Cut These Words: Passion and International Law of War Scholarship

64 Pages Posted: 25 Nov 2019 Last revised: 18 May 2020

See all articles by Naz K. Modirzadeh

Naz K. Modirzadeh

HLS Program on International Law and Armed Conflict

Date Written: November 12, 2019


In this paper, I explore how international legal scholarship about war, written at a time of war, ought to read. Can — and should — we demand doctrinal rigor and analytical clarity, while also expecting that scholarship makes us feel something, that it connects us to the author, that it captures the intimacy and emotion that human beings experience in relation to war?

I use two eras of international legal scholarship on war — namely, the Vietnam era and the War on Terror — to illustrate key moments in the field that were typified by very different kinds of writing and the corresponding differences in thinking and feeling. I argue, in part, that — in contradistinction to passion-filled Vietnam-era scholarship — a particularly influential strand of contemporary scholarship on the United States’ War on Terror adopts a view that is aridly technical, acontextual, and ahistorical. In short, it lacks passion. (I use “passion” as a composite term in an attempt to capture diverse facets of a problem that I am attempting to diagnose.)

The Introduction situates this project within broader writing on law and emotions. Part I provides a list of characteristics of what I consider passionate scholarship, using the Vietnam era as an example of that approach. Part II provides a mirrored list of the characteristics of abstract and bloodless scholarship, using the latter part of the War on Terror (2009 onward). The observations compare how scholars of each period contend with the sense of crisis and urgency of their time, the understanding that they (we) were living — and writing — through moments that would be seen as history-changing and law-shifting in the future. Part III examines possible explanations for differences where we ought to see similarities, for absences of scholarly connection where they should be plentiful, and for a seismic shift in the general tone and mood of international legal scholarship on war in less than two generations. Part IV concludes by discussing why we — international lawyers, scholars who feel strongly about war and peace — ought to care about and seek to reverse this shift.

Keywords: international law, war, scholarship, passion, emotions, Vietnam War, War on Terror, use of force, jus ad bellum

Suggested Citation

Modirzadeh, Naz K., Cut These Words: Passion and International Law of War Scholarship (November 12, 2019). 61 Harvard International Law Journal 1 (2020), Available at SSRN: or

Naz K. Modirzadeh (Contact Author)

HLS Program on International Law and Armed Conflict ( email )

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