While my plan is to submit a weekly blog post to Christian Ethics Bites, last week I was swamped with midterm grading and was unable to contribute, so this week I am making amends. This is my eighth blog post in this series on Christian ethics and the morality of war. To this point I’ve tried to survey the basic contours of the debate in the Christian tradition about war. Today I turn my attention to a question that moves me closer to the principle focus of my own research and writing: Who can kill in war? Or more accuratedly, who has a moral right to kill in war? At first glance, the question may appear strange. Who can kill? Well, of course soldiers can kill. The obviousness of this answer veils one of the deep debates at the heart of recent just war conversation. In this week’s post I’ll try to describe this debate and offer a brief explanation about why it is significant.
The heart of the debate centers on the relationship between jus ad bellum and jus in bello criteria. Recall that jus ad bellum criteria establish when war is morally permissible. Jus in bello criteria establish what conduct in war is morally permissible. Traditional just war theory has treated jus ad bellum and jus in bello criteria as independent of one another. It is possible for just wars (i.e. wars that conform to jus ad bellum criteria) to be fought unjustly (i.e. through actions that violate the principles of discrimination and/or proportionality). It is also possible for unjust wars to be fought by soldiers who strictly adhere to jus in bello constraints.
The distinction between jus ad bellum and jus in bello criteria leads many just war theorists to conclude that soldiers are morally culpable for violating jus in bello criteria, but not for participating in unjust wars (i.e. wars that violate jus ad bellum criteria). The moral agency of soldiers is relevant only insofar as they make choices on the battlefield: whom they will target and how much force they will employ. Soldiers are not responsible for choosing the wars they are called to wage, so they are not accountable for the fact that they might be called upon to wage an unjust war.
Practically speaking, the implications should be clear, but let me illustrate with an example. Let’s assume for the moment the uncontroversial assertion that Germany acted unjustly when it invaded Poland in 1939, starting the Second World War. Consider two German soldiers: let’s call them Hans and Dieter. Both soldiers fight on behalf of the Nazi regime during World War II. They are participants in an unjust war. But from the perspective described above, neither soldier is acting immorally when he agrees to fight on behalf of the German state. They are tools of the state, not moral agents responsible for the decision to wage war. They are only responsible for their conduct in the war that has been declared. So imagine that Hans decides to intentionally target and kill a Polish civilian. Intentionally killing civilians is a criminal act, a violation of the principle of discrimination. Hans acts wrongly when he kills the civilian. But imagine that Dieter avoids killing civilians. Unlike Hans, Dieter is acting within the moral limits of the rules of war and is subject to no moral sanction.
Now imagine that the United States declares war against Germany, as it did in 1941. Once again, if we assume for the moment that the United States acted justly, we may consider two American soldiers: let’s call them Greg and William. Both soldiers participate in the ground assault against Germany. They are participants in a just war. As with Hans and Dieter, both soldiers are responsible only for their conduct in the war. Imagine that Greg decides to intentionally target and kill a German civilian. In this case he is acting unjustly. Like Hans he should be prosecuted. But William instead adheres to the principles of discrimination and proportionality, carefully avoiding civilian death as much as possible and directing lethal force only against combatants. William is acting within the moral limits of war and is subject to no moral sanction.
So set aside for the moment Hans and Greg. Both soldiers have violated the principle of discrimination by targeting those who are not legitimate targets of violent force. But imagine now that Dieter and William meet one another on the battlefield. Both soldiers strive to adhere to the jus in bello principles that govern conduct in war. Here is the peculiar thing: both soldiers have a moral right to kill one another on the battlefield. Dieter has a right to kill William. William has a right to kill Dieter. As Michael Walzer argues in his book Just and Unjust Wars, soldiers possess an “equal right to kill.” The fact that Dieter is fighting for an unjust cause is inconsequential. Soldiers on both sides of the conflict are legitimate targets of lethal force.
