspect Stuart Elden would have much to say), I’m puzzled by this.

I accept that not all rules are codified into formal protocols, but even in the case of so-called ‘new wars’ is military violence really perpetrated in a rule-free zone?  The operative codes may not be ‘ours’, and they may be fluid and improvisational, but this does not mean they don’t have a substantial role in drawing the contours of military and paramilitary violence.

And surely military power in many (though not all) of its contemporary forms is highly institutionalised and ‘rule-governed’?  The bureaucratisation of modern war, and in its later forms its juridification, is highly advanced: I don’t mean to imply that this is unproblematic, of course, still less that the rules remain intact throughout a conflict, and the reach of international courts and tribunals is evidently highly skewed (not least through the operation of political power), but still…  I think we need a much more nuanced account of the relations between law and war, one which recognises the complicities between them and, in particular, the ways in which military violence frequently works to extend the boundaries of a law that travels in the rear, its baggage train so to speak.

Finally, these clarifications are too clear.  In particular, they don’t address intra-state and transnational conflicts, and they make the distinction between ‘war’ and ‘peace’ such a black and white affair.  And here, plainly, the question of territory reappears in even more urgent (and contested) form.