A critique of just war theory

Note: I cross-posted this on my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

Arguing About War, by Michael Walzer, is a collection of essays on the topic of just war theory. The first section of the book contains essays on the theory of just war, the second section looks at specific wars in the 1990s and early 2000s through the lens of just war theory, and the third section contemplates what the best form of world government would be. Walzer’s perspective is a philosophical rather than a political one: he analyzes the morality of war.

I chose to read Arguing About War because I feel that to fully understand and argue my own pacifist position I need to consider arguments for why war is sometimes necessary and just. I admit, therefore, that I came to the book with a bias: I did not expect to, nor did I want to, be completely convinced by his arguments. However, I feel that I have read his work critically and have not blindly tossed it aside due to my biases.

My understanding of just war theory is that it is a moral framework for examining war critically. For a given situation, it asks whether choosing to go to war was or is the correct moral choice. It also looks at conduct during war, holding up each action taken during a war to moral critique. In Walzer’s words:

The theory of just war…is, first of all, an argument about the moral standing of warfare as a human activity. The argument is twofold: that war is sometimes justifiable and that the conduct of war is always subject to moral criticism.

Walzer is careful to point out that a true application of just war theory should not be to “excuse” a war:

Just war theory is not an apology for any particular war, and it is not a renunciation of war itself. It is designed to sustain a constant scrutiny and an immanent critique.

He also clarifies the use of the word “just,” and admits that all war is in some senses “unjust”:

But just is a term of art here; it means justifiable, defensible, even morally necessary (given the alternatives) – and that is all it means. All of us who argue about the rights and wrongs of war agree that justice in the strong sense, the sense that it has in domestic society and everday life, is lost as soon as the fighting begins. War is a zone of radical coercion, in which justice is always under a cloud. Still, sometimes we are right to enter the zone.

The last sentence summarizes both just war theory and my doubts about it. The basic assumption of the theory is that such a thing as a “just” war does in fact exist. I am not fully pursuaded by Walzer’s arguments that this is the case outside of the theoretical realm, but I also have not established a convincing argument for myself that one never could exist. World War II is a classic example that is held up as a just war – it was in self-defense and there was an awful genocide to be stopped – and it is certainly one of the most troubling wars to consider from the perspective of pacifism. However, regardless of how one analyzes WWII, there are many aspects of just war theory and Walzer’s arguments that I am deeply troubled by, and that I think prevent us from moving beyond war.

The assumption that just wars can exist is seemingly the base assumption one must accept to accept just war theory. However, there is another, more troubling, assumption underlying this one: that force and violence, and therefore war, is or can be an effective means of resolving a conflict. This is a belief so pervasive in our society that Walzer may not even be consciously aware that he is assuming it, but it is clearly there in his writing. I question this very assumption: as I have written in a previous post, violence is a vicious cycle; if one side uses violence, the other side is very likely to retaliate with more violence. How, then, can violence be an effective way to resolve a conflict? In order to eliminate war, we must critique this assumption rather than blindly accept it.

In defending force, and even war, there is often an argument that it is for the purposes of security. However, I think that Walzer’s view on what makes a nation secure is narrow. He claims that “The ‘reason’ of soldiering is victory, and the ‘reason’ of victory is the protection of one’s own people, not of other people.” While I agree with this statement, I do not agree with the unstated assumption that victory is in fact a way to achieve protection of one’s own people. If one nation is a victor, then another nation is the loser, and that loser will most likely harbor negative attitudes towards the victor. This is not a very secure situation. To probe this issue deeper, let’s look at Walzer’s argument about weapons inspections in Iraq:

Third, the U.N. inspections: these will have to go on indefinitely, as a regular feature of the Iraqi landscape. For whether or not the inspectors find and destroy weapons of mass destruction (some of these are very easy to hide), they themselves are a barrier to any deployment of such weapons. So long as they are moving freely and aggressively around the country, on their own time schedule, Iraq will be under increasing restraint. But the inspection regime will collapse, as it collapsed in the 1990s, unless there is a visible readiness to use force to sustain it.

Presumeably we are trying to ensure our own security by preventing Iraq from having weapons of mass destruction. However, I do not think that the permanent presence of inspectors will do much to make us secure. If the inspectors leave, Iraq will go back to its business of creating weapons of mass destruction, no doubt with more determination than ever. Therefore, our security was only temporary, only as long as we could forcefully keep inspectors in the country. Force is ineffective for permanent, long-term security in this situation because it demonstrates an immense lack of trust and serves only to antagonize the other nation further. There is only one way to build mutual security between nations, and that is by building trust. Force will always damage trust, and is therefore not effective to ensuring security.

In assuming that force and violence can be effective, it is also necessary to assume an us verus them mentality, and Walzer does so without hesitation. For example, in talking about Bosnia, he says:

We are extraordinarily dependent on the victim/victimizer, good guys/bad guys model. I am not sure that any very forceful intervention is politically possible without it. One of the reasons for the weakness of the United Nations in Bosnia has been that many of its representatives on the ground do not believe that the model fits the situation they have to confront.

Indeed, I agree that a forceful intervention is not possible without a good guys/bad guys model to back it up. But again, I ask, is this an effective way to approach situations? Perhaps the problem with the U.N. is not that they do not buy in to the us versus them model, but that they still buy in to a model of force as conflict resolution. In another essay, Walzer does not seem to recogize quite how fundamental otherizing is to war. He writes:

Wartime propaganda commonly has the same effect, demonizing the other side, even when both sides expect the war to end with a negotiated peace. Once the Enemy has been created, any of ‘them’ can be killed, men, women, or children, combatants and noncombatants, ordinary folk. The hositlity is generalized and indescriminate.

