Love and War, Unlimited

Is it true that all is fair in love and war?


Like dreams in Freud’s analysis, proverbs are typically laconic. Unlike dreams, they’re easy to interpret. They wear their meaning on their sleeve.

Both are teachings of a kind. Dreams teach us about our fears and wishes, proverbs about how we should live. What dreams dredge up in private life, proverbs repackage for public consumption. Proverbs are our civil religion.

The meaning of the proverb “All’s fair in love and war” would appear to be plain enough: There is no limit to what’s necessary to achieve our ends. Simply put: Anything goes.

If we re-trace the proverb back to its origins, we stumble on it first in John Lyly’s “The Anatomy of Wit” (1578), written a decade before the first performance of a Shakespeare play.

But at the end of the 16th century, love and war were far from unpredictable affairs. They were subject to convention, and the conventions of love and war were not only widely known and accepted but a source of tragedy as well as wit. In “Romeo and Juliet,” Shakespeare combined them both. The play begins as romantic comedy and ends in tragedy. But how could it unless some rule was broken?

Still, it is tempting to suppose that, in the heat of passion and the heat of battle, anything that can happen will. If soldiers have their back to the wall, their life on the line and no way home, who knows what they’ll do? Whatever’s necessary to save themselves, we suppose.

Indeed (as mentioned in the remarkable book by Michael Walzer ’56, H’81, “Just and Unjust Wars”), President Eisenhower expressed this very view during a 1955 press conference: “When you resort to force … you don’t know where you are going; … there is just no limit, except … the limitations of force itself.”

Eisenhower’s reflections recall the words of the German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, who wrote the book “On War” more than a century earlier: “War is an act of force … which theoretically can have no limits.”

And in the film “Breaker Morant” (1980), set during the Boer War, the British captain Simon Hunt, in a speech to his small band of men, echoes Ike echoing Clausewitz: “This is guerrilla war, not a debutante’s ball. There are no rules here.”

No rules? No limits? Really? A closer look suggests otherwise.

Here’s an excerpt from the U.S. Army Field Manual, taught to every American soldier training for combat:

A commander may not put his prisoners to death because their presence retards his movements or diminishes his power of resistance by necessitating a large guard, or by reason of their consuming supplies, or because it appears certain that they will regain their liberty through the impending success of their forces. It is likewise unlawful for a commander to kill his prisoners on grounds of self-preservation.

Astonishing, no?

Imagine you are in the midst of battle, your desire for self-preservation on high alert, and you remember: “You may not do this; you may not do that.” There you are, trying to save yourself, and you’re supposed to remember some rules of morality and law?

Lest soldiers forget their manuals, their field commanders will remind them. Here (again from Walzer, who quotes from the oral history “The Seventh Day: Soldiers Talk About the Six-Day War”), a kibbutznik remembers when his unit was about to enter Nablus in 1967:

The battalion CO got on the field telephone to my company and said, “Don’t touch the civilians … don’t fire until you are fired at and don’t touch the civilians. Look, you’ve been warned. Their blood be on your heads.” In just those words. The boys in the company kept talking about it afterwards. … They kept repeating the words: “Their blood be on your heads.”

In “Breaker Morant,” Captain Hunt and his men are court-martialed for the murders they commit. So, too, was Lieutenant William Calley, for the murders he ordered and allowed under his command in 1968 in the Vietnamese village My Lai.

Murder? On the battlefield? If all is fair, there could be only killing. If anything goes, neither court-martial should have taken place. And yet they did, suggesting all may not be fair in war, at least.

But what of love? If we think of love as a pounding of the heart and a weakening of the knees, it can appear to be a form of madness.

Many of us are mesmerized by the idea of love as insatiability, summed up by Jacques Lacan’s famous remark, “Love is giving something you have not got to someone who does not exist.”

If we isolate love from all that matters to us, it can, I suppose, appear unruly. But love is an inextricable part of the social and cultural world we inhabit, impossible to separate from trust, kindness, family, children, security, respect, intimacy, faithfulness and happiness. Embedded in this mix, love enters a moral world and opens itself up to betrayal, jealousy, infidelity, envy, blame, revenge, even murder.

Love and war are forms of life; they are rule-governed.

Give a bunch of human beings a bat and a ball and turn them loose in a field, and, in short order, the grass will be cut, chalk lines will mark what’s “in” and “out,” and a field of play will emerge, a cricket pitch or a baseball diamond. And a book of rules will follow.

So, too, the plot thickens once we realize there’s a form of love that leads to rather than away from justice. I am thinking now of a love that is best described as a form of attention — the recognition that some other person exists, with his or her own aims and interests. This love isn’t consumed by insatiability but emerges out of an unselfish regard. It sees “the other” in light of his or her particularity.

A love of this kind leads to justice simply because it sees others for the persons they are. It does them justice.

In Old Norse and Sanskrit, one meaning of “fair” is “fit.” In “A Theory of Justice” (1971), the philosopher John Rawls thinks of justice as fairness, as “a symmetry of everyone’s relations to each other.” Likewise, a loving regard for another sees the bump on his nose as being where it belongs and the squint in her eye as being in place. Without the bump, it wouldn’t be him. Without the squint, it wouldn’t be her.

They fit, and fittingness is only fair.

Andreas Teuber is an associate professor of philosophy, with expertise in the philosophy of law.