Criminology and War: Transgressing the Borders

Editors: Sandra Walklate and Ross McGarry
Publisher: Abingdon, Oxon, UK; New York: Routledge, 2015. 232p.
Reviewer: Teresa Degenhardt | March 2016

This collection of essays edited by McGarry and Walklate takes on the difficult task of analyzing war through the various lenses of criminology. Coming from the fringes, the work aims at re-bordering the discipline by repositioning war at the centre. It focuses less on the practices of war and more on traditional aspects of criminology: the labeling process, law and war; war and the criminal justice system; veterans and prison, veterans and probation, veterans and reintegration, veterans as victims, war and justice; war and sexual violence.

The book is divided into three main sections: 1) theorizing war, law and crime; 2) linking war and criminal justice; and 3) linking war, sexual violence and trauma. For clarity, I will discuss each in turn — but there are points of conjunction among the three.

In the first section, Vincenzo Ruggiero reconstructs the ways war used to be sanctified as an important step in the evolution of societies, and opposes to it a view of war as the place where “in many circumstances, it is hard to distinguish between police forces, soldiers, mercenaries, and criminals: they all become agents of social control and crimes are encouraged as essential components of the conflict in which they are engaged” (29). He shows how the labeling process works in the context of military might, suggesting political and cultural axioms are mobilized to provide moral justifications of the use of violence in war, i.e., as expressions of collective fervor to better the social world.

In this same section, David Whyte points out current regulations are ineffective at stopping corporations who take advantage of regimes of permission authorized by states seeking to render war more civil. The state regulation of war is seen not so much as an advancement of its criminalization, but as offering space for new weapons and tactics and new forms of war. Ultimately, states and corporations have a symbiotic relationship and common interests in their war adventures.

Emma Murray focuses on the problem of violent veterans. She understands this problem as an opportunity to question the nature of war and the responsibility of the state, particularly the repercussions of the state’s use of violence. The veterans are seen as legitimately exercising violence against outside enemies, but as risky individuals when they return to national territory; this dichotomy epitomizes our ambiguity to violence and questions our moral order. Veterans’ wounded lives scathingly critique the state that uses soldiers for its own interests and disavows them when no longer useful. Notably, the interplay of soldiering and the criminal justice system echoes throughout the book, illustrating the multiple ways in which these interact.

In the second part of the collection, Alker and Godrey discuss the understanding of war as an effective strategy to deal with the criminal population in 15th century England. Judges and prosecutors could send offenders to war rather than prison, even though informal agreements were sometimes reached before the trial. Enlistment was seen as an effective desistance mechanism in those cases (Laub and Sampson, 2003): a way of increasing criminals’ social capital, offering better life opportunities (education, learning a trade), and providing more disciplined routines, supervision and non-delinquent peer groups. War offered young offenders the possibility of “imprinting a moral framework” to their deeds by promoting a military ethos.
Ruth Jamieson explores war by looking at the Northern Ireland (NI) conflict. She shows how institutions of criminal justice were transformed by being placed in the midst of a conflict. For example, the prison became itself a locus of conflict. The state used prisons to project its policy of criminalization, while the prisoners used jails to develop their capacity to resist state practices. Counter-intuitively for those who usually see prison as a place for violence and mistrust, prisoners during the NI conflict found trust, empathy, loyalty and emotional recognition in jail. Prisons became central in the exercise of war as a site of resistance and a place where group identity and resolution to fight could be maintained.

William Brown returns to the issue of veterans’ lives first mentioned in the opening section of the book. Soldiers often anticipate their return as a festive activity, but contrary to their expectations, people confront them on their wartime activities. The difficulty of sharing the war experience is synthetized by a veteran who says: “I wanted to talk about some of the experiences I had in Iraq and Afghanistan, but …back here people would think those things are bad. I don’t want people at home to think I am bad” (127). Brown says the state should take responsibility for returning veterans, as the experience of war transforms them and often makes them unable to reintegrate into civilian life.

