Michael Walzer's Just War Theory

Why the role of soldiers in Just War Theory requires amendments

Essay, 2018

4 Pages, Grade: 8,0


Michael Walzer's Theory of Just War Revised - Why the role of soldiers in just war theory requires amendments

Michael Walzer's Just and Unjust War from 1977 is considered a major work in traditional Just War Theory. Many of his assumptions are still the basis for modern warfare considerations. However, not every aspect of his theory has received overall agreement within the discipline. Accordingly, the role of combatants in jus in bello (the conduct of war) has become a major topic of debate. While the role of civilians and their need for protection has developed over time and even restrictions for cruel methods of killing were introduced, the status of soldiers has basically remained the same. I argue that striving toward more just warfare also requires to reconsider the highly inhumane status of soldiers in traditional approaches.

In this research paper, I therefore suggest that Walzer's concept of jus in bello needs further revision, especially to provide an appropriate notion of combatants (also referred to as soldiers). In this respect, I will examine the theoretical conception of soldiers on three different levels of analysis. These include the combatants' contradictory responsibilities in jus ad bellum (the justification for war) and jus in bello, the idea of moral equality of all soldiers and the debate on the value of a soldier's life. This is of importance since the recognition and alteration of these concepts might change the way we wage war nowadays to the better. To elaborate on that, I will combine moral philosophical analysis with normative theory. I will first outline the contradictory role of combatants' responsibilities in jus ad bellum and jus in bello by referring to Graham Parsons' criticism on the dualism ofJust WarTheory. Then, I will elaborate on Walzer's claim that all soldiers are morally equal. The following critical analysis of the value of combatants' lives as individual human beings will further demonstrate the need for a revised perception of combatants in modern warfare and point out why Walzer's assumptions are insufficient. In a final conclusion I am going to claim that it is necessary to revise these concepts to change the status of combatants as sole "instruments" in modern warfare and propose to introduce laws that restrain permissible killings on combatants.

First, the theoretical framework of jus ad bellum and jus in bello needs to be examined in respect to soldier responsibilities. Michael Walzer claims that jus ad bellum and jus in bello exist logically independent of one another (Walzer, 1977, p. 37-41). Thus, a just war can be fought unjustly and the other way round (Walzer, 1977, p. 21). This, however, holds not true since the area of responsibility for soldiers is - though highly contradictory - intertwined in both concepts. In his article "The Dualism of Modern Just War Theory" Graham Parsons detects that contradiction by stating that, "for Walzer, with respect to jus ad bellum soldiers are obligated to obey commands and with respect to jus in bello soldiers are not obligated to obey commands" (Parsons, 2016, p. 752). This is because Walzer's theory, as most traditional just war theories, is based on two opposing principles of justice according to Parsons. While the theory of public war (as a part of jus ad bellum) concentrates on the political community and its interests the theory of discrimination (as a part of jus in bello) values the individual over the community. Thus, due to the theory of public war a combatant is perceived as an instrument of the political community he/she belongs to and therefore has to obey his/her sovereigns' command. This, then, implies that a soldier is not responsible for his/her actions since he/she acts in the will of his/her community and not his/her individual will. The theory of discrimination in contrast, postulates that it is impermissible for soldiers to attack non-combatants but permissible to attack other combatants. The focus here lies on the soldier's moral consideration of either acting justly or unjustly. Hence, in a situation of potential injustice the soldier is in conflict with his responsibility as an individual to act justly and his responsibility as a servant to obey the command of his/her sovereign. Referring back to Walzer's concepts then, in regard to jus ad bellum, the responsibility of the combatants' action lies with the political sovereign, while in jus in bello it lies with the soldier and the political sovereign (Parsons, 2016, 752-59).

This, then attributes to two "conflicting roles in war" for soldiers (Parsons, 2016, p. 752). However inconsistent, both principles have remained fixed components of traditional war theory. This makes room for further moral ambiguities resulting from this contradiction, especially when it comes to morality as the next paragraph suggests.

The second level of my analysis, then, concentrates on the moral equality of all soldiers as suggested by Walzer (Walzer, 1977, p. 36, 127). Thus, as already mentioned above a soldier can be part of an unjust war but still fight justly and therefore is morally equal to his enemy.

First of all, who does Walzer mean when he speaks of all soldiers? Certainly, he refers to soldiers fighting for their sovereign in an either just or unjust fashion. But what about irregular fighters such as terrorists (Ohlin, May Finkelstein, 2017, p. 3) or paramilitary forces (Blum, 2017, 28)? Unfortunately, Walzer's theory does not give a proper explanation to that. However, even when we exclusively consider just and unjust combatants Walzer's claim is inconsistent. As Benbaji argues moral equality could only mean that all soldiers are equal under the law of war. This has a practical reason since both sides will claim that they are the just ones. So, in legal terms combatants are "equalized" (Benbaji, 2009, p. 3-4). But this, however, does not mean that Walzer's statement is true in jus in bello. Taking as an example the act of self-defense, how can unjust combatants justify their acts as self-defensive when they are the attacking party? For Walzer it is always permissible to target the enemy combatant, thus he does not differentiate between real self-defense and the unjust assertion of self-defensive actions.1 This, again, is conflicting with his jus in bello principles. "[I]t is simply impossible for unjust combatants to act proportionately or to be restrained by morality. The very idea that the in bello requirement of proportionality can be equally satisfied by both sides is incoherent" (Benbaji, 2009, p. 5).

In this respect, Walzer's statement of moral equality among all soldiers is insufficient, not only because of the ignored dependence of jus in bello and jus ad bellum principles but also in terms of generalizing all groups of soldiers. This is not possible as the example of self-defensive action has shown. While it is not possible to generalize morality of all combatants it is possible (and desirable) to equalize the value of all human lives in war, which is defacto not the case in traditional Just War Theory as the next paragraph reveals.

