Morality & War

Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations.
by Michael Walzer.
Basic Books. 361 pp. $15.00.

Just and Unjust Wars is a thoughtful, generally well-written and lucid, and often but by no means always persuasive essay on the intractable problem of what is moral and immoral in war.

Michael Walzer, a professor of government at Harvard, is by trade a moralist, and so he is not primarily concerned with the international law of war, which he prefers to call the “war convention” or the “legal paradigm.” He rightly says that that law is “radically incomplete”; it is so largely because the pertinent treaties and customary law represent only the limited and unsubtle part of morality which virtually all the governments of the world accept, or profess to accept. (For example, prisoners of war and civilian noncombatants must not be massacred or deliberately maltreated; there must be some reasonable relationship between the amount of force employed and the military goal to be achieved; and so forth). These rules of law, imperfect as they and their enforcement have been, have probably done more good and avoided more suffering than Professor Walzer seems ready to concede, but no one would claim that they furnish satisfactory answers to all the questions he addresses.



Professor Walzer aims to supplement, and to some extent revise, the law of war with morality, as he perceives that somewhat elusive concept. It should be said at the outset that he is too sophisticated to be seduced by a number of simple and popular positions on this issue. Unlike the doctrinaire pacifist, he does not believe that war is ipso facto and always immoral and that therefore the only moral course is to refuse to participate in any way, to seek peace even at the expense of justice. (George Orwell said, “Those who ‘abjure’ violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf.”)

Like Orwell, he recognizes that Gandhian nonviolence is possible only if one is resisting a more or less civilized and humane adversary. He also avoids the opposite extreme, espoused by Richard Falk and many others among the passionate partisans of North Vietnam, that anything is permissible to a belligerent who (in their opinion) is resisting aggression or otherwise fighting a “just” war. He states clearly and repeatedly that soldiers fighting in an unjust cause have the same rights and duties as their enemies. He refuses to join the “philosophical apologists” for random terrorism.



What, then, are his suggestions for improving or transcending the law of war? According to the “legal paradigm,” as enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and in the Nuremberg Charter, forcible intervention in the internal affairs of another sovereign country or any invasion of its territory, except in self-defense, is a crime. Professor Walzer, however, does not believe that armed intervention is always unjust, or morally wrong. He makes a case for “humanitarian intervention,” and suggests a number of situations in which such intervention is morally right—when, within the territory of the nation invaded, a distinct and separate community among its subjects is already waging a “war of national liberation” or attempting to secede; when the invaded nation’s government has already permitted a third party to intervene in a civil war; or “when the violation of human rights within a set of boundaries is so terrible that it makes talk of community or self-determination . . . seem cynical and irrelevant.” A corollary is that a really immoral state may have no right to defend itself from humanitarian intervention: “If no common life exists, or if the state doesn’t defend the common life that does exist, its own defense may have no moral justification.”

Professor Walzer also suggests some moral revisions of the law governing the conduct of a war that has already begun. In a “supreme emergency, when the very existence of a community is at stake,” it may be “morally as well as militarily necessary to override the rules of war.” Likewise, if one is fighting a really evil enemy, like Nazi Germany, one may “do anything, violating the rights of the innocent,” that is necessary to win.

These theses are defensible and possibly right. Some of them, indeed, are academic, because they clearly represent the practice, if not the law, of nations. Thus, the categorical prohibition of aggression has had little or no effect; since Nuremberg there have been about a hundred wars, some of them on a large scale. All the belligerents have claimed to be acting in self-defense or in the name of justice, usually both, and their friends have usually accepted their explanations. Even in the case of a clear-cut example of aggression, such as the North Korean invasion of South Korea, all the Communist states endorsed Kim II Sung’s contention that he was really defending his country against South Korean and American aggression. Similarly, it is hard to imagine a government, however moral, that would not throw away the rule-book in a “supreme emergency.” Like domestic laws against adultery and fornication, laws forbidding such conduct are simply unenforceable, and unenforced.

The trouble with all of Professor Walzer’s propositions, it seems to me, is that they leave even more room for construction and application in a way that suits the interest of a nation at war, or thinking of going to war, than do the existing treaties and the rest of international law. In each case, their application depends on a finding of fact—for example, the wickedness or illegitimacy of the government of the enemy state—which other observers might find questionable or simply wrong. Where are we to find an honest and disinterested judge of the facts? The plain implication of Just and Unjust Wars is that such judgments are best made by Professor Walzer and his peers, detached moralists and philosophers. Unfortunately, Professor Walzer’s judgments on one difficult set of facts, those concerning the war in South Vietnam, do not convince me that his moral verdicts are any more objective, any less influenced by his personal political sympathies, than those of people less qualified or less inclined to moralize than he.



To begin with, the position of the United States during the war years that the hostilities in Vietnam started with a North Vietnamese invasion of the South is dismissed by Professor Walzer as “on its surface unbelievable” and “accepted by virtually no one.” Yet unless “invasion” is defined in such a way as to exclude the large-scale infiltration of men and weapons into a neighbor’s territory, the issue is at the very least debatable; many reasonable people are much less certain than Professor Walzer and might disagree with him. If the issue were before a jury, and I were the judge, I would not direct a verdict.

