Woman and Skull
American Woman Writes a Thank You Note for Souvenir Japanese Skull, Life Magazine, 1944

I am very grateful to the editors of this website for offering me the opportunity to return to its pages. I would like to use the opportunity to pursue what I hope will be a fresh approach to the just war tradition. I plan to explore just war thinking through an extended consideration of Greek tragedy – specifically, Euripides’ Suppliants (or Suppliant Women).

Just war theory has undoubtedly become the predominant account of the morality of war in contemporary secular thought. As Michael Walzer, who has done so much to stimulate the development, has observed, ever since the War in Vietnam, American debates over the morality of war have been structured in terms of Just War theory. See Michael Walzer, The Triumph of Just War Theory (and the Dangers of Success) (2002). So firm is its hold that it was not surprising to hear President Obama consider it at some length in his 2009 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, or to read that his Administration claims to be following it in its military activities, including drone warfare. (For critical discussion, see this piece. Likewise, just war theory has long been the mainstream tradition in Catholic and other Christian thought about peace and war.

The Just War Canon

Part of the explanation for the dominance of just war theory is the pedigree that scholars have assigned to it. In most standard accounts, such as Alex Bellamy’s excellent Just Wars: From Cicero to Iraq (2008), the tradition of just war thinking begins with the Roman politician, orator and thinker Cicero, is Christianized by St. Augustine, is then reconfigured by St. Thomas Aquinas, and afterwards is handed down through the early modern Spanish scholastics and their secular successors, including Hugo Grotius and Emer de Vattel to the modern period. In this narrative, the tradition waned in the “positivist” period of international law in the nineteenth century, but was revived in the aftermath of the First World War, see Cornelius van Vollenhoven, Three Stages in the Evolution of the Law of Nations (1919), and then came into its own in this country with writers of the Cold War period such as Paul Ramsey, see The just war: Force and political responsibility (1968) and others.

In my judgment, this standard narrative is at best incomplete, at worst false. If nothing else, it fails to account for the centuries-long gap between Augustine and Aquinas. As Philip Wynn has recently argued in a monumental work of scholarship, Augustine on War and Military Service (2013), Augustine’s writings on the justice of war are scattered and episodic, reflecting more his pastoral concerns as a bishop than his intellectual preoccupations as a systematic theologian. Moreover, as I have argued myself, the long interval between Augustine and Aquinas, Christian thought and practice concerning war and peace was not filled by continuing reflection on, and elaboration of, a just war doctrine stemming from Augustine. Instead, Christian thought exhibited several different tendencies, one of which emphasized the sinfulness of all wars, including just ones, and required returning warriors who had taken life in their campaigns to confess their sin and do penance for it. See Robert Delahunty, The Returning Warrior and the Limits of Just War Theory (2014). Just war theory, with purported roots in Augustine, was in fact largely the creation of canon lawyers working for the Papacy in the great eleventh century Reform (or Revolution) undertaken by Popes such as Gregory VII (Hildebrand).   Later scholars have accepted as legitimate the pedigree that these canonists confected for just war doctrine.

A Different “Canon”

There is, moreover, another important, but largely neglected, stream of Western thought about just war that flows outside the current canon. I would hesitate to say that these other writings constituted a “tradition,” but they certainly equal the current just war canon in terms of antiquity, depth, and the distinction of their authors. This body of thought and reflection is found primarily in works of literature and history, rather than in theology, philosophy, jurisprudence, or statecraft. In this counter-canon (to call it that), the Roman historian Sallust would loom as large as Cicero does in the current canon, and Shakespeare would be as important as Aquinas or Grotius. In this series of postings, I will argue that the Athenian tragic poet Euripides, writing in the late fifth century BC, deserves inclusion in any canon of great Western writers on the subject of justice in war.

I am not, of course, arguing that one can find the term “just war,” or any near equivalent, in the writers of drama and history whom I have in mind. (For that matter, it is not so easy to find occurrences of the term in any ancient writers, including Cicero.) What I am saying is that the concept of a just war can be identified there, and that the application of that concept is studied in ways that can be of profound interest. To be sure, dramatists and historians pursue their studies in ways that are necessarily different from those of philosophers or lawyers, whose function it is to frame general rules. The former are essentially concerned with individual situations, and their presentation of the issues is concrete and unsystematized. To use Wittgenstein’s distinction, they show rather than say. But the very complications that are added by fixing on the unique and unrepeatable can deepen and enrich our reflections on the morality of war.

The Relevance of “The Suppliants”: Humanitarian Intervention

I am not especially concerned with whether Euripides’ play is relevant to contemporary concerns or not, but in fact it is.

