Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations
There are two doctrines about war which often look like two sides of the same doctrine: absolute pacifism; and the doctrine represented in the American Civil War by General Sherman, that war is absolutely hellish and cannot be refined, and that therefore in the fighting of wars that are justly engaged in there are theoretically no limits beyond which the righteous side may not go. Absolute pacifists similarly argue that war is hellish and that to fight it in any way is the moral equivalent of fighting it in every way; killing a soldier is not in the end morally distinguishable from killing a civilian, bombing an arms factory (or trying hard to be accurate in doing so) is not really different from bombing a residential neighborhood. In for a penny, in for a pound, if stealing a lamb will get one hanged one may as well steal a flock of sheep: proverbial wisdom is used to suggest that if one abandons the position of absolute pacifism, distinguishing among different kinds of killing is a piece of moral imbecility.
This running together of the two doctrines may even have political force in some situations. The British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament of the 1950s, and the consequent pressure within the Labour Party to “ban the bomb” had a complicated background, and many considerations, moral and political, influenced its supporters and opponents. Supporters of the Campaign included absolute pacifists who were against bombs and weapons of every kind, as well as a few who didn’t really object to the bomb but objected to its being under the control of a non-communist government. They also included a number of people who supported the theory of the just war and argued that in no conceivable circumstances, or at least in no circumstances at all likely to arise, could any war, even a war of defense, be fought justly with nuclear weapons. The late Hugh Gaitskell, who fought against the Campaign and in the end defeated it, drew most of his support, as one would expect, from “realists” who were not interested in legal and moral analysis; but a lot of support came from old pacifists who thought that the opponents of the bomb who were not pacifists were simply confused, so evident was it to them that war is hell and that therefore you either go in for it or you don’t.
As Michael Walzer is able to show, in his powerful book Just and Unjust Wars, these are two strange doctrines. There really is and has been for some centuries now an agreement of mankind that war is, like any other human enterprise, subject to the judgments and restraints of morality and to the restraints of law. There is a mass of international conventions and agreements, and a body of precedents set out in the books of the international lawyers, all of which set limits to what may be done by the armed forces of powers at war. Not that such limits…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.