Michael Walzer, “The Triumph of Just War Theory (and the Dangers of Success)”

Yesterday I outlined the main ideas of just war theories. Here is my outline of an argument that sits in the middle of the continuum of views on just war theory. It might serve readers as a jumping off place for further study of the issue.

The Triumph of Just War Theory (and the Dangers of Success)” – Michael Walzer

Just war theory (JWT) was a buffer against Christian radicalism—both pacifism and the religious crusader.  And the theory has had an impact on at least some real-life decisions, especially in the 16th century. However the doctrine slipped in influence over the next few centuries, as just war was disparaged as mere idealism, and “Just war theory was relegated to religion departments, theological seminaries, and a few Catholic universities.”

In the United States, Vietnam brought JWT back, inasmuch as opposition to the war was caused in large part by the war’s apparent lack of just cause—especially the brutality and immorality with which it was conducted.  In fact, this brutality may have been a major reason for losing the war. By alienating the civilian populations the United States supposedly wanted to help, it lost their support—thus the import of moral concerns in war.

The 1991 gulf war between the US and Iraq, while not a just war by almost any standards, was still somewhat better at shielding civilian populations than previous American wars. The reasons for this included the hope that Iraqis would be US allies, and because those who waged the war weren’t sure their supporters would tolerate the total slaughter of civilians. Walzer argues that this restraint will continue, because of media war coverage: “But does this mean that it has to be more just or only that it has to look most just…” My guess is that those who profit from war will merely be concerned with making their wars appear just.

Still, politicians and generals have recently talked about just causes and intentions, and the desire to minimize civilian casualties. Walzer argues that moral concerns have become at least a small part of the discussion about war. And he also argues that JWT needs to resist the takeover of JWT by the military. Especially when according to JWT “all killing of civilians is ( something close to) murder; therefore any war that leads to the killing of civilians is unjust; therefore every war is unjust.”

Yet Walzer is no pacifist, as defending yourself is justified as long as the humanity of your opponent is not forgotten. Of course, this assumes that the war is just according to the criteria outlined in yesterday’s post. Still, theorists need to be suspicious of all war since it is so costly. Costly not only to a country’s self-interest but often to its individual and collective moral character.

Regarding recent US wars Walzer notes that: 1) risk-free war can be fought from a distant and be consistent with JWT, especially if humanitarian causes are at stake. To the extent that they cannot: “when it is our action that puts innocent people at risk, even if the action is justified, we are bound to do what we can to reduce those risks, even if this involves risks to our own soldiers.” If we bomb from the air for example and expose civilian populations to retribution, we are morally negligent if we are unwilling to take on those risks ourselves. And 2) in the aftermath of war a restoration of the status quo is generally called for, and further aggression against the perpetrators would violate JWT. Humanitarian interventions might require the replacement of previous regimes, but the goal ought to be to bring closure and legitimacy to the situation. The benefits of this are the friendship, peace, and stability that results.

In the end, Walzer argues, JWT serves to temper violent human tendencies.

Reflection – We would all do better and none of us would do worse if we all cooperated. That is the lesson of the prisoner’s dilemma.

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