Killing in War

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Killing in War. By Jeff McMahan. Oxford University Press, 2009. Xii + 250 pages.

Jeff McMahan has written a genuinely revolutionary book. He has uncovered a flaw in standard just-war theory. The standard view sharply separates the morality of going to war, jus ad bellum, from the morality of warfare, jus in bello. Whether or not a war is just does not affect the morality of how war is to be conducted. Soldiers are forbidden to violate the laws of war; but no greater restrictions are imposed on those who fight in an unjust cause than on those whose cause meets the requirements of jus ad bellum. This is exactly what McMahan rejects. Soldiers in an unjust cause have, for the most part, no right at all to engage in violent action against soldiers in a just cause. Not only do they lack moral standing to engage in aggressive warfare; they cannot legitimately even engage in defensive war, in most circumstances.

McMahan states his basic thesis in this way:

The contention of this book is that common sense beliefs about the morality of killing in war are deeply mistaken. The prevailing view is that in a state of war, the practice of killing is governed by different moral principles from those that govern acts of killing in other contexts. This presupposes that it can make a difference to the moral permissibility of killing another person whether one’s political leaders have declared a state of war with that person’s country. According to the prevailing view, therefore, political leaders can sometimes cause other people’s moral rights to disappear simply by commanding their armies to attack them. When stated in this way, the received view seems obviously absurd. (p. vii)

Once advanced, McMahan’s thesis seems obvious, and it is his considerable philosophical merit to make us realize how obvious it is. Those who fight in an unjust war are, by hypothesis, directing force against people whom they have no right to attack. If, e.g., the United States had no right to invade Iraq in 2003, then American soldiers wrongly used force against Iraqi soldiers. If so, how can one contend that they are morally permitted to do so? Further, do not defenders against such aggression have the right to resist? If they do have this right, then the aggressors may not fight back, even in self-defense. If a policeman legitimately shoots at a suspect, the suspect cannot claim the right to shoot back in self-defense. McMahan holds that matters in this respect do not change in warfare.

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McMahan contends further that his view is of more than merely theoretical importance. Because people accept the incorrect view that soldiers who fight in an unjust war do no wrong, so long as they obey the laws of war, they are more likely to participate in such wars. This makes wars more likely.

[Although] the idea that no one does wrong, or acts impermissibly, merely by fighting in a war that turns out to be unjust … is intended to have a restraining effect on the conduct of war, the widespread acceptance of this idea also makes it easier … to fight in war without qualms about whether the war is unjust. (p. 3)

As mentioned, it seems obvious, once stated, that those engaged in an unjust war have no right to attack others. But is it too severe a doctrine to claim that they have no right to defend themselves, if attacked by just combatants? Quite the contrary, McMahan notes that his view applies a standard position in interpersonal morality to the ethics of war:

For many centuries there has been general agreement that, as a matter of both morality and law, “where attack is justified there can be no lawful defence.” These words were written by Pierino Belli in 1563 and were echoed a little over a century later by John Locke, who claimed that “Force is to be opposed to nothing, but to unjust and unlawful force.” (p. 14)

McMahan is a very careful philosopher; as soon as he states a thesis, he thinks of qualifications, objections, and rebuttals. He notes an instance where unjust combatants can permissibly use force:

The exception to the claim that just combatants are illegitimate targets in war is when they pursue their just cause by impermissible means. If, for example, just combatants attempt to achieve their just cause by using terrorist tactics — that is, by intentionally killing and attacking innocent people, as the Allies did when they bombed German and Japanese cities in World War II — they make themselves morally liable to defensive attack and become legitimate targets even for unjust combatants. (p. 16)

If McMahan contends that unjust combatants are not morally permitted, in most cases, to use force, has he not placed unreasonable demands on them? They are in many cases conscripted into the armed forces and serve against their will: in fighting, they simply obey the orders of their government. If they refuse to serve, they may face severe criminal penalties. And once enemy troops fire on them, is it not unrealistic to demand that they not fire back?

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June 19, 2009

David Gordon [send him mail] is a senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and editor of its Mises Review. He is also the author of The Essential Rothbard. See also his Books on Liberty.

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