Arguing About War

Of the major conflicts of the past decade and a half, Michael Walzer's declarations are unsurprising. The first Gulf War: just. The intervention in Kosovo: just. The war against the Taliban: just, but maybe inadvertently so. The current war in Iraq: unjust.

Michael Walzer rethinks just and unjust

We live in the heyday of American Exceptionalism. Woodrow Wilson never had anything on our current President, and the ever-widening grasp of American influence continues to encircle the globe with—at least ostensibly—the interests of the downtrodden, the destitute and the tyrannized at heart. George Bush is currently engaged in a patronizing and antagonizing debate with Vladimir Putin over the political future of Belarus, a country of less-than-negligible geopolitical importance. This seems to resonate with voters: we want to help the peoples of the world by opposing genocide and tyranny. But wait. Are American boys coming home in boxes because of our humanitarian impulses? Is it time to start counting casualties and obsessing over funerals and pictures of coffins? There’s a basic moral contradiction here. Americans want to help foreign populations, but only if the costs are absolutely minimal.

And yet after Rwanda there should be no doubt that actually opposing genocide would require placing the lives of our soldiers at risk.

This is something of a new quandary. During the Cold War, we had even less faith in the benign motives of our leaders. After the example of Vietnam, a war sold in part as an effort to save the people of South Vietnam from the despotic grip of communism, it seemed to many that any “humanitarian” use of American force would be not only immoral but far too costly. Unless openly attacked, the US should keep its soldiers at home.

Michael Walzer has spent the last thirty years trying to triangulate between these views. In his seminal Just and Unjust Wars (1974) he went far in codifying the left’s opposition to the Vietnam War, while trying to avoid both a simplistic pacifism that frets that “we’re just going to hurt people (and ourselves)” and the blind national interest he saw in the Johnson and Nixon administrations.

In those days, Walzer didn’t like Kissinger. Today, nobody does. So our moral difficulties in justifying war are a little different. But Walzer sees the solution in the same place: the tradition of just war theory, in which certain acts of war and reasons for going to war are deemed immoral and forbidden, regardless of outcome. His most recent work, Arguing About War (Yale University Press, 2004), retains the general arguments of the Just and Unjust Wars. It is an attempt to update just war theory to better fit our current dilemmas.

Walzer’s thought has changed to reflect the times, in limited but striking ways. The essay “Emergency Ethics” shows him to be somewhat more accommodating of humanitarian intervention than in the past: “How can we, the opponents of murder, fail to resist the practice of mass murder—even if that resistance requires us, as the phrase goes, to get hands dirty (that is, to become murderers ourselves)?”

The theory of just war, Walzer writes, “is not a permissive doctrine,” and even now he seems very reluctant to sign off on interventions. For humanitarian interventions to be legitimate, he says, their goals cannot extend beyond the cessation of genocide, or ethnic cleansing, or any other violence of a similar nature and scale. This, however, does nothing to limit the obligation: “Active opposition to massacres and massive deportation is morally necessary, its risks must be accepted.” We Americans may not be directly affected by ethnic cleansing in East Timor, but beyond the destabilizing effects on the whole of South East Asia, there is something morally unacceptable about not acting—when one can—in favor of the oppressed. Walzer cites examples of just interventions, amongst them Vietnam in Cambodia, India in East Pakistan. I suspect he was greatly influenced by the Western non-response to the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Unfortunately, though, neither Rwanda nor the similar case of our brief and failed intervention in Somalia in 1993 are included in the case studies of individual conflicts.

I find Walzer’s updated outline of just war theory to be less than perfectly clear, but at its heart are three important maxims: (1) “war is sometimes justifiable”; (2) “the conduct of war is always subject to moral criticism”; and (3) the protection of the innocent is inherently just. This final maxim, though, has a corollary: it is negotiable in extremis. There may be circumstances in which self-interest will necessarily override the protection of rights. Walzer does not go far in fleshing these criteria out, but this may be unnecessary. What we need, he thinks, is to be concerned with the justice of our war-making, and to make our moral reasons explicit (if vague), in order to rule out entirely the unjust use of force. It is morally imperative, he is saying, for countries to give moral reasons for fighting equal or higher priority to those of national self-interest.

The selection of essays relating to particular conflicts is meant to flesh out Walzer’s just war theory through particular applications. Of the major conflicts of the past decade and a half, Walzer’s declarations are unsurprising. The first Gulf War: just. The intervention in Kosovo: just. The war against the Taliban: just, but maybe inadvertently so. The current war in Iraq: unjust.

When tackling issues of jus in bello, or the justice of particular tactics and means within a war, however, Walzer applies a more complicated standard, and one resulting in a number of strange and far-reaching consequences. In the first Gulf War, he argues, although “the effort to limit civilian casualties was embodied in clear-cut orders,” a great deal of the bombing campaign was unjust. The US made it a point to target water and electrical facilities in Baghdad. Although these played a supporting role in the effectiveness of the Iraqi military, they were overwhelmingly used by civilians, and cannot have been a legitimate military target.

Walzer does not approve of air campaigns. His complaints about the US intervention against Milosevic are of a similar character. The morality of attacking ground forces entirely through air power requires a particularly one-sided moral calculus: “We are ready, apparently, to kill Serbian soldiers; we are ready to risk what is euphemistically called ‘collateral damage’ to Serbian, and also Kosovar, civilians. But we are not ready to send American soldiers into battle.” This imbalance is morally unacceptable.