Written (likely) sometime in the late 420s, The Suppliants is the product of wartime conditions. Athens and its great rival Sparta had gone to war for hegemony in Greece some years earlier, in 431. The end of the conflict came only in 404, long after any plausible date for the play. The war saw the collision of two very different types of system: Sparta was a conservative, land-based power of a somewhat autocratic cast, Athens had been a popular democracy for decades (an unusual political régime in the ancient world), a naval power, and a commercial hub, the center of a sea-based empire. Euripides’ drama is not overtly about the Peloponnesian War (though many readers have heard echoes of it in the play), but about a mythic conflict many centuries before, between Athens under its legendary King Theseus and the city-state of Thebes, long a rival and often an enemy of Athens.

In the play, Theseus and Athens are persuaded to intervene militarily against Thebes on behalf of a third Greek city state, Argos. Argos has gone to war against Thebes in support of a claimant to the Theban throne. Argos’ war, as the play will reveal, was impious and unjust. Argos has been defeated, and many of the warriors in the Argive expeditionary force have been killed in battle before the gates of Thebes. The Greek war convention called for the defeated side to request a truce so that it could recover the bodies of its battle-dead and bury them; the victorious side was expected to grant the truce and permit the recovery of the dead bodies. Thebes had denied the Argive request, and the bodies of the Argive soldiers remained unburied. Led by Adrastus, the King of Argos, the bereaved mothers of the unburied Argive soldiers come as “supplicants” to Athens, seeking its intervention against Thebes, whether by arbitration or, if need be, by war, to recover their sons. After considerable delay and debate, Theseus and Athens finally agree to march on Thebes. Their campaign is bloody and closely fought, but successful, and the bodies are recovered and brought back to Athens. That might seem a natural point at which to end the play, but Euripides has several surprises left for us, including the spectacular suicide of the widow of one of the Argive soldiers (a scene without precedent in Greek tragedy) and the unexpected appearance of the goddess Athena, a dea ex machina, at the end, who issues orders that countermand those just given by King Theseus.

The action of the drama poses, in stark form, the core questions arising from armed military interventions for humanitarian purposes. In recent decades, the United States has repeatedly faced the same question: in Kosovo; in Libya; in central Africa (against the Lord’s Resistance Army); and currently in Syria. Euripides forces his audiences and his readers to ask themselves what humanitarian interventions ultimately achieve, and whether they resolve conflict or only perpetuate it. Further, the play provokes reflection on the question of the motivations for humanitarian intervention: is the intervening power truly acting altruistically or for the sake of some international common good, or does intervention usually stem from hegemonic or imperialistic motives? (On the contemporary debate, see Michael W. Doyle, The Question of Intervention: John Stuart Mill & the Responsibility to Protect (2015)).

The treatment of the bodies of dead enemy combatants

There is a second issue dramatized by the play that holds contemporary interest – though our concern with it seems less than that of the Greeks. This is the question of the treatment of the bodies of enemy warriors who have been killed in battle.

Our contemporary war convention is clear and emphatic in its rules for the treatment of battle-dead soldiers. Article 15 of the First Geneva Convention of 1949, requires the “Parties to the conflict” “particularly after an engagement” “to search for the dead and prevent their being despoiled.” Article 17 further provides that the Parties to the conflict “shall further ensure that the dead are honourably interred, if possible according to the rites of the religion to which they belonged.” As the 1952 Commentary by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) notes, the Articles refer to the “Parties to the conflict,” thus making it plain that these obligations apply to both sides.

The ICRC Commentary also emphasizes the respect with which the dead bodies must be treated:

The dead must also be looked for and brought back behind the lines with as much care as the wounded. It is not always certain that death has taken place. It is, moreover, essential that the dead bodies should be identified and given a decent burial. When a man has been hit with such violence that there is nothing left of him but scattered remains, these must be carefully collected.

Similar prescriptions have also been laid down in religious teaching, and have long formed part of the customs and practices of war. Consider, e.g., early Islam. “Following the desecration of his own uncle by enemy soldiers, Mohammad (570-632) banned the mutilation of the dead. Following suit, Abou Bekr (571-634), explicitly told his soldiers going out to fight enemies that ‘see that none deals with treachery. You shall mutilate none.’ The scholar Abd al-Rahman al Awza’i (704-74) reiterated this rule against mutilation of the enemy dead.” Alexander Gillespie, A History of the Laws of War, vol. I (2011). Or consider the customs of war in early modern Europe. Shakespeare closes his Richard the Third with lines intended to show the magnanimity of the victor:


What men of name are slain on either side?


John Duke of Norfolk, Walter Lord Ferrers, Sir Robert Brakenbury, and Sir William Brandon.


Inter their bodies as becomes their births.


