Civilization and War

Civilization and War

Brett Bowden

Civilization and war were born around the same time in roughly the same place – they have effectively grown up together. This challenges the belief that the more civilized we become, the less likely the resort to war to resolve differences and disputes. The related assumption that civilized societies are more likely to abide by the rules of war is also in dispute. Where does terrorism fit into debates about civilized and savage war? What are we to make of talk about an impending ‘clash of civilizations’? In a succinct yet wide ranging survey of history and of ideas that calls in to question a number of conventional wisdoms, Civilization and War explores these issues and more whilst outlining the two-way relationship between civilization and war.

Chapter 4: Civilization and savagery

Brett Bowden

Subjects: politics and public policy, international politics


As discussed in the preceding chapter, civilization and war are said to share a common heritage. It has also been suggested by Walter Benjamin that there “is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” or savagery. This contention is thought to be particularly pertinent when applied to situations of armed conflict or the theatre of war. This chapter, then, seeks to situate and explain the concepts of civilization and savagery, particularly in the context of times of war. Along with Chapter 6, it is more concerned with what is described as civilized and savage conduct in war, or what is known in just war and international humanitarian law literature as jus in bello. As explained in the Introduction, throughout much of organized human history, peoples, societies and states have been hierarchically divided on the basis of their proximity to the ideal of civilization. The most advanced collectives of peoples, civilized states, sit at the apex of civilizational hierarchy, while those at the other end of the scale are said to be not far removed from the state of nature.

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