The Idea of Wartime

Does war have a time? The idea of “wartime” is regularly invoked by scholars and policymakers, but the temporal element in warfare is rarely directly examined. I came to the Institute in 2007–08 intent on exploring the history of war’s impact on American law and politics, but assumptions about wartime were so prevalent in the literature that first I found myself puzzling over ideas about time. Ultimately, this resulted in a book, War ·Time: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences (Oxford University Press, 2012).

The idea that time matters to warfare appears in Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan: “War consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known; and therefore the notion of time is to be considered in the nature of war.” Time’s importance calls for critical inquiry, but time is often treated as if it were a natural phenomenon with an essential nature, shaping human action and thought. Yet our ideas about time are a product of social life, Émile Durkheim and others have argued. Time is of course not produced by clocks, which simply represent an understanding of time. Instead, ideas about time are generated by human beings working in specific historical and cultural contexts. Just as clock time is based on a set of ideas produced not by clocks but by the people who use them, wartime is also a set of ideas derived from social life, not from anything inevitable about war itself.

Yet war seems to structure time, as does the clock. Stephen Kern argues that World War I displaced a multiplicity of “private times,” and imposed “homogenous time,” through an “imposing coordination of all activity according to a single public time.” During World War I, soldiers synchronized their watches before heading into combat. In Eric J. Leed’s description of trench warfare, war instead disrupted time’s usual order. Battle became an extended present, as considerations of past and future were suspended by the violence of the moment. “The roar­ing chaos of the barrage effected a kind of hypnotic condition that shattered any rational pattern of cause and effect,” so that time had no sequence. And so one meaning of “wartime” is the idea that battle suspends time itself.

War also breaks time into pieces, slicing human experience into eras, creating a before and an after. It often marks the beginning of one historical period, and the end of another. Once historical time is divided, war is thought to occupy a certain kind of time: a wartime. Yet wartime is more than a historical signpost, a passive ­periodizer. It is thought to function as an abstract historical actor, moving and changing society and creating particular conditions of governance. We think of wartime as doing things in history.

Built into the idea of wartime is the assumption that war is temporary. Wartime is thought to be a breach of “normal” time, to be followed by peacetime, so that the beginning of a war is the opening of an era that will, by definition, come to an end. Because of this, the idea of wartime implies a conception of the future. To imagine the future requires an understanding of the past. In wartime thinking, the future is a place beyond war, a time when exceptional measures can be put to rest, and regular life resumed. The future is, in essence, the return to a time that war had suspended.

The idea that wartime is exceptional can lead to determinism. During the French Revolution, Lynn Hunt suggests in Measuring Time, Making History, “a new kind of determinism” appeared. Bertrand Barère, a leading member of the Committee of Public Safety and viewed as a driving force behind the Reign of Terror, “excused his actions as the product of his time.” Barère claimed that he did not shape his revolutionary epoch. Instead, he “only did what I had to do, obey it.” Barère argued that his time “sovereignly commanded so many peoples and kings, so many geniuses, so many talents, wills, and even events that this submission to the era and this obedience to the spirit of the century cannot be imputed to crime or fault.” In American wartime thinking, there is also a powerful sense of determinism. Actions that would normally transgress a rule of law are seen as compelled by the era, as if commanded by time. And, as did Barère, individuals defend themselves by arguing that their actions were compelled or justified by the times.

But is war really bound in time? Particular conflicts have endings, but when we look at the full timeline of American military conflicts, including the “small wars” and the so-called forgotten wars, there are not many years of peacetime. War seems not to be an exception to normal peacetime, but instead more of an enduring condition.

In spite of its persistence, wartime often serves as a justification for a rule of law that bends in favor of the security of the state. This distortion is tolerated because wartime is thought to be a temporary rupture of the usual state of affairs. The assumption of war’s temporariness becomes an argument for exceptional policies. And those who cross the line during war sometimes argue that circumstances deprive them of agency; their acts are driven or determined by time.

September 11, 2001, is thought to have opened a new war era. That day countless people in the United States and around the world were thrown together in time as they watched the effects of the terrorist attacks unfold in “real time” on television. It was a moment of “simultaneity,” in Benedict Anderson’s terms, as the shared experience of horror generated feelings of solidarity among Americans who felt that they and their nation were under attack. Fault lines would soon appear, but a common element lingered on. Many felt that the terrorist attacks had shattered time, and ushered in a new era of history.

This new wartime resulted in broad U.S. government power. The United States went to war in two nations, but the war era was framed in a way that escaped the usual boundaries in space and time. For President George W. Bush, it was a “war on terror,” and for President Barack Obama, a “war on Al-Qaeda.” Even in Obama’s more focused formulation, this was a war that could last as long as the existence of Al-Qaeda affiliates intent on harming Americans in the world, depriving this wartime of its temporal boundaries.

Enemy combatants can lawfully be detained at Guantánamo and elsewhere “for the duration of hostilities.” Wartime detention authority is premised on the idea that it is proper to hold the enemy so that soldiers won’t return to battle. But can they be detained for the duration of hostilities that are possibly neverending? The Supreme Court was troubled by this question when it took up post-9/11 cases related to Guantánamo detainees. The Court’s initial response was to see the war era as fitting within the traditional paradigm, assuming that wartime was temporary. But the ongoing character of the war on terror challenged this idea. The present conflict, “if measured from September 11, 2001, to the present, is already among the longest wars in American history,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in Boumediene v. Bush (2008). Judicial oversight through habeas corpus was needed since “the consequence of error may be detention of persons for the duration of hostilities that may last a generation or more.” The lack of time boundaries made this conflict different than past wars, he reasoned, and this justified the Court’s placing modest limits on executive power even during a time conceptualized as a wartime.

The Court’s attempt to grapple with the concept of wartime in the detainee cases reveals a more enduring problem. If wartime lacks time boundaries, then wartime is normal time, rather than exceptional time. This means that the law during war must be seen as the form of law we usually practice rather than a suspension of an idealized understanding of law.

Mary L. Dudziak, the Ginny and Robert Loughlin Member (2007–08) in the School of Social Science, is the Judge Edward J. and Ruey L. Guirado Professor of Law, History, and Political Science at the University of Southern Cali­f­­ornia Law School. She has written extensively about the impact of foreign affairs on civil rights policy during the Cold War and other topics in twentieth-century American legal history.