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Despite being an adult-long pacator I’ve never paid too much attention to Just War Theory.  Being brought up by Roman Catholics I of course heard that not all wars were criminal enterprises and some might be considered to be just — broadly, those in which a nation or country was defending itself against aggression. The attempt at bold bright lines soon falls apart as we learned in the back seat of our seatbeltless station-wagon for four kids:  the aggressor found it trivial, and native to his intelligence, to hide his malfeasance and make it appear that the defender was the initiator of the belligerency.

This was most recently shamelessly on display as some “serious people” argued that the Bush-Cheney-Wolfowitz led invasion of Iraq fell under the Just War umbrella — enough to make you throw-up on your philosophy books.

Running across two Op-Ed pieces recently in the NY Times enticed me to read a bit more on the subject — which, with a bit of an excerpt– I hope to make you into a co-enticee.

Professor of Philosophy Jeff McMahan at Rutgers divides his essay into two parts.  The first, here, is a broad introduction to the classical theory of Just Wars from Augustine to Michael Walzer in our own life times.  The second, here (with an excerpt below,) is  the more difficult, and interesting, showing how the two parts of the The Theory (jus ad bellum and jus in bello — don’t worry, you’ll understand after reading,) have structural contradictions and, very strangely, though since the Nuremberg decisions under dispute, that if a soldier fights “justly” as to killing and capturing he is not liable for the fact that the war itself may be unjust.

The Theory’s assurance that unjust combatants do no wrong provided they follow the rules makes it easier for governments to initiate unjust wars. The Theory cannot offer any moral reason why a person ought not to fight in an unjust war, no matter how criminal. If a young German in 1939 had consulted the Theory for guidance about whether to join the Wehrmacht, it would have told him that it was permissible to participate in Nazi aggression provided that he obeyed the principles of jus in bello (for example, by refraining from intentionally attacking civilians).To the extent that the theory has shaped our ways of thinking about the morality of war, it has enabled soldiers to believe that it is permissible to kill people who are merely trying to defend themselves and others from unjust aggression, provided the victims are wearing uniforms and the killing is done under orders from appropriate authorities.

The Morality of Self-Defense

Traditional theorists seek to justify their extraordinary claim — that those who fight and kill in an unjust war never do wrong provided they kill in accordance with the rules — by appealing to the familiar idea that, while it is not permissible to attack people who areinnocent, it can be permissible to attack and kill those who arenoninnocent.  But the Theory uses these words in a special way.  Innocent means “unthreatening,” so that in war non-combatants are innocent while all combatants are noninnocent. Thus, in Walzer’s words, the right not to be attacked “is lost by those who bear arms…because they pose a danger to other people.” This is true of the just and the unjust alike. “Simply by fighting,” Walzer claims, they lose “their title to life…even though, unlike aggressor states, they have committed no crime.” According to this view, all violent action that is defensive is self-justifying, assuming it is also necessary and proportionate.

This account of defensive rights accords no significance to the distinction between wrongful aggressors and their victims, or between unjust and just combatants.

(Just War...NY Times)

McMahan has in view a project to adjust The Theory to better reflect the deeper claims of morality, though he admits doing that brings up injustices of its own.  In a short two essays he can’t be as detailed as he might.  Perhaps in his Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life, or the more recent Killing in War, he wrestles more variously with the problem.

I don’t think I’ll embark on a crash course on Just War theory, preferring to stick stubbornly to the idea that just or not war is always hell for those caught in it and should be avoided with every strategem of the human mind.