Sample Thesis Statement • The purpose of this essay is to explore the extent to which the logic of the war crimes trial legitimates war as a political practice. By focusing only on some war-related deaths as problematic, the trial essentially ‘erases’ most injury and death from our view. This calls into question the ability of the war crimes trial to provide justice.
Why I Wrote the Essay:(you don’t have to include reasons, but you can) • war crimes trials are an increasingly widespread tool in the aftermath of violent conflict (e.g., Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Cambodia, and so on); the topic is timely and relevant. • scholars and policymakers have argued that trials achieve justice for victims, but have a limited understanding of both justice and who is a victim (sometimes people are victims and perpetrators at the same time). • I believe that the constant threat of war is the most urgent problem facing human societies today, and the war crimes trial does not address this. In fact, it diverts attention from war.
Supporting Argument #1 • The war crimes trial is extremely limited, focusing only on some deaths in war. This means that some deaths in war must be considered acceptable. As such, the trial does not question the legitimacy of war itself, but only the legitimacy of certain actions in war.
Support for Argument #1: • Giorgio Agamben (Remnants of Auschwitz, 2002), argues that the trials at Nuremburg helped to spread the idea that the problem of genocide had been ‘overcome.’ Agamben argues that the problem has not been overcome by the trial, but that the trial has diverted our attention from it.
Support for Argument #1: • Elaine Scarry (The Body in Pain, 1985), argues that the ‘main purpose of war is injuring’. Even though we can differentiate between the motives for war (e.g., humanitarian intervention, national interest, and so on), the practice of war is always based in injury and death. Therefore, accounts of war are geared toward justifying death and injury by pointing to the legitimate political goals of war (e.g., collateral damage). Scarry explores the use of language to ‘redescribe’ war-related activities.
Support for Argument #1: • Scarry’s argument is also supported by Carol Cohn’s observations (1987), that the language of war essentially ‘erases’ the human cost – e.g., missiles are called ‘peacekeepers’; the notion of ‘collateral damage’, ‘smart’ bombs, and so on.
Reviewing • The war crimes trial does not question war itself, but only the conduct of war • Trials help spread the idea that the problems of war can be overcome • The main purpose of war is injuring/killing and the trial ignores this • The language of war erases the human cost (i.e., ‘collateral damage’)
Possible Critique of Argument #1: • The author is unfairly criticizing the tribunal; the tribunal’s role is not to question all war, but rather to prosecute the worst instances of violence and inhumanity in war. The author is asking too much of the war crimes trial.
Possible Response to Critique of Argument #1: • The essay is not interested in the reasons why a war crimes tribunal was established. It argues that, regardless of what the war crimes trial seeks to accomplish, there are political implications that supporters of trials do not take into account. These implications are extremely important in terms of our ability to think about war more generally – i.e., that war itself is not the problem. The position of the essay is that all war is the problem.
Solution: • Address the critique before it arises! Ensure that this clarification makes its way into the essay early on, so that the reader understands the terms of the argument and so that Critique #1 is addressed before it can be raised. Make the reader aware that the essay’s goal is to consider the political implications of the war crimes trial, and not the legal parameters, which is a different issue.
Refine the Thesis: • The purpose of this essay is to explore the extent to which the logic of the war crimes trial legitimates war as a political practice. It argues that, irrespective of the legal imperatives associated with the war crimes tribunal, there are political effects at play that impact the social understanding of war itself. By focusing only on some war-related behaviours as problematic, the trial essentially ‘erases’ most injury and death from our view. This calls into question the ability of the war crimes trial to achieve justice.
Second Possible Critique of Argument #1: • The linkages between the war crimes trial and the argument on language in war are not entirely clear. Is the argument that the war crimes trial uses language to erase the injury caused by war?
