Matt Domsalla

SAASS 601/5

Just and Unjust Wars Precis

In Just and Unjust Wars, the American political philosopher Michael Walzer from Princeton University aims to provide a book of practical morality and to “recapture the just war for political and moral theory.” Walzer looks to account for how citizens, not lawyers, argue about the moral dilemmas found in war. For Walzer, the tension in the moral theory of war is summed up in the dilemma of winning and fighting well. Walzer examines both jus ad bellum (the justice of war) and jus in bello (justice in war). Walzer argues the restrictions set on the reach of battle (who may be killed and when) distinguish killing in war from murder and massacre. Aggression is the crime of war. War is fought to achieve a better state of peace, which means more secure than the status quo ante bellum. The war convention consists of the articulated norms, customs, professional codes, legal precepts, religious and philosophical principles, and reciprocal arrangements that shape judgments of military conduct, and it establishes the duties of belligerent states, commanders, and individual soldiers. While soldiers may be attacked at any time under the war conventions, noncombatants cannot. The principle of double effect is the means of reconciling the prohibition against attacking noncombatants with legitimate military activity. The extreme form of the sliding-scale argument is that soldiers fighting in a just war may do whatever is necessary to win the war, which effectively annuls the war convention. In the very rare instances of supreme emergency (the imminent danger of a horrific outcome), political leaders and soldiers may have override the rights of innocent people and violate the war conventions. While arguments for supreme emergency stemming from a defeat which would likely bring disaster to a political community may be legitimate, those arguments for supreme emergency which are based merely on the speed or scope of victory are not. Concerning the responsibility of political leaders and citizens, the greater the possibility of free action in the communal sphere, the greater the degree of guilt for evil deeds done in the name of everyone. Soldiers are morally culpable for their crimes that follow unlawful or immoral obedience.

Against Realism

· “The language we use to talk about love and war is so rich with moral meaning that it could hardly have been developed except through centuries of argument.” (3)

· “Strategy, like morality, is a language of justification.” (13)

· “The moral reality of war is not fixed by the actual activities of soldiers but by the opinions of mankind.” (15)

The Crime of War

· “The dualism of jus ad bellum (justice of war) and jus in bello (justice in war) is at the heart of all that is most problematic in the moral reality of war.” (21)

· “The aggressor is responsible for all the consequences of the fighting he begins.” (23)

· “War is most often a form of tyranny.” (29)

The Rules of War

· “War is distinguishable from murder and massacre only when restrictions are established on the reach of battle.” (42)

Law and Order in International Society

· “Aggression is remarkable because it is the only crime that states can commit against other states.” (51)

· “The defense of rights is a reason for fighting… it is the only reason.” (72)


· “States may use military force in the face of threats of war, whenever the failure to do so would seriously risk their territorial integrity or political independence.” (85)


· “[Intervention] always has to be justified.” (86)

· “Revolutionary activity is an exercise in self-determination, while foreign interference denies to a people those political capabilities that only such exercise can bring.” (89)

· “States don’t send their soldiers into other states, it seems, only in order to save lives.” (101)

· “Humanitarian intervention involves military action on behalf of oppressed people, and it requires that the intervening state enter, to some degree, into the purposes of those people.” (104)

· “Humanitarian intervention is justified when it is response to acts ‘that shock the moral conscience of mankind.’” (107)

War’s End and the Importance of Winning

· “Except when they are directed against Nazi-like states, just wars are conservative in character; it cannot be their purpose to stamp out illegal violence, but only to cope with particular violent acts.” (121)

· ”Just wars are limited wars; there are moral reasons for the statesmen and soldiers who fight them to be prudent and realistic.” (122)

War’s Means, and the Importance of Fighting Well

· “[Soldiers] face one another as moral equals.” (127)

Noncombatant Immunity and Military Necessity

· During WWI and WWII, German submarines employed the practice of “sink on sight” against merchant ships. This “sink on sight” policy was counter to the naval warfare “absolute duty [of the prize crew] providing for the safety of the crew, passengers, and papers [of the sunken ship].” The “absolute duty” was reaffirmed in the London Naval Protocol of 1936 and provided that submarines must conform to the same rules of naval warfare as surface ships. However, the practice of “sink on sight” was defended based on the ground of military necessity, as the submarine become vulnerable to attack once surfaced.“The only alternative [to “sink on sight”], its defenders have argued, was not to use submarines at all, or to use them ineffectively, which would have conceded control of the sea to the British navy.” Pg 147 – 148