I agree with what Walzer is saying here, but I do not think he follows his own argument far enough. He recognizes that wartime propaganda can create an enemy, which leads to indescriminate killing. I would argue that the creation of an enemy is not only the result of wartime propaganda, but is in fact a prerequisite for going to war. It is not possible to send your fellow citizens off into battle unless you believe that there is an enemy to be fought, posing a threat to the security of your nation.

The entire theory of just war is therefore based on the assumptions that security can be achieved through force and violence and that it is morally correct to view some citizens of the world as the “other.” These assumptions prevent us from reaching peace. The only way that we can move beyond war is to move beyond these underlying assumptions to a world view and morality that does not legitimize force and otherizing.

Walzer demonstrates a distinct lack of imagination as to how one can resolve conflicts through a means other than force. This is particularly clear in his essay on Kosovo. Towards the beginning, he writes, “The truth remains, however, what it was before the inventions: soldiers with guns, going from house to house in a mountain village, can’t be stopped by smart bombs. They can only be stopped by soldiers with guns.” Later on in the essay, he explains the justification for forceful humanitarian intervention by using an analogy to a fire: “If the building is burning, and there are people inside, firefighters must risk their lives to get them out.” Walzer’s use of this analogy does not make any sense: I agree, if a fire is burning, you take whatever risks necessary to put it out, but last time I checked, you do not fight a fire with more fire. He might argue that there is a difference, that the fire is genocide against innocent people while the fight against it is a war fought against the country’s military. However, these two actions are fundamentally the same thing – the use of force and violence – and furthermore Walzer seems to recognize that in saying that the only way to stop soldiers with guns is with soldiers with guns. I would argue that in fact we do need to put out the fires of the world, but we need to do so in the same way that we put out real fires: with something other than fire. Trying to stop soldiers with guns by bringing in more soldiers with guns will only escalate the situation, just as trying to fight fire with fire would. If we truly want to stop the violence and descalate the situation, then we need to look further, for a means of stopping the aggressors that does not cause them to feel threatened and become more fearful, angry, and defensive.

Walzer does not even seem to grasp what peace really looks like. He writes about Iraq: “Though Iraq did not use weapons of mass destruction in the Gulf war, the peace agreement imposed after the war – which was authorized and, in part, implemented by the U.N. – included restrictions on the development and deployment of such weapons.” There is a fundamental problem with the wording in this sentence: peace cannot be “imposed.” As long as there is coercion involved, there is no peace. In another essay, Walzer derides the Peace Corps, demonstrating a lack of understanding about what they actually do: “Soldiers are not like Peace Corps volunteers or Fulbright scholars or USIA musicians and lecturers – who should not, indeed, be sent overseas to dangerous places. Soldiers are destined for dangerous places, and they should know that (if they don’t, they should be told).” First of all, Peace Corps volunteers and Fulbright scholars are not at all equivalent; Peace Corps volunteers work in devasted parts of the world specifically to improve the possibilities of peace in those areas, while Fulbright scholars take residence at a university to pursue research. Peace Corps volunteers work on fundamental issues such as education and health, and these issues are absolutely critical to a future peace. Furthermore, they do go to places that could be considered dangerous, and there is no reason why they should not. No, they are not being sent off to kill or be killed, but they are taking risks just as much as soldiers, and working more towards peace than any soldier ever could. Finally, the strongest indicator that Walzer does not fully understand what peace means is a section in his last essay, on “Governing the Globe.” In discussing the idea of a unitary version of governing the globe, where there is a single world republic, he writes: “…I don’t want to deny that something is lost when one gives up the more unitary versions of globalism. What is lost is the hope of creating a more egalitarian world with a stroke of the pen – a single legislative act enforced from a single center. And the hope of achieving perpetual peace, the end of conflict and violence, everywhere and forever.” The funadmental problem with this statement is that perpetual peace does not mean the end of conflict. There is nothing wrong with conflict; in fact, it is absolutely inevitable in any community or relationship, no matter how large or small. The goal of peace is therefore not to end all conflict, but to resolve conflicts in ways that are constructive instead of destructive.

I have one final issue with just war theory, and that is from the point of view of a realist rather than an idealist. Every war the Walzer discusses in detail in these essays was in fact not just in practice. He points out how some of these wars could have been just, if certain things had been done differently, but the fact of the matter is that these wars were only just in theory, only if something had been different. The question I have is therefore, is there ever such a thing as a just war in reality, and if not, is it useful to have a theory of just war? I suspect Walzer would argue that even if no war is ever actually, perfectly just, that just war theory is still an important framework for holding war up to a moral critique. However, I argue that it is not possible for a war to ever be completely just in practice because of the fundamental nature of war. No matter how hard we try to hold war up to a moral critique, it will not meet that critique because war itself is a flawed means of achieving the goals of security, human rights, and other things for which a “just” war may be fought. Thus, I claim that just war theory is not a useful framework for critiquing war, because it is based on the same flawed assumptions and does not question deeply enough the effectiveness of war in reaching the stated ends.

Although it was at times painful, I am glad that I read Arguing About War. It has helped me to clarify why I have always been disturbed by just war theory. It is not simply that I feel so strongly that all violence and killing is wrong (although I do), but that just war theory relies on assumptions about the world that I do not agree with. I do not think that if we truly want to work towards peace it is useful to use just war theory, because it prevents us from considering a new way of looking at the world. In our imperfect world there may very well be times when war seems inevitable, but trying to consider whether the war is just or not keeps us in the cycle of force and violence. In order to move beyond war as an acceptable option we need to break out of this cycle and imagine a different world.


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