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February 4, 2005

just war theory

I've been thinking about just war theory, mainly because my colleagues and I discussed a good paper on that topic by Judy Lichtenberg today, but also because of Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis' recent comments ("Actually, it's a lot of fun to fight. You know, it's a hell of a hoot. It's fun to shoot some people. I'll be right upfront with you, I like brawling. ... You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn't wear a veil. ...You know, guys like that ain't got no manhood left anyway. So it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.")

Just war theory, with its roots in medieval Christian theology, traditionally separates jus ad bellum from jus in bello. The former deals with justifications for waging war; the latter, with acceptable behavior during a war. For instance, some would say that a just conflict is one waged in self-defense or one authorized by the Security Council to promote human rights. Meanwhile, just behavior during a war requires, for example, not deliberately harming civilians, protecting captives, and not taking hostages.

These two issues are separated so that even a nation that is waging a just war must restrain its conduct during the conflict; furthermore, even soldiers fighting in an unjust war must obey certain norms. Because of the distinction between the two sets of standards, Nazi officers could be prosecuted for violating the Geneva Conventions, but not for invading Poland. Likewise, high Allied officials could be held accountable (morally, if not legally) for decisions like the firebombing of Dresden, which was an immoral and unnecessary act in the middle of a just, defensive war.

However, separating jus ad bellum from jus in bello raises its own problems. First of all, the separation can excuse professional military people from worrying about the most important question, which is whether they are fighting a legitimate war in the first place. How the Wehrmacht honored the Geneva Convention was a lot less important than its invasion of the USSR, which led to the slaughter of more than 13 million uniformed Soviet soldiers. It seems strange to demand that a German officer risk his career and even his life in defense of the rules of war, but to excuse him from waging that war in the first place.

Second, a lot of the traditional components of jus in bello seem outmoded or indefensible. For instance, the distinction between combatants and non-combatants doesn't always make a moral difference. Soldiers can be completely innocent draftees (or volunteers in a just war), whereas civilians can be causally responsible for wicked conflicts. It is sometimes a moral mistake to say that you may kill people in uniform but not civilians.

Still, there is a chance that positive results come from having separate rules of justice ad bellum and in bello. On the one hand, political decision-makers (including citizens in democracies) should always carefully consider moral issues before they support military action--no matter how professional and ethical their army may be. Meanwhile, professional military people should have an ingrained sense of proper behavior in bello, regardless of the legitimacy of any overall conflict.

It's too much to ask a professional soldier, whether a draftee or a volunteer in the army of a legitimate state, to ask hard moral questions every time he sees an enemy in uniform. There just isn't time; obedience and instinct must take over. But it is good if the soldier's conscience is triggered when he sees a civilian or a prisoner. The distinction between combatants and non-combatants may be somewhat arbitrary; nevertheless, the triggering of a conscience can help prevent atrocities.

This is why we may accept that General Mattis is a good Marine and a useful guy to have on our side in a war, yet we don't want him to tell his men that killing Afghans is enjoyable. His bold and ruthless behavior on the battlefield is acceptable, maybe even admirable, assuming that the war itself is just. But his expressions of enthusiasm for killing members of an alien culture threaten to erode the scruples that should constrain all soldiers in bello.

Posted by peterlevine at 8:39 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

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