To support his claim, he cites Camus to the effect that You can’t kill unless you are prepared to die. Although Camus was speaking of assassination, not war, Walzer takes this to be a generally applicable standard. To intervene justly, the US must treat the lives of civilians and opposing combatants equally to those of its own soldiers. On its face, this contradicts our normal understanding of warfare, in which soldiers mercilessly compete for battlefield dominance. I expect any Marine, having been charged to “leave no man behind,” would find it unintelligible.

Walzer’s understanding of the moral status of soldiers, and the necessity of treating opposing combatants equally to our own, is based on a particular reading of Rousseau’s general will. In Obligations (1970), Walzer wrote that “The state, or rather, the common life of the citizens, generates those ‘moral goods’ for which, according to Rousseau, men can in fact be obligated to die.” A citizen, as Rousseau understands him, is a citizen not only because of his interaction with, and benefit from, other citizens, but because of the moral creature he becomes in society: “From the state, that is, from the shared experiences and general will of the political community, he receives a second life, a moral life, which is not his sole possession, but whose reality depends upon the continued existence of his fellow-citizens and of their association.” This moral life is not owned by the citizen. It is instead thrust upon him by the will of society. But it is through this set of moral standards that the citizen
becomes a citizen, and he is bound by its dictations, including, if necessary, dying in the service of a moral principle.

When an American president sends soldiers into battle, Walzer is arguing, he is doing more than asking them to defend American interests. He is asking them to be the representatives of the United State’s general will—of its moral calculus. “The assertion or presumption is that they have chosen or will choose, and also that they can choose, to live like citizens.”

Thus to act justly, the US should act not only in the interests of its soldiers, but should also take into consideration all the lives involved, be they civilians on the ground, or even opposing combatants. This is not to say that opposing soldiers cannot be killed. It is to say that we treat them justly by creating a moral calculus in which human life is valued equitably.

This understanding of the ‘general will’ and its significance in foreign policy underpins a great deal of Walzer’s thinking. If war itself should be seen as an extension of the moral life of a nation, then intervention on the behalf of oppressed peoples is ethically required. The costs, including American lives, must be swallowed. And any policy—of nonintervention, or favoring an air campaign, or targeting municipal waterworks—that values American lives at a standard above those of foreign citizens or troops, must be rejected.

This is an appealing moral standard, and perhaps less baffling than at first glance. And it is important to find an ethical position that would allay our current moral contradiction. The continuing genocide in Darfur, I think we all want to say, is horrific, and the United States must oppose it. It is easy to concede that moral obligations extend beyond national boundaries. And it may be the case that we, as citizens of the United States, as members of a society that is a ‘plausible actor’—one fully capable of limiting the suffering of other peoples—owe a duty to intervene in some way on the behalf of oppressed peoples worldwide. Yet it is not obvious that the obligations to peoples beyond our borders are the same as those due to our fellow-citizens. Nor am I convinced that the elected officials of the United States can override their fundamental duty to protect us, as soldiers or mere citizens, in pursuit of a balanced moral calculus, whether or not this would reflect our ‘general will.’

Walzer does much to highlight our obligation to those people, such as the Rwandans in 1994, toward whom we can offer help. Where he goes wrong is in his critique of American methods. The objection here is very simple: You can in fact kill without being prepared to die. The morality of an action isn’t affected by the potential harm to oneself. It might be courageous, or even noble, to risk one’s life to in order to save the innocent. But doing so remains just, no matter how few American soldiers end up in Walter Reed.

As Walzer sees it, the value of a country’s soldiers and citizens may be inflated only when that country is presented with a threat that it must, at all costs, defeat. This account of when a country may morally overvalue its citizens relies a great deal on our experiences in World War Two. Basically, the US was justified in burning Dresden to the ground because, well, the Nazis were just so evil, and the stakes of the war so high. As such, American foreign policy can reflect an imbalanced moral calculus only when presented with a comparably nefarious threat.

This is too extreme. Although the US has indeed chosen to fight in a manner that values American life at a premium, there are some generally overlooked positive consequences. Given a mode of warfare that protects the lives of our citizen-soldiers, the American public and those we elect become more willing to send them into battle. If we assume that our reasons for going to war are morally just (the invasion of Iraq falls short of this standard), then such willingness is good, and enables the US to fulfill its obligations to the oppressed.

The world today is such that the line between moral reasons and national interest may be blurred beyond recognition. Walzer acknowledges this. There were moral reasons to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan, given their general disregard for human rights. And there were self-interested reasons to do so, including the desire to remove an environment in which terrorism could fester and grow. The two are difficult to separate. Walzer is skeptical that the US is actually concerned with moral reasons, and worried that we might retreat into the realm of Kissinger’s national raison d’etat. But if moral and humanitarian goals are served, does it matter why the US intervenes? Whatever our reasons might be, and even if we overprotect our soldiers, people who lived under oppression and the threat of violence would be free of such tyranny. This may smack of consequentialism, the crude valuing of ends over means. But to reasonably fulfill our moral obligations and avoid repeating the catastrophe of Rwanda in 1994—to acknowledge and oppose genocide—we may have to be a little utilitarian in our thinking.

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