Two Conceptions of Suffering in War

Austin Sarat, ed., Knowing the Suffering of Others, University of Alabama Press, Forthcoming

Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 309

50 Pages Posted: 27 Sep 2013

Date Written: March 14, 2012


Since at least the middle of the nineteenth century, two competing conceptions of suffering in wartime have dominated western thought about the laws of armed conflict. One conception views suffering – and especially suffering in war – as an evil in itself. Those who take this view, like Henri Dunant, founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross and inspiration for the Geneva Convention of 1864, typically adopt the minimization of suffering as the principal goal for a law of war. Another conception of suffering in war, however, sees the experience of pain as an inevitable and sometimes even ennobling accompaniment to the hard work of bringing about just ends in the world. This latter view rejects the idea that one can evaluate suffering or its legal significance without knowing why the suffering exists. This approach has a long tradition, too, one that stretches back through Dunant’s contemporary the Prussian-American Francis Lieber, drafter of the Union’s rules of engagement in the American Civil War. These two ways of making sense of human suffering (and the conflicts between them) have animated legal efforts to manage warfare ever since Dunant and Lieber launched the modern chapter of the laws of armed conflict a century and a half ago. And for good reason. Each of the two dominant conceptions of suffering contains inescapable limits and indispensable moral insights. The difficulty – our difficulty – is to capture their insights while containing their flaws.

Keywords: proportionality, necessity, Francis Lieber, Henri Dunant, suffering, international humanitarian law, Red Cross, war

JEL Classification: K33

Suggested Citation

Witt, John Fabian, Two Conceptions of Suffering in War (March 14, 2012). Austin Sarat, ed., Knowing the Suffering of Others, University of Alabama Press, Forthcoming, Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 309, Available at SSRN:

John Fabian Witt (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States
203-432-4944 (Phone)

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