But however the hostilities began, the United States, under Professor Walzer’s moral principles, was not entitled to intervene on the side of the government of South Vietnam (although the “counter-intervention” of North Vietnam was just), because that government had no “local status” or “political presence independent of ourselves” and hence “could [not] conceivably win a civil war.” Here too the issue is not so clear. Whether, in the absence of interference from North Vietnam, the United States, and other states, the government of South Vietnam could have controlled the Vietcong—at least to the extent, say, that the British government has controlled the IRA—must forever remain in the realm of speculation. It is, at the least, conceivable that it could have done so.

“When the South Vietnamese government refused to permit [the elections scheduled for 1956 by the Geneva Agreement of 1954], it clearly lost whatever legitimacy was conferred by those agreements.” This assertion strikes me as at best extraordinarily naive. South Vietnam, although hardly a democratic state, was appreciably closer to being one than North Vietnam; there was in 1956 and there remained to the end a substantial and vocal non-Communist opposition, many of whose members were not in jail. Any election in North Vietnam, on the other hand, would have been simply a Ja-election, with the Communists getting the customary 99.9 per cent of the “vote.”

“A government [like South Vietnam] that receives economic and technical aid, military supply, strategic and tactical advice, and is still unable to reduce its subjects to obedience, is clearly an illegitimate government.” The inability of a government to reduce all its subjects to obedience does not prove much about its legitimacy. The British government has not lost its legitimacy because it has not, after nearly a decade, reduced the IRA to obedience and would be no nearer doing so if it had had outside help. For that matter, the Federal Republic of Germany has not lost its legitimacy because it has failed to reduce the Baader-Meinhof gang to obedience.

There are other equally doubtful assertions about Vietnam in this book, including one that the Vietcong enjoyed the voluntary support of the entire peasantry in the South, partly because of what the author delicately terms “the enforced intimacy” between the peasants and the guerrillas. Some of these assertions look rather odd in the light of the reports that have come out of that unhappy country in the last year or so.



But it is not my intention to counter Professor Walzer’s dogmatics by dogmatizing myself. The rights and wrongs of Vietnam rest on questions of fact which will in all probability never be fully resolved, in part because they were so incompetently and one-sidedly reported while the war was going on. The point is that Professor Walzer finds moral justification for violence—in this case, the violence of the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong—when his own prejudices are cast into the scales, and when the evidence would not permit an honest man to find legal justification for violence.

Where would Professor Walzer’s moral intuitions lead him in various contemporary situations? He cites Nazi Germany as a clear case for “humanitarian intervention.” Today there seems to be very strong, virtually conclusive, evidence that the government of Cambodia (a country which Professor Walzer spares himself embarrassment by never mentioning) is as bad as Hitler’s. Incredible as it sounds, it may actually be worse quantitatively, for the best evidence is that it has so far killed about one-eighth of its subjects, a figure Hitler never managed to reach. Would Professor Walzer favor armed “humanitarian intervention” to stop the killing there? What about Uganda, Guinea, Ethiopia, Chile, South Africa? I mention only nations small enough so that intervention by the great powers would be militarily feasible, but even in the case of these it is painfully clear that the great powers, if they were to apply the Walzer principles of morality, would each come to an utterly different conclusion. Russia and Cuba, for example, might justify the Cuban military presence in Angola and other African countries on the basis of “humanitarian intervention,” but the United States would not, and neither would I.



This brings me to the crux of the difference between Professor Walzer and myself. He takes me to task for saying in an article on the law of war (“The Question of War Crimes,” COMMENTARY, December 1972) that I would “make no attempt to say what is immoral—not because I think morality unimportant, but because my views on it are entitled to no more weight than Jane Fonda’s or Richard M. Nixon’s or yours.” Professor Walzer says that I am wrong to think that “all opinions are equal” and that “moral authority” does not exist. But I do not really think that all opinions are equal. I find some, especially my own, more persuasive than others—but not because they are “authoritative” in the sense that law is authoritative. Of course “moral authority” exists. It is possessed, to select a few examples, by the Pope, by the President of the Council of Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, and possibly by the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist party of this or that Marxist state. Unfortunately, these people do not always agree with one another, with Professor Walzer, or with me, and not all of us recognize the authority of any of them.

If I want to find what the law is, at least I know where to look for it. But if I am not a Roman Catholic, or a Mormon, or a Moonie, or a Communist, where shall I look for moral authority? Professor Walzer’s answer is straightforward and free of false modesty: I should go to Harvard University and knock on his door. “No one can argue about justice and war, as I have been doing, without striving for an authoritative voice and laying claim to a certain ‘weightiness.’” In the light of many of the moral verdicts handed down in Just and Unjust Wars, I remain skeptical. Persuasiveness, yes—sometimes. Authority, no.

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