An Analysis of Michael Walzers Just War Theory

In Just and Unjust Wars, Michael Walzer provides his analysis as well as his own account of the just war theory. He argues that the conception of what may be considered as justifiable in warfare is determined and defined by the human civilizations experiences in warfare throughout history.  In order to support his claim, Walzer analyzes the evolving conceptions of jus ad bellum the justification for going to war and jus in bello the morally acceptable justification for waging war in the history of human warfare. In line with this, the following discussion elucidates on Walzers Just War Theory with an emphasis on his thesis on the moral equality of soldiers.

As opposed to other Just War Theories, what makes Walzers theory distinct is his emphasis on the role of the state as well as individual in wars. It is important to note that other Just War Theories argue that the state cannot be held morally accountable for the events in warfare. Realists, for example, posit that it is impossible to conceive of the state as a morally accountable entity since the prescription of morality on the state contradicts its role as a defensive entity whose purpose is to ensure the maintenance of national security.  Walzer however counters this view as he posits that such a conception of the state fails to take into account that the state is an organic whole, formed by the shared experiences and cooperative activity of the individuals within it. If such is the case, he argues that the protection of individual rights should be the main goal of a state when it comes to issues concerning the states participation in warfare. Walzer asserts, Individual rights underlie the most important judgments that we make about war. Perceiving the state in this manner leads to a conception of a justified warfare as one wherein the state aims to stand guard over the community of its citizens. For Walzer, participating or engaging in war is thereby only justifiable if the state aims to take a defensive stance against an entity that aims to disrupt the community of its citizens.

Given that Walzer considers the state as the primary entity that is morally accountable for the events in a war, he argues that the combatants who participate in wars are exempted from the responsibility of the war itself. Walzer presents this argument in the context of his thesis on the moral equality of soldiers (34). For Walzer, soldiers are morally equal in warfare since they lack the freedom to prevent the occurrence of a war as they merely stand as the states representative in warfare (34). In addition, he argues that the combatants and or soldiers are morally exempted from the requirements of the justification for going to war but they are bound by the requirements of the morally acceptable justification for waging war. In other words, soldiers are not accountable for the justice of wars but they are accountable for ensuring the practice of justice in wars.  Walzer notes the reason for this as he states, They the combatants vote as individuals, each one deciding for himself, but they fight as members of the political community, the collective decision having already been made. The combatants are thereby not morally accountable for the war itself since it is the states decision and hence not the individuals decision to participate in the war. Within this context, those who are enlisted by their government to participate in the war are not free to choose whether they will or will not participate in the war. On the other hand, the soldiers are morally accountable for the acts they perform in the war since they possess the freedom to choose whether the commands given by their superiors or the actions that they perform in the field would count as a moral andor immoral action. In line with this, Walzer argues,

Not that the soldiers obedience can never be criminal for when he violates the rules of war, superior orders are no defense. The atrocities that he commits are his own the war is not. It is conceived, both in international law and in ordinary moral judgment as the kings business-a matter of state policy, not of individual volition, except when the individual is the king.

He provides an example of this in the case of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who acted against the command of his superior in the battlefield. For Walzer, Rommel is morally justified for disobeying his superiors since he recognized that actualizing the command was contrary to the rules of warfare.

Within this context, the appeal of Walzers theory may be attributed to his emphasis on the defensive aspect of a states participation in warfare as opposed to the Realist stance. In addition, the appeal of his theory may also be attributed to his distinction of the combatant andor soldiers accountability in terms of his participation in warfare within the context of the jus ad bellum and jus in bello conditions.


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