My description above captures a very common line of reasoning in contemporary just war thinking. The claim that soldiers have an equal right to kill may seem plausible on its face. It is quite common to regard soldiers as tools of the states that enlist them for service. Practically speaking, soldiers have little if any say in choosing the wars that their countries wage. But more recently some theorists have begun to question the foundational premise of this claim, arguing that the moral responsibility of soldiers extends to personal observance of jus ad bellum criteria. In his recent book Killing in War, Jeff McMahan defends this “revisionist” approach to just war theory. According to revisionists, the moral principles that should govern conduct in war are not qualitatively different from those principles that govern violence in other spheres. In most circumstances, the threat of violence by itself does not serve as the basis for claiming a moral equality among agents. In essence, McMahan is arguing that the jus in bello principles that govern the conduct of war cannot be so neatly extricated from the question of whether or not a war satisfies jus ad bellum criteria.
That last sentence is too abstract, so let me illustrate the logic of McMahan’s argument with another example. Imagine that an armed robber has robbed a store and is holding the store owner at gunpoint. A police officer arrives on the scene. In this scenario the armed robber is acting unjustly. The police officer who arrives to stop the robber has a just cause for resisting the robber’s aggression. The store owner is an innocent bystander. If the armed robber shoots the owner, he is acting wrongly. But imagine now that the police officer pulls his gun and aims it at the armed robber? In this scenario who has a moral right to use violent force? In this scenario, I imagine that most will conclude that as a last resort the police officer has a moral right to use violent force against the armed robber if the robber poses a threat to the store owner or to the officer himself. The robber does not have a moral right to use violent force against either the store owner or the police officer. The fact that he is committing armed robbery (i.e. he is acting unjustly) undermines any justification for the violence he might inflict.
But this is just the point. Recall that in the previous scenario soldiers have an equal right to kill irrespective of whether or not the war they are waging is just. If we were to apply this logic to the armed robbery scenario, then at the moment a police officer threatens an armed robber with violent force, he would suddenly makes himself a legitimate target for the robber’s violence. We do not argue that armed robbers have an “equal right to kill” police officers. We recognize that the ends of each agent’s violence are essential to discriminating the justness of their actions. But if this is so, then why treat the violence of war any differently? Says McMahan, soldiers do not have an equal right to kill. Applied to the language of just war theory, McMahan is saying, in short, that when soldiers fight in wars that violate jus ad bellum principles they are never able to adhere properly to the principle of discrimination because there are no legitimate targets for their violence. Soldiers on the just side of the conflict are much like the police officer facing the armed robber. “The permissibility of action in war,” says McMahan, “cannot be divorced from the ends that the action serves.”
McMahan’s argument is provocative, and I cannot do it full justice in the space of this blog post. I’ll close with two thoughts. First, if taken seriously, McMahan’s argument would entail the embrace of a policy of selective conscientious objection in which soldiers have the right (or, even more strongly, a moral obligation) to refrain from participating in specific wars that are not morally justifiable. It seems difficult to imagine how states could expand policies governing moral conscience in war to include moral discrimination among soldiers who could choose to opt out of particular wars that they deem unjust. But McMahan’s larger argument is that forcing states to recognize the moral culpability of soldiers who fight unjustly and to account for this in policy may have the effect of further limiting the willingness of state’s to wage war.
Second, this recent debate about the moral agency of soldiers in the just war tradition moves just war conversation closer to the concerns that are the focus of the Christian tradition. Christian ethicist Charles Mathewes argues that secular approaches to the just war have focused too narrowly on questions of policy analysis—questions like “Is this war just?” and “What are the moral limits of our justified violence?” By contrast, the Christian just war tradition broadens its focus beyond these questions to more basic concerns about the moral and spiritual formation of those agents who wage war. The Christian just war tradition, in Mathewes’s words, “is more comfortable at the level of existential soul-formation—not with the decisions but with the deciders, and those who go forth to enact the decision” (The Republic of Grace, 167). In this respect, the Christian just war tradition may find much to appreciate in McMahan’s work, which similarly concerns itself with the moral agency of those who wage war.