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Morality and War

Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations

by Michael Walzer
Basic Books, 361 pp., $15.00

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 are always respected, any more than domestic laws against criminal conduct are always obeyed. But they are often respected, they have often made a difference to the ways in which war has been fought, they are often to be found in the manuals of military law in the hands of soldiers and have sometimes been effectively cited by conscientious soldiers pressed into illegalities by less scrupulous political leaders.

What is to count as murder is harder to establish in the flurry of war than in times of peace. But the proceedings against Lieutenant Calley showed that it can reasonably be maintained, against the Sherman doctrine, that soldiers who in combat cannot be censured for killing their enemies may properly be censured for the killing of innocent civilians, that is, for committing murder. We think Rommel acted rightly in burning Hitler’s order that enemy troops found behind the German lines should be killed and not taken prisoner; he refused to be an accomplice in murder.

Sherman’s confidence that in evacuating and burning Atlanta, an undoubted atrocity, though not a large one by the standards of our own time, he was acting legitimately came from his view that the cause of the North was just and that the war had been forced upon the Republic. This is not quite the same as the Clausewitz doctrine that “war is an act of force which theoretically can have no limits,” for Clausewitz’s view is connected with his belief that war is a natural activity of states and that acts of war may be imprudent but cannot be considered criminal. Sherman adheres firmly to one part of the theory of the just war, namely, that some wars are just on the part of some of the states who fight them, some unjust; and that in general a war of defense against aggression is just. Now, given that power A acts justly in fighting against B, the aggressor, it follows that the war is unjust on the part of B. On this theory there are only two possibilities in the case of a given war: that it is just on the part of one belligerent, unjust on the part of the other; or that it is unjust on the part of both. But a war that is for one belligerent just in its inception may become unjust in many ways. It may be fought by methods so unjust that the original justice is, so to speak, outweighed; or the original objective, to repel aggression and to seek recompense for damage, may be forgotten, swallowed up in newly conceived ambitions.

We have to distinguish, the theorist of the just war has always argued, between jus ad bellum and jus in bello. This means that there are criteria by which we can establish the justice of a particular belligerent’s cause, those factors that entitle a state to go to war; and that there are also criteria for determining how far justice is observed in the conduct of a morally approvable war and how far the state concerned really sticks to its original good intentions. What begins well may be conducted badly and end in evil. Perhaps history leads us to expect this in any long war, and this is why the call for “unconditional surrender” is often so wicked, as it tends to prolong the war. We are too familiar with “the desire to injure, the cruelty of private vengeance…the arrogance of conquest, the appetite for power, and all such things, that are rightly condemned in war” (Augustine in Contra Faustum, cited by Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae IIaIIaeQ.xl art.1, Utrum bellare sit semper peccatum), and with all the good intentions along the road to hell, to have strong hopes for any war, no matter how just in its inception. The war that began in 1939 with the Nazi-Soviet partition of Poland was on the part of the Western powers as near a textbook example of the just war as we are likely to get; by 1945 we were still glad that the war had been won and that the powers of darkness in Central Europe had been destroyed. But a sad procession of names—Dresden, for instance, and Hiroshima—passed through our minds with a kind of rebuke, so that we felt relief but not joy, satisfaction of a sort but not the peacefulness of a good conscience. If we felt less than perfect satisfaction in victory, this could be traced in part to a consciousness of crimes committed in the course of a just struggle; we—or at least those who shared the feelings I have sketched—were not satisfied that in a just cause all things are permissible.

What I have said so far is substantially a part of Michael Walzer’s argument, though he may not agree with the ways I have put certain things. He shows that most of us use the language of the just war theory, at least when it suits us, that we think certain wars right, others not, and that we praise or censure the ways in which wars are fought. Even those who hold theories of history or human nature that don’t strictly allow for this kind of moral discourse (except as ideology) find it hard to be consistent. Writing to Engels, Marx expresses his hope for a Prussian victory in 1870, arguing that “if the Prussians are victorious, then the centralization of state power will be favorable to the centralization of the working class.” But when he came to draft a resolution for the General Council of the International he wrote: “On the German side, the war is a war of defense.” Later, he censured the decision of the Prussians to continue the war after Sedan, and spoke of “the crime of reviving, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the policy of conquest.” Walzer rightly comments “that Marx has enlisted history not in the service of the proletarian revolution but in the service of conventional morality.”

It is just a matter of fact that international laws and conventions exist and provide us with the principles of judgment that enable us to discriminate between just and unjust wars and between the just and unjust conduct of wars. Questions about how we know that such principles really bind us are, very properly, set aside by Walzer. Uniformed soldiers shooting at each other or bombing the supply routes of armies are engaged in an activity that is justifiable if the war itself is justifiable; the same soldiers lining up villagers not in the army, many of them women and children, and shooting them are engaged in a massacre, that is, they are killing the innocent, committing murder, just as are terrorists who set off bombs in public places or those (if there have been any such) who poison the public water supply.

But what about soldiers who are serving on the wrong side in an unjust war? It seems, at first glance, a part of the theory that they, unlike the soldiers serving on the right side, are committing murder when they kill their military enemies. For a number of reasons Walzer thinks this won’t do. First, the laws of war, everything that makes up “the war convention,” as he puts it, have been devised to guide the conduct of all the belligerents. It is a part of the convention that soldiers may be attacked and that most others may not, at least not intentionally. Then, it is not easy for ordinary men to sort out the rights and wrongs of armed conflicts; they have really no choice about accepting the judgment of the public authorities, and of course they may be and often are compelled by law to serve in the armed forces. This is not the same thing as being compelled to commit murder, and only those who kill the innocent, and more especially military commanders who order this or are accomplices in it, ought to be held responsible for their actions. It is in the interest of all that war, quite apart from the attribution of guilt to one or other party, should be a limited activity.

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