Third, Walzer clearly objects the realist doctrine "all is fair in [...] war" (Walzer, 1977, p. 3). However, it seems to fit the status of combatants as a general target in his war theory. This is because in traditional just war theory - and Walzer is no exception here - the role of soldiers does not presume any value of individual human life (Vitoria, Grotius, Walzer in Parsons, 2016, p. 762­763, 764, 765-767). Soldiers are presented as instruments of their sovereign, as servants to senior officers and thus to military in general (Walzer 1977, p. 36 ; 1980, p. 23-25 ; Benbaji, 2009, p. 7-8). According to Walzer, "war itself isn't a relation between persons but between political entities and their human instruments" (Walzer 1977 p. 36) and "simply by fighting, whatever their private hopes and intentions, [soldiers] have lost their title to life and liberty," (Walzer 1977, p. 136). This position is reflected in the laws of war. "Civilian casualties are illegal, immoral and unjust. Combatants as a matter of international law, are fair game", Gabriella Blum resumes (Blum, 2017, 18). While the integrity of civilians has become a popular topic among theorists the approach on preventing disproportionate soldier casualties has not developed. Thus, it still holds true that "soldiers may be killed at any time, regardless of their individual level of threat" (Ohling, May, Finkelstein, 2017, p.2). This suggests that soldiers can even be killed during activities such as sleeping, swimming, retreating etc. (Blum, 2017, p.18).

Walzer consciously supports that argument2. It thus appears that his theory essentially lacks justice when it comes to the lives of combatants. This leads to the question whether the status of combatants can become more just in Just War Theory. Accordingly, "just" for Walzer means "justifiable, defensible even morally necessary (given the alternatives)" (Walzer 2004, p. x). I argue, then, that introducing regulations or laws on soldier's targetability is morally necessary to attribute to a more valuable and thus just position of soldiers in modern warfare. In principle, we should assume that all lives are of equal value and that this is persistent in war. In this respect, a threat- based analysis, as suggested by Blum, could help to reduce the number of soldier casualties (Blum, 2017, 26). Evaluating whether or not a soldier demonstrates a real threat to his enemy can prevent unthoughtful killing. Furthermore, as Jean Pictet formulates, killing a soldier should be the last resort, if we can put a soldier out of action by capturing him we should not wound him, if we can obtain the same result by wounding him, we must not kill him, if there are two means to achieve the same military advantagewe mustchoose theone whichcausesthe lesserevil" (Pictet in Ohling, May, Finkelstein, 2017, p. 3-4).

Instruments to put these regulations into practice are already accessible. Since soldiers are already trained to distinguish civilians from other potentially dangerous forces they could likewise apply these skills for threat-based analysis (Blum, 2017, p. 20-21). After all, there is no reason why soldiers' lives in war should not be valued as much as any other human life. Therefore, regulations on the permissibility of killing soldiers could prevent many unnecessary deaths.

In conclusion, I demonstrated that Michael Walzer's theory of Just and Unjust Wars is inconsistent in the depiction of combatants in jus in bello theory. I argued that this derives from the basic misrepresentation of the responsibilities of soldiers in jus ad bellum and jus in bello. In contrast to Walzer's claim these two concepts are not independent of each other. Jus ad bellum exonerates soldiers from responsibility on the one hand and jus in bello makes soldiers liable for their actions on the other hand. This, then, also affects the assumptions made by Walzer on the moral equality of all soldiers and their value as human beings after all. While unjust and just combatants are not morally equal all combatants should be prevented from importunate killing at war.

Since Walzer's conclusions are still ubiquitous in contemporary warfare theory amendments to the stated problems would ultimately reduce misinterpretations. Ultimately, adjusting some of the basic assumptions on the status of combatants in war has the potential to change the conduct of modern warfare remarkably.


Benbaji, Y. (2009). The War Convention And The Moral Division Of Labour. The Philosophical Quarterly, 59(237), 593-617. doi:10.1111/j.l467-9213.2008.577.x

Blum, G. (2017). 1. The Dispensable Lives ofSoldiers. In Weighing Lives in War (pp. 17-57). Oxford Scholarship Online. doi:10.1093/oso/9780198796176.001.0001

Ohling, J. D., May, L., & Finkeistein, C. (2017). Introduction. The Building Blocks of Just War: Proportionality and Necessity. In Weighing Lives in War (pp. 1-13). Oxford Scholarship Online. doi:10.1093/oso/9780198796176.001.0001

Parsons, G. (2016) The Dualism of Modern Just WarTheory. Philosophia, 45(2), 751-771. doi: 10.1007/sll406-016-9790-z

Walzer, M. (1977) Just and Unjust War: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations. New York: Basic Books.

Walzer, M. (1980). Two kinds of Military Response. In Arguing about Wars (pp. 23-32). New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Walzer, M. (2004). Introduction. In Arguing about Wars (pp. Ix-xv). New Haven & London: Yale University Press.


1 "The case is not different from what it would be if the second [just] soldier shot the [unjust] first [soldier]. So far as they fight in accordance with the in bello rules, no condemnation is possible" (Walzer, 1977, p. 128).

2 Considering the question of Robert Graves on whether a naked soldier swimming in a lake is a justifiable target Walzer answers with "yes" (Blum, 2017, p. 18)

Excerpt out of 4 pages


Michael Walzer's Just War Theory
Why the role of soldiers in Just War Theory requires amendments
University of Groningen
Theories of International Relations
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
Walzer, Just War Theory, Normative Theory, child soldiers, soldiers
Quote paper
Elena Mertel (Author), 2018, Michael Walzer's Just War Theory, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/498136


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