Michael Walzer’s book ‘Just and Unjust Wars’ mainfocus is on morality in war, having widely shaped the trend of questioning asto whether wars are ultimately fair and just and what constitutes asillegitimate war.
The contextual factors at the time that Walzer was writingsuch as the Vietnam War and the influence of Christian theology is essentiallywhat allowed Walzer’s ideas about war to be circulated and discussed as trulyrelevant and of concern to people who were already questioning the legitimacyof acts of war. The inevitable conflict between states forever existing meansthat his stance on morality in war will always be demonstrative and relevantacross times. One of the ways in which Walzer has shaped thoughtin international politics is through his proposed framework of ideas that thejustice of war is judged from two independent claims; ‘Jus ad bellum’ (justiceto war) and ‘Jus in bello’ (justice in war).
The justice to war element relatesto the idea that there needs to be questioning of when to wage war and alsowhen it is permissible to fight; justice in war addresses the issue of how tofight and what methods are considered just or unjust in relation to war crimes.An example of Walzer’s requirements for a just war is that,”it is wrong to cut the throats of their wounded orto shoot them down when they are trying to surrender” (Walzer,36)Through illustrating conditions of a just war suchas these, Walzer succeeds at providing a structure for war which can be appliedacross time. These conditions he proposed should be addressed and used todecide if a war is morally permissible or not. These claims are not dependenton one another meaning that a war can be just yet fought unjustly, whilst a warcan be unjust and fought justly. Across time we can see that Walzer’s ideas canbe applied to different conflicts such as World War II and the devastatingeffects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan; it is widely agreed that World WarII was a war fought with legitimacy in order to expel fascism, a greaterthreat. However, it is also widely agreed that the fighting and tactics used inthis war such as nuclear weapons are never permissible due to the scale ofdamage they cause.
Similarly, a more recent example of how these two claims canwork independently of each other is the 2003 United States invasion of Iraq –an unjust war that was arguably fought justly. The United States’ decision toinvade Iraq was one which was highly controversial and in present day ispredominantly seen as a self-interested and a wrongful disruption. Despitethis, it has been suggested that the United States took great precaution inensuring there was minimal civilian deaths or injuries. One of the reasons theywere commended was for their use of precision-guided munitions in Iraq whichwere aimed at militant bases instead of civilians. In this sense, critics haveargued that the Iraq war was an unjustifiable invasion however it was foughtjustly.
We can apply Walzer’s theories to modern day wars in order todistinguish between what wars the international community can accept as justand what wars should be rejected as unreasonable. In this sense, Walzer hasshaped how we think about wars today and how abruptly we accept the acts andreasons of war through providing a framework of understanding. Perhaps one of the major reasons Walzer’s ‘Just andUnjust Wars’ has continued to shape how we think about international politicstoday is due to the publishing of the book coinciding with the backdrop of theend of the United States’ calamitous participation in Vietnam for ten years.The context of the Vietnam War being the first war that was broadcasted andexplicitly shown through televisions to the rest of the world, the sheer horrorof what was occurring in Vietnam, provided a climate in which people becameconcerned as to why atrocities such as the My Lai Massacre were allowed tooccur and whether this war was in fact legitimate. Two years following thewithdrawal of the United States’ in Vietnam, Michael Walzer acted as an oppositionvoice against the Vietnam War and tackled many of the questions surrounding howjust the United States’ invasion was; things that had been circulating in theinternational community and had caused the erosion of public favour. It wasthis fragile atmosphere which allowed Walzer’s book to have a major impact onthe way we think about war and international politics today. In this very sameway, today we can use the contentious Vietnam war to compare to wars since thensuch as the dispute over Kosovo which led to a breakout of war in 1998 in whichthe international community were less permissive and willing to accept violenceas they had been during the Vietnam War.
The most relatable and up-to-dateargument would be the ongoing civil war in Syria; it has been highlycontroversial and disputed especially in regards to the United States’continuing airstrikes. Walzer highlighted ‘thenecessity for violence in a world where God has not instituted the sword'(Walzer, The Problem of Dirty Hands, 176), implying that war will alwaysevolve and will always exist and so should be regulated and strictly monitoredagainst morality which we can see is needed since the horrors of the Vietnamwar have been very much mimicked in conflict since. Walzer’s book being publishedin such a critical time where these ideas of condemning states for their waractions were flourishing, he added a foundation for these arguments andencouraged a platform where the public could express their opposition againstthe Vietnam War. This trend is what has allowed international politics to notbe so complacent with reasoning for war and to question war tactics in the sameway that was done in the 1970s.
