When I told my soldier son last weekend that I was preparing to lead a book club discussion on Michael Walzer‘s book Just and Unjust Wars, he shrugged. “What’s there to talk about?” he asked. “When you are protecting your country you do whatever you need to do to protect it.”
That may sound cynical and uncaring, but it accurately reflects the feeling of many soldiers who consider themselves to be moral, thinking, and caring human beings. From their perspective, they have a job to do: most immediately, to protect themselves and their buddies; beyond that to protect their families and country. They possess very little information about the big picture and, in action, must make split-second decisions with life-and-death implications based on their limited knowledge. Therefore, their default position must be to trust the decisions made by their commanders and superior officers.
It’s not that they aren’t trained to think about the moral implications of their actions–I know that my son has reported to me about many such talks he has had during the course of his service. But when push comes to shove, soldiers are small cogs in a big machine. It’s only in the most exceptional cases–the Kfar Kassems and My Lais that soldiers can and must exercise their individual judgment to the point of refusing orders.
Citizens and national leaders also nearly always lack critical information when judging the justice and necessity of military action. War and other military actions are, by their nature, risky. Risk means that you can’t accurately predict the outcome. Military strategists and policy advisers can only make educated guesses about how likely it is that a given operation will achieve its aims, and about how many soldiers and civilians will be hurt and killed. Yet leaders must make such decisions, and citizens must judge them, in real time.
My book club met as Israel faces–as it nearly always does–critical decisions about military actions. Should we invade Gaza to stop its shelling of Israeli cities? Should we attack Iran to stop its nuclear program? How do we weigh the injustice our own civilians in the south are enduring against the inevitable high Palestinian casualties that an invasion would involve? Can we believe our leaders if they tell us that they can take out Iran’s nuclear facilities without provoking a major regional war?
In preparing my book club presentation, I read articles by a number of other thinkers and philosophers who disagree with Walzer on important points. In comparing Walzer’s positions to those of these other writers, one thing that stands out is how practical Walzer endeavors to be. For example, Jeff McMahan, in an article called The Ethics of Killing in War, seeks to place strict limitations on what kinds of people, including soldiers, are legitimate targets in wartime. His attempt to restrict killing in wartime is laudable, but as Walzer responds, the kinds of distinctions he makes are far more theoretical and fine-tuned than we can expect soldiers to make in battle.
Yet even though Walzer uses case studies extensively in an effort to establish principles useful to national leaders, soldiers, and citizens, he can’t get around the fact that all these categories of people will almost always have limited knowledge of critical factors that ought to be part of any intelligent and ethical decision. This is especially true of soldiers and citizens, who–even if they are not being deliberately misled by their leaders, which is often the case–cannot be party to secret intelligence, cabinet debates, and war room deliberations.
It’s important to have an ethical doctrine of war to guide us, but it’s also important to accept that ultimately many decisions will be made on the basis of intuition, gut feelings, and the immediate perceived requirements of the moment.
I’ll encourage my son to read Walzer’s book, and other work on the subject. But it’s not because such material can provide him with clear guidelines about how to act in complex situations. Ultimately, the best guarantee of ethics in war is to have thinking and morally sensitive leaders, commanders, and citizens. That comes of wide reading and discussion. But it does not guarantee, nor should it, that they will make decisions according to the book.