Should Unjust Warriors be Let Off the Hook?by Igor Primoratz

The Philosophical Forum




Relative bioavailability of a new oral form of cyclosporin A in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.

BE Borne, RB Landewe, HS Goei The, H Mattie, FC Breedveld, BA Dijkmans

The Just and the Unjust

John I. Howe, James Gould Cozzens




At first glance, it might be thought that pacifism and just war theory are diametrically opposed and irreconcilable views of war. Pacifism—or, more accurately, a familiar type of pacifism with which I am concerned here—contends that all war is wrong, while just war theory says that many wars are indeed wrong, but some are morally justified, insofar as they satisfy certain moral requirements.

However, the issue can be approached in a different way by looking at the more specific conclusions drawn from these two theories. Such an approach reveals considerable convergence between pacifism and just war theory.

Just war theory is a broad church, and its adherents differ on some issues. One such issue is the equality of rights and liabilities of just and unjust warriors.

Adherents of the moral equality of soldiers view hold that just and unjust warriors have equal rights and liabilities: they have an equal license to kill their enemies and are equally morally liable to be killed by their enemies. Michael Walzer’s book Just and Unjust Wars is a classic statement of this view.1 Others, sometimes termed revisionists, argue that just and unjust warriors are not morally equal. Just warriors have a license to kill unjust warriors, but cannot themselves be legitimately killed by unjust warriors. Unjust warriors have no license to kill just warriors, so that when they kill them they commit murder. Jeff McMahan’s book

Killing in War is a major statement of this view.2 Since the present paper is concerned with the prospects of convergence of pacifism and just war theory, I will assume a more restrictive version of this theory: one that rejects the moral equality of soldiers view. Pacifism and the relevant version of just war theory, then, 1 Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations (New York:

Basic Books, 1977). 2 Jeff McMahan, Killing in War (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010). © 2015 The Philosophical Forum, Inc. 91 converge on two major points: civilians and just warriors must not be targeted. To be sure, the reasons these two views provide for these conclusions differ, but the bottom line, the moral guidance proffered, is the same.

What of the third category of possible targets, unjust warriors? It would seem that the convergence of pacifism and just war theory must end at this point. For just war theory permits the killing of unjust warriors, whereas pacifism claims that all killing in war, including the killing of unjust warriors, is morally wrong. Yet one might try to bring about further convergence of these two views by mounting arguments that undermine the responsibility of unjust warriors, and showing that they ought to be excused for their participation in war, or at least that our moral condemnation of their participation in war ought to be significantly mitigated. If this line of argument were to succeed, it would not make the practical convergence of pacifism and just war theory complete. Even if we were to excuse unjust warriors for what they do or to mitigate our moral condemnation of what they do, that would not mean that just warriors must not target them in self-defense or defense of others. But the success of this line of argument would go some way in undermining the idea of morally acceptable warfare espoused by just war theory.

For it would show that even though it is morally permissible to target unjust warriors, doing so is bound up with a substantial moral cost involved in targeting innocent aggressors. What unjust warriors (and other innocent aggressors) do is wrong and may be resisted, but we should not blame them for it, or at least not as harshly as we tend to.

In this paper, I look into a string of arguments for the claim that unjust warriors should be let off the hook, and argue that these arguments do not succeed. “THEIRS NOT TO REASON WHY”

In discussions of the rights and wrongs of participation in war, three lines from

Alfred Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” are often quoted: “Theirs not to make reply,/Theirs not to reason why,/Theirs but to do and die.” In

Tennyson’s poem, these words have a very specific reference to a cavalry charge in a particular battle (the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War); but they are often taken to refer to a much wider issue, that of participation of soldiers in war.

Another quotation popular in this connection is from Shakespeare’s Henry V, where a soldier, queried about the justice of the war he is fighting in, says: “. . . We know enough if we know we are the king’s subjects. If his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us” (IV, i). The thought encapsulated in these quotations is simple. Soldiers do not get to decide whether a war shall be fought or not; that is for the state authorities to consider and resolve.

The sole task of soldiers is to fight, once the authorities have determined that the country shall go to war. In terms of the distinction between two main parts of just

IGOR PRIMORATZ 92 war theory, soldiers have no business raising and discussing questions to do with jus ad bellum, but only those posed by jus in bello. Therefore, unjust warriors are excused for their participation in war.

Thus stated, the argument is rather general. Dan Zupan has recently presented it in a more specific form. He makes two points. The first refers to the experience of soldiering: “Being under orders, trusting in his superiors, focusing on the mission at hand are such a part of the ordinary experience of being a soldier that ‘knowing’ his or her war to be unjust turns out to be something he or she literally cannot do.” Attaining to such knowledge would require “a paradigm shift in their personal worldview” of which a soldier is simply not capable.3

Zupan’s second point is an analogy between the relationship between the management and employees in a business company and the relationship between the state and its military.