· “The ‘Laconia order’ … suggested that seamen helpless in the sea, unlike wounded soldiers on land, need not be helped once the battle was over. [German Admiral] Doenitz’s argument was that the battle, in fact, was never over until the submarine was safe in its home port. The sinking of a merchant vessel was only the first blow of a long and tense struggle. Radar and the airplane had turned the wide seas into a single battlefield, and unless the submarine immediately began evasive maneuvers, it was or might be in great trouble.” Pg 149

· During the Nuremburg trial against Admiral Doenitz, the court did not completely accept the argument of military necessity in justifying the policy of “sink on sight,” nor did the court accept the defense argument that the US and British navies practice of “sink on sight” constituted a new international agreement. “But they apparently felt that this collusion did make the law unenforceable (or at least unenforceable against only one of the parties to its violation) – a proper judicial decision, but one that leaves open the moral question.” Pg 150.

· “In fact, Doenitz and his allied counterparts had reasons for the policy they adopted, and these reasons fit roughly into the framework of the war convention. Wounded or helpless combatants are no longer subject to attack; in that sense they have regained their right to life. But they are not entitled to assistance so long as the battle continues and the victory of their enemies is uncertain.” Pg 150

· The Laconia was a British liner carrying British servicemen and their families along with Italian POWs back to Britain from the Middle East. A German U-boat sunk the Laconia off the west coast of Africa. Once learning of the identities of those on board the ship, Admiral Doenitz ordered a rescue operation that included submarines. However, during the rescue operation, the German submarines were attacked by Allied aircraft. Admiral Doenitz then ordered the rescue operation to only rescue the Italian POWs and to set the British servicemen and their families adrift. “A rescue effort undertaken for the sake of noncombatants can be broken off temporarily because of an attack, but it cannot be called off in advance of any attack merely because an attack may occur (or recur).” Pg 151

War Against Civilians: Sieges and Blockades

· “A soldier must take careful aim at his military target and away from nonmilitary targets.” (174)

Guerrilla War

· “If you want to fight against us, the guerrillas say, you are going to have to fight civilians, for you are not war war with an army but with a nation.” (180)

· “The supporters themselves, so long as they give only political support, are not legitimate targets, either as a group or as distinguishable individuals.” (193)

· “[The war] cannot be won, because the only available strategy involves a war against civilians; and it should not be won, because the degree of civilian support that rules out alternative strategies also makes the guerrillas the legitimate rulers of the country… Fought by foreigners, it is a war of aggression; if by a local regime alone, it is an act of tyranny.” (196)


· “In its modern manifestations, terror is the totalitarian form of war and politics.” (203)


· “It is the explicit purpose of reprisals, however, to break off the chain, to stop the wrongdoing here, with this final act.” (207)

Winning and Fighting Well

· “Sliding scale: the more justice, the more right.” (219)

Aggression and Neutrality

· Neutrality is a collective and voluntary form of noncombatancy.” (234)

Supreme Emergency

· “Early in the war, it became clear that British bombers could fly effectively only at night and, given the navigational devices with which they were equipped, that they could reasonably aim at no target smaller than a fairly large city. A study made in 1941 indicated that of those planes that actually succeeded in attacking their target (about two-thirds of the attacking force), only one-third dropped their bombs within five miles of the point aimed at. Once this was known, it would seem dishonest to claim that intended target was, say, this aircraft factory and that the indiscriminate destruction around it was only an unintended, if foreseeable, consequence of the justified attempt to stop the production of planes… In fact, of course, navigational devices were rapidly improved as the war went on, and the bombing of specific military targets was an important part of Britain’s total air offensive, receiving top priority at times (before the June 1944 invasion of France, for example) and cutting into the resources allowed for attacks on cities… But the decision to bomb cities was made at a time when victory was not in sight and the specter of defeat ever present. And it was made when no other decision seemed possible if there was to be any sort of military offensive against Nazi Germany.” Pg 258