Response to Second Critique: • We cannot argue that the war crimes trial uses language to deliberately obscure the impact of war. We could not find the evidence to make this kind of definitive claim. Cohn argued (1987) that defense intellectuals themselves did not ‘deliberately’ hide the effects of war. What we can argue, however, is that language provides a cultural canvas of sorts – a social context – within which war crimes trials are convened. Thus, we can argue that in the limited language of war, it is noteworthy that only some injuries and deaths in war are regarded as torture, murder, or ethnic cleansing.
Solution: • Clarify the linkages, taking care not to make claims that cannot be backed up.
Supporting Argument #2: • The main purpose of the war crimes trial is not to achieve justice, but closure. This is achieved through the mechanism of judgment, which requires a clear delineation between victims and perpetrators.
Support for Argument #2: • Giorgio Agamben (State of Exception, 2005) argues that the purpose of the trial is not primarily to achieve justice. He argues that this is evident from the legal legitimacy that even an unjust sentence or conviction carries with it. The main purpose of the trial is actually closure.
Support for Argument #2: • Jenny Edkins (Trauma and the Memory of Politics, 2003) also argues that the purpose of the war crimes trial is to cement a narrative of closure. She argues that trials enable clear pictures of right and wrong, and that their primary purpose is to solidify a collective past into a manageable narrative of memory. • Immi Tallgren (2002) argues that the trial provides a ‘miraculous seal of finality.’
Possible Critique of Argument #2: • The author does not make clear what she means by justice. There are different types of justice – for example, punitive and restorative are two types of justice with different implications. Which type of justice is the author concerned with? The argument must be more carefully supported.
Response to Critique #2: • One way to address this critique is to discuss what types of justice the tribunal understands itself to be pursuing and then to reconsider whether justice is being attained. This runs the risk, however, of significantly altering the focus of the essay. Remember that the thesis does suggest that the essay will discuss justice, but this is not yet the place to make the argument. You want to save it for later on, when you discuss law itself.
Response to Critique #2: • In this case, it is possible to avoid the critique entirely at this point by arguing that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what kind of justice the tribunal is pursuing at this stage in the argument, because you’ve got three authors (Agamben, Edkins, and Tallgren) to help you argue that justice – regardless of what kind – is not the purpose of the trial. Rather, closure is.
Response to Critique #2: • The solution may be to create a footnote. In this footnote, you write something like the following: ‘This essay does not deny that specific understandings of justice are both enabled and enacted by war crimes trials. For a discussion of the limitations of justice, see Geoffrey Robertson, Crimes Against Humanity: The Struggle for Global Justice (London: Allen Lane, 1999).’
Response to Critique #2: • Adding further reading that anticipates a parallel line of inquiry sends the message that you have some knowledge of your subject matter, and that you are aware of the different ways it can be approached. Indicating that you are aware of these parallel lines of argument will strengthen your own argument.
Supporting Argument #3: • The need to identify a ‘perpetrator’ is crucial for the tribunal. Without this ability, we would potentially have to consider that war itself is the backdrop against which all crimes in war take place. The identification and conviction of perpetrators is intended to remove them from the realm of ‘legitimate’ killing in war. This enables ‘us’ to continue our own killing in war without challenge.
Support for Argument #3: • Willy Maley (1999) argues that law polices most heavily those parts of itself that are the most fragile. He asks: ‘how are we to tell the difference between the violence that brings law into being and the violence that it employs to safeguard its interests?’ Argument #3 is built on the point that law’s main job is to protect itself. This causes us to radically question whether law provides justice.
Support for Argument #3: • David Campbell (1992, 1998) argues that identity in international relations is formed by the construction of the other as threat. Taking this argument further, we can say that the ‘other’ of war is the war ‘crime,’ because the war crime threatens all war with the possibility of being seen as criminal.
Possible Critique of Argument #3: • The author seems to be suggesting that the purpose of the war crimes tribunal is to legitimate war – an argument that most supporters of war crimes prosecutions would find outrageous.
