|William B. Michael [View as PDF]|
112 Yale L.J. 1625 (2003)
George P. Fletcher's Romantics at War begins by describing an ironic blindness. The threat of terrorism has forced Americans to consider questions of war and guilt with a new sense of immediacy and relevance, to disorienting effect. We remain unable to reconcile our instinctive view of the war on terror as a moral conflict, pitting good against evil, with our basic legal and moral commitments, rooted in notions of fairness and individual justice. Professor Fletcher proposes to clarify this "conceptual morass" (p. 5) by drawing our attention to what may be an irreducible contradiction between our liberal aspirations and our Romantic impulses.
The first step in Fletcher's argument is to reveal what he perceives as the shortcomings of a liberal tradition embraced by most American legal theorists. According to Fletcher, liberalism cannot fully explain the nature of our legal duties in the context of war, much less account for the feelings of solidarity that shape a nation's willingness or unwillingness to engage in war. What we need in order to think more clearly about these issues is an altogether different vantage point. Fletcher finds this alternative footing in Romanticism, from which he develops a concept of the nation as a collective agent and as a potential bearer of guilt.
Fletcher is by no means the first to criticize liberalism for its preoccupation with the individual and its tendency toward a universalism based on abstract principles of reason. More unique is his intent to focus on the tension between liberalism and Romanticism without necessarily arguing for one over the other. In order to defend the Romantic perspective against its own potential excesses, however, Fletcher adopts too narrow a view of the Romantic movement to make the tension productive. He is, paradoxically, forced to resort to liberal principles in order to vindicate a mode of thinking he characterizes as diametrically opposed to liberalism.
The aim of this Comment is to extend and modify Fletcher's account of the conflict between liberals and Romantics by examining an aspect of the Romantic tradition that he ignores. Specifically, it highlights a particular conception of imagination central to the English Romantics' understanding of national identity. At the same time, it argues that Fletcher's approach to the question of war's appeal and his argument for the principle of collective guilt are inconsistent with his own premises.