· Utilitarian calculation can force us to violate the rules of war only when we are face-to-face with not merely defeat but with a defeat likely to bring disaster to a political community. But these calculations have no similar effects when what is at stake is only the speed or the scope of victory.” (268)

Nuclear Deterrence

· “We threaten evil in order not to do it, and the doing of it would be so terrible that the threat seems in comparison to be morally defensible.” (274)

· “Nuclear weapons explode the theory of just war.” (282)

The Crime of Aggression: Political Leaders and Citizens

· “The greater the possibility of free action in the communal sphere, the greater the degree of guilt for evil deeds done in the name of everyone.” (298)

War Crimes: Soldiers and Their Officers

· “We regard soldiers under orders as men whose acts are not entirely their own and whose liability for what they do is somehow diminished.” (309)

· “Despite their oath, we blame them for the crimes that follow from “unlawful” or immoral obedience.” (311)

· “Having looked away, how will we know when to look back?” (326)


Author sates upfront he was a Vietnam anti-war demonstrator and writes to explain that position through a moral explanation of war in a quiet and reflective way.

Argues there are universal values in war and uses evidence the language used to talk about war throughout time, even the hypocrisy of it between language and actions.

Works to write a practical philosophy book on just war, deal with superstructure not substructure

Puts morality and strategy on the same plan but going at different purposes.

Jus Bellum (Going to war) Criteria

- Proper authority – not necessarily a nation-state, could be guerilla, insurgent or terrorist

- Last Resort

- Just Cause – usually only in defense of aggression, pre-emptive/preventative, massacre

- Proper Motives

- Reasonable chance of success

- Proportionality – is the cause worth war

Jus Bello (Conduct in War) – tension between the two.

- Discrimination – civilian not lawful, worth increased risk to military (Individual Liberty as a restraint)

- Proportionality

- Military Necessity – doctrine of double effect pg 153, 155 – good w/ associated evil

New Pillar not in his book Justice Post War – A better peace

Author Bias: Battle against communism not a part of Vietnam discussion.

Dilemnas of war (Sliding scale argument, moral reason allow for immoral action & Neutrality)

- Supreme Emergency – 1-immenece of danger, 2-its nature (evil) leads to overriding the “War Convention” – still immoral acts but done out of necessity. Bomber Harris.

- Levels of responsibility for war crimes, 2 excuses, heat of moment, ordered to. Accountability levels


Just and Unjust Wars – Michael Walzer


Walzer uses discourse theory to examine just war (ad bellum and in bello) from a new perspective. Puts the onus on everything from aggression and civilian rights to terrorism and guerrilla warfare on the aggressing power. Concludes that the burden of proof of war has shifted from alls fair to more universal concepts of human rights. Gives lots of leeway to interventions—not so much to individual soldiers actions. Posits that fighting needs to be proportional and limited. Fights hard against overwhelming force to get surrender (utilitarian argument). He is against realism (Athens vs. Melas debate). Clearly we have been influenced by this book – Colin Powell’s you break it you buy it mantra.


1. Must re-examine just war theory. All is NOT fair in war.

2. War has a separate sphere (not on the same continuum as non-war with regards to morality).

3. War is not necessarily a continuation of politics by other means as relates to morality.

4. Biggest onus is on the invading, aggressing, using force power (turns it on its head).

5. Human rights an important factor

6. War Covenant – war norms over time—very important on how we view war

7. Definitions of war not an issue—but judgment and interpretation are

8. Shared judgments are possible

9. Proving Hypocrisy is important

10. You will be judged after war.

11. If one has no control of the fight (ie professional soldier, conscript,) moral judgment on those who start it

12. 'War is hell = DOCTRINE. Since it’s hell—get it on! Author concludes this is wrong.

13. 'Modern Society makes war even uglier—patriotism, fear, allegiance to the state. Most people in a society will be eager to fight (IMPORTANT) JST’s thought—you’re always going to have buy in at first—proceed with caution.

14. 'Pg. 155 MODERN USAF bombing strategy defined


Uses discourse to turn war morality on its head, while at the same time appealing to old universals of the war covenant. Clearly biased towards Vietnam. Gives all sorts of subjective comments in it. Bases so much on situational (clearly that was wrong)—that it would be hard for someone to act properly—basis a lot of his theory on post-judgement.

Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.