Response to Critique #3: • The essay is not arguing that the tribunal intends to legitimate war. Rather, the argument is that an important effect of identifying perpetrators in specific war-related contexts results in the widespread belief that most agents of war are not to be considered perpetrators (and in fact are often considered heroes). This makes most war-related violence more – rather than less – difficult to critique. If there is no culpable agent, there is no prosecutable offense. (This also raises issues of accountability, but we don’t have space to expand on that here. We might put it in a footnote.)
Re-Write Argument #3: • The need to identify a ‘perpetrator’ is crucial for the tribunal. Without an identifiable agent to prosecute, the trial could not function. The punishment of the perpetrator serves to remove him – both symbolically and materially – from the realm of legitimate killing in war. This has the effect of ‘spreading the rumor’– to return to Agamben’s argument earlier – that war itself is not the problem. Rather, only certain instances of violence within war are a problem. This has the (perhaps unintended, but still critical) effect of normalizing most death and injury in war as unremarkable.
Anatomy of a Sub-Argument: • A sub-argument is one that follows from a main argument. As such, it should complement your main argument, but does not really need to be as deeply argued, because the main argument/s have already anticipated the sub-argument. A sub-argument can also be a complementary argument that does not immediately follow from the thesis, but which is still relevant. Be careful with these, as they can get out of hand and cause the essay to lose its focus.
Anatomy of a Sub-Argument • Expanding on the argument related to closure: • Does the trial actually provide closure? • Does it provide closure for victims? Probably not, as we know that victims narrate their experiences far into future generations.
Anatomy of a Sub-Argument • Should we be looking for closure? Perhaps not. • What about testimony? We might want to add something here, given Edkins’ argument with respect to how communities remember war in a collective sense.
Sample Sub-Argument: • Dembour and Haslam (2004) argue that the structure of testimony at the war crimes tribunal is driven by the needs of the trial process, and not by the victim. They found that witnesses were hurried along in their testimonies, forced to speak only of events directly relevant to the case at hand, and told that they must answer only ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to certain questions when they clearly expressed desires to tell their stories in a more personal way.
Placement of Sub-Arguments • You can pose sub-arguments within the sections where their related arguments are made, or if it makes sense for your essay, you can begin to pose them just prior to the conclusion. Some of these sub-arguments may feed directly into concluding remarks, so sometimes it makes sense to place them closer to the end. Don’t just pile them up like a traffic jam at the end, though, or the essay will lose its focus.
Conclusion: • Trials pursue closure over justice • Trials erase most death in war as normal and legitimate • The excision of perpetrators has the effect of legitimating other agents of war. • The mechanisms of the trial might not serve the victims of war.
Conclusion: Suggesting Alternatives: • We should retrain our critique on war itself, rather than focusing on only certain examples of violence within war. • We should actively work toward a resurrection of pacifism in international relations. • We should avoid mechanisms that lead to closure. • We should pursue other mechanisms for justice, such as community-based truth-telling, active reconciliation, and the like. • Others…
Troubleshooting: • We actually did not discuss justice as closely as the thesis suggested we would. We now have to decide whether to restate the thesis to reflect this, or whether we need to discuss justice more closely….
If Restating the Thesis: • Make sure that the essay is still strong if you decide to go back and restate the thesis. It might be that we do need to discuss justice more fully, and avoiding this will undermine the overall quality of the essay.
If Expanding on Justice • Go back to the authors you have already used to build your arguments, and explore what these authors say about justice. Don’t just go out and start reading randomly about justice: there is TONS of literature on justice, and you run a very high risk of getting lost in it. Stick with what you’ve already researched.
Expanding on Justice: • Chances are, the authors you are already drawn to will have something to say about justice that will be relevant to the essay. You will have to decide whether to simply incorporate your findings into the body of the essay, or develop a separate section of argumentation…
Troubleshooting: • What problems affect the essay as it stands? • Should the arguments be re-arranged? • Should some be discarded, expanded, or altered? • Do all the arguments make sense in relation to the thesis? • Are the arguments strong enough? Well-supported?