Notwithstanding the clear prescriptions of international law and military custom, the norm in question has often been violated, even by democratic armies fighting in recent wars. For whatever reasons, men at war often experience an overpowering desire to dishonor, despoil or mutilate the bodies of the enemy soldiers they have killed. Short of that, they or their governments may refuse to release the bodies of enemy battle-dead. The norms against such practices have to be powerful indeed, because the urges that they attempt to control are so compelling themselves.

Instances of violations are plentiful. In 2012, photographs and a video of four US Marines in Afghanistan urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban fighters. An outcry ensued, and the military promised a criminal investigation. In 1967, a US Army sergeant was court-martialed after photographs came to light in which he was shown holding the decapitated heads of two enemy corpses. The Army declared the mutilation of dead enemy bodies to be “subhuman” and “contrary to all policy.”

The United States military is of course not alone in this. Israeli human rights groups have complained of their government’s policy of refusing to return bodies of Palestinians killed in bomb attacks they initiated or in conflict with the Israeli army. And in the civil war in Syria, both ISIS forces and those fighting them appear to have mutilated enemy combatants’ dead bodies.

Moreover, there is nothing new about these practices, nor are they common only in developed societies. In Two Leggings: The Making of a Crow Warrior (1967), Peter Nabokov presents the autobiography of Two Leggings, a celebrated nineteenth century Native American. Towards the end of his story, Two Leggings reminisces about the joys of warrior life. He recounts the fate of a dead Sioux whom he had killed the day before:

Riding over into the bushes, I found the Piegan’s body. After scalping his whole head I cut it into four parts, giving one to White Eye, one to Short Bull, and keeping the other two. Also I carried away his rifle. We discovered that they were Sioux and not Piegans. . .

When we returned to our camp we drove the captured horses through the tipis and I carried my scalp pieces tied to the end of a long pole. Soon the camp was alive, men brought out their drums, and the women began the scalp dance. . . .

Everyone joined in. For several days there was feasting and dancing. I was invited everywhere and told the story over and over again.

We were happy.


Why this happens is not well understood. Frances Larson, an anthropologist at Durham University in England, has studied the question of mutilation in her fascinating book Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found (2014). During the Second World War in the Pacific, American servicemen regularly mutilated the corpses of dead Japanese soldiers, often decapitating them and preserving their skulls as trophies. “It was not particularly hard to find human heads on display during the Pacific Campaign of the Second World War. . . Skulls were hung from bulletin boards and lashed to the front of US tanks and truck cabs as macabre mascots.” Later inquiries seem to confirm the anecdotal evidence. “One forensic report estimated that the heads were missing from 60 per cent of the Japanese dead repatriated from the Mariana Islands in 1984. And a Japanese priest who visited Iwo Jima regularly in the decades after the war to conduct services for the dead reported that skulls had been taken from many of the remains . . . . Customs officials in Hawaii, the gateway home for returning American troops, routinely asked soldiers whether they had any bones in their bags.”   Larson’s book illustrates her narrative with remarkable images and photographs, one of which, taken from Life magazine, shows an attractive young American woman gazing smilingly on a Japanese soldier’s skull. She is writing a “Thank you” note to her Navy boyfriend for sending the souvenir to her. Around the time the photograph was first published, a Pennsylvania Congressman presented President Franklin Roosevelt with a letter-opener fashioned from the arm bone of a Japanese soldier. (Roosevelt returned it.)

Legal warnings accomplished little if anything. The War Department pronounced the desecration of the Japanese dead to be a “grave violation of law and decency.” US Navy commanders in the Pacific theater threatened servicemen with “stern disciplinary action” if any of them were caught taking enemy body parts as souvenirs. But the harvesting of heads, teeth and fingers continued.

What causes such behavior? Larson refers to the work of another anthropologist, Simon Harrison’s Dark Trophies (2012), for a possible explanation. Harrison has argued that “trophy-taking tends to take place when men’s virility and power is expressed through hunting metaphors,” as when the military tracks “kills” and “body counts.” And a possible explanation is that such trophies have “conferred status” on their owners. Larson herself suggests what seems to me more plausible explanations. “[I]n the field of battle they performed many different functions. As heterogeneous as the soldiers who acquired them, they could symbolize fury or fear. Some were treated like hunting trophies, but others were transformed into tokens of love, mascots, pseudo-scientific specimens or playthings. And they were as likely to inspire moments of introspection as they were to encourage displays of bravado: after all, a human skull is the shell of a person that sits deep within us all. It is little wonder that soldiers, so close to death in more ways than one, were drawn to human skulls.”   Taking enemy skulls “helped soldiers regain a sense of empowerment, because the trophy head, held aloft, is an assertion of control in the chaos of battle. The same could be said of the executioner who holds up a traitor’s head on the scaffold: order is declared anew.”

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