The influence of Christian theology on ‘Just andUnjust Wars’ demonstrates that morality guides how people and states will actand so therefore puts into perspective the reasoning as to why, ininternational politics, we should question the acts of war and whether they arejust or unjust. Walzer found that almost every society and almost every majorreligion has some form of guideline and code of behaviour to distinguishbetween legitimate and illegitimate wars. St Augustine of the early ChristianChurch proposed the idea that war can be legitimate if it is aimed at a widergood such as restoring peace.
Walzer went on to use this argument to proposethat war can therefore be justified and there can be justice in war. Theinfluence of religion throughout his book is shown through his language such as “aggression opens the gates of hell”(Walzer, ch4), undeniably similar to the teachings of the Ten Commandments,one of which prohibiting murder. It is clear that a lot of his just-war theoryis heavily influenced by values taught in Christianity.
Not only this, butthroughout history leaders and state officials have attempted to justify theirdecisions for war and also their actions in war; Walzer claimed that thisproved that “just-war theory has alwaysplayed a part in official argument about war” (Walzer, Preface to SecondEdition, 11) and so morality guides how everyone acts; even theperpetrators of war are guided by morality shown through the justification oftheir actions. Even Barack Obama has said that their government has madedecisions “based on fear rather thanforesight” to justify the war on terror, showing how much Walzer’sexpansion upon Christian theology has truly affected and stressed theimportance of morality in foreign policy and war, so much so that Presidentsand leaders still feel obliged to defend themselves even after proceeding withwar and deaths of civilians. Therefore, to Walzer there should be a sharedunderstanding that potential wars need to be queried against morality seeing aseveryone is guided by it. Walzer’s ideas being applied across history and timegives strength to his stance on morality and proves to be a durable idea havingwithstood the pressures of time, morality has been proven to be somethinginnate in human behaviour and society. The role that Christian theology hasplayed in insisting on the importance of ethics when considering warhighlighted the fact that here has always been an underlying consensus in allsocieties that morality should be considered and acted upon; Walzer provided astructure and platform for these ideas to be expressed through a framework ofconditions which should be met to ensure morality is accounted for in potentialwar. In addition to this, Walzer’s critique of realismand of some of the most influential thinkers in realism such as E.H Carr causedhis book to be explored even further as he questioned some of the highestregarded thinkers and challenged their view that war is a part of a functioningsociety. Therefore, his ideas began to be considered, especially at a timewhere a lot of people were struggling to accept justifications for the VietnamWar and so were tempted to disregard the realist view and now took the approachof Walzer in that there is a moral reality.
Carr argued that the world isdoomed to conflict because of human nature’s tendency to be self-interested andadverse and in turn, the language of morality and justice is just a pursuit ofself-interest. He used the example of the United States’ invasion of Iraq in2003; the humanitarian justification was in fact just to conceal the UnitedStates’ agenda to pursue hegemony. Walzer, on the other hand, made a case for the acceptable forms ofhumanitarian intervention in certain situations such as “If no common life exists, or if the state doesn’t defend the commonlife that does exist, its own defence may have no moral justification” (Walzer,54) or when it is an emergency in which “thevery existence of a community is at stake” (Walzer, 228), only in thesespecial circumstances is humanitarian intervention agreeable. Walzer has a muchmore positive view of humanitarian intervention and believes that, unlikerealist thinkers, there can be genuine moral reasoning for intervention if theaim is for rights and freedoms, for example he mentioned internationalintervention in Nazi Germany was necessary to combat ‘an evil conspiracy’. Therefore, Walzer’s moral justification forsome use of violence in specific circumstances has arose debates of whatconstitutes as ‘severe emergencies’. Nevertheless, his criticism of realism hasallowed the notions expressed in ‘Just and Unjust Wars’ to remain talked aboutas a classic text of international relations.
To conclude, it is clear that the contextsurrounding Walzer’s framework of ideas about just wars – the Vietnam War andChristian theology – is what truly enabled people to relate to and understandwhy there is a need for rules and constraints regarding the ethics of war. Hisconcise and persuasive style of writing grouped together the existingopposition to the Vietnam War and allowed for there to be constructive andstructured propositions for what we should allow as fair and just ininternational politics, something which continues to remind people and leadersthat war is only acceptable and justifiable if it is a severe emergency anddoesn’t infringe upon the rights of civilians.