In the third section, Mullins and Visagaratnam write on the relevant issue of sexual and sexualized violence in armed conflict. Despite being prohibited since the late 19th century, it is often used as a tactic in war. Using the cases of Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka, they argue the tendency to rape is correlated with the relational and cultural distance of troops from the population. This distance means they associate ordinary people with the enemy. Such violence seems less salient when invading troops seek legitimacy from the population and even less likely in the case of a professional army.

Wayne Morrison considers normative visibility and artistic resistance to war. His normative statement about the possible uses of art to determine what uses of violence constitute injustice is set in the context of a globalized world. This globalized world is being re-constituted, with a Hobbesian vision rapidly losing the capacity to explain the organization of power and control. Here, like Ruggiero in the first chapter, Morrison shows how legitimacy is attached to the use of mass violence and killing by referring to the safety of one group and the threatening behavior of another. In this way, crime is framed as a righteous action or a defense mechanism. This view needs to enter the explanation of criminal action. We need to revise Gottfredson and Hirschi’s general theory of crime, according to which criminal actions are the result of a lack of self-control.

On the principle of normative visibility, I have a concern, as it reinforces a cultural understanding of what is just or unjust and a cultural representation of the self and the other. And there is inevitably a fetishism of art, as the form able to articulate the “right moral universe” or as having a special key to the Just, beyond any cultural articulation or tangling. However, importantly, Morrison suggests the issue of the injustice of some violence is not really related to the specificity of the action, but rather on the legitimacy of who is authorizing the action. This makes evident the fundamental issue of the origin of law and authority.

Finally in this section, editors Walklate and McGarry discuss the “trace” of war violence, returning to their interesting work on the soldier as the other of victimology. They note the contradictory place in which the soldier finds him/herself: s/he suffers from the violence of war as an individual; at the same time, s/he is the perpetrator of the violence of state war. Walklate and McGarry invite us to see how soldiers are simply representing the state foreign policy, not incarnating it or possessing it; they wish to re-signify the wounds that soldiers carry as epitomizing this truth.

The postscript by John Lea is a particularly fine piece on the current confusion of categories, possibly the clearest I have seen. It clearly maps the blurring of the inside and outside and their merging under the security paradigm.

Overall, I congratulate the editors of this collection as I have learned a great deal from it. However, I wish to highlight points of possible future and further engagement with the subject. To me, this collection is too focused on soldiers, and barring the piece on sexual violence, it misses the now prominent concern for civilians in war. Similarly, it fails to address some of the “new” features of contemporary war: the existence of other agents of war, not just private mercenaries but other non-state actors; the prominent use of technology which makes war less risky for some; and the role of the emerging international criminal justice system in war. Further, while I appreciate the emphasis on the responsibility of the state in going to war, and thus on structures and institutions, there should be an acknowledgment of people’s role in war, even just so that they can actually resist enlistment or deviate from superior orders. I am not sure we can or should get rid of individual responsibility. If it is good to point towards the relevance of structure and context, and hence towards the state as responsible, what do we do with it? Do we change the administration or the whole apparatus? How can we make sure politicians will not support war as foreign policy again?

As this collection makes clear, there is an epistemological problem with the issue of war. We are unsure whether to call soldiers victims or criminals, whether it is useful to problematize their cases as particular issues within the criminal justice system, or to recognize the need for the state to take care of them. What is important is that war is now studied for its consequences, for the ways organized collective violence contravenes some fundamental societal norms, and how it produces great destruction and harms people, not only civilians in the enemy camp, but also those wearing the uniforms in both camps. This new perspective disrupts previous categories, but has not yet provided new ways of understanding.

Luckily, we have some answers to the crucial question posed by Ruth Jamieson a number of years ago: When is violence perceived as legitimate or illegitimate? It is not so much about a specific kind of violence but about how it is framed as righteous and who has the power to frame it as such. The new question becomes: How do we select those who can define the just and unjust uses of violence? Perhaps, as Wayne Morrison suggests, artists can help, given their tendency to be outsiders.

Teresa Degenhardt, Ma, PhD, Lecturer in Criminology, Queen’s University Belfast

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