Just and Unjust Wars

I just finished Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars. This is an incredibly famous book about war that goes through various doctrines, conflicts, and strategies and tries to see where the limits of just conduct fall in war.

I have to confess, I didn’t like this book that much. It’s very influential, but I found the style very rhetorical and in the end very hard to see what the overall argument was supposed to be. For example, there are four sections labeled “the nature of necessity” and they are supposed to be different but somehow unified. I don’t see the overarching theme.

In some sense, the book is comforting because it goes through various historical examples and always comes down on the side of common sense. Strategic bombing against Germany = wrong after 1942, demanding the unconditional surrender of Germany = right. Combatants are allowed to kill, but only other combatants, and only if the killing serves a military purpose.

Still though, I think one of the enduring difficulties faced by this book is in terms of the status of combatants. This is not an original criticism of mine, but the argument is simply that initiating a just war and conducting a war justly are supposed to be different, but they seem to collapse to each other at points. For example, Walzer says that soldiers are not responsible for being in a war and so are permitted to fight and kill other soldiers even if their side is the aggressor. Once the war has been initiated, soldiers have so little political power that they are excused from making decisions about the actual  righteousness of the war. Still, I wonder about even the factual accuracy about this. What about a volunteer army or, if conscription is in effect, then what about the people who enthusiastically joined up? Also, the nature of soldiers throws up other puzzles. If soldiers don’t have a choice about being thrown into ‘the hell’ of war (I’m using quotes here not because I deny that war is hell — it is, but rather to indicate that this is Walzer’s term), then why can they kill each other. It’s not like the guy shooting at him actually wants his death, he has no choice. Also, why is it that soldiers are morally responsible to act justly in war (observing geneva conventions etc.) but have no responsibility about which wars to fight in. Walzer says that political decisions are made at higher levels, but orders in the field are given from higher authorities as well, and the punishment can be summary execution as Walzer notes. So, if soldiers have to resist unjust commands, why don’t they have to resist fighting in unjust wars. Walzer has responses to these objections and they turn on the status of soldiers, but it seems that this status will have to be a very brute kind, because according to him, soldiers had no choice but to fight. How could there be special moral duties and burdens that come with a role one was forced to accept?

Anyway, the thing worth praising about this book is it’s case studies. For most of his points, he has examples from war that are just incredible in their detail and poignancy. He talks about an officer who recorded in his war diary about how he went building to building fighting in basements. Before throwing in grenades, he would yell into the basement in an effort to save civilians, even though doing so might alert german defenders to direct machine gun fire up at him and his troops. There are other discussions about tactical issues in WWII that I just didn’t know about, like the allies violation of Norwegian neutrality out of desperation to halt the flow of German iron ore from Sweden, and Bradley’s decision to carpet bomb the area around Lo. There are also a lot of illustrations of Nazis who resisted the war in various way or refused to carry out criminal orders, Rommel being one of these people (also the Afrika Korps was never charged with war crimes), which increased my respect for the desert fox by a huge amount.


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