Walzer’s War

Reviewed by Michael S. Kochin

Arguing About War
by Michael Walzer
Yale, 2004, 208 pages.

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ichael Walzer, arguably the most influential living American political philosopher, studies our moral communities in order to understand how we reason in what we ourselves regard as our better moments. Walzer has spent his career trying to teach us what to worry about by pointing to what we already worry about. For Walzer, thinking about justice does not mean developing abstract theories, but rather refining those intuitions about right and wrong that come to us spontaneously in dealing with particular cases, and showing how those intuitions may come to bear on other cases we might not have seen as related. Walzer is a pluralist, committed to the preservation of cultural and religious difference (within decent limits), and thus he emphasizes that we worry about justice and injustice differently in different spheres of life. Yet he is an egalitarian, social-democratic pluralist: He believes that the different ways of living across the spectrum of group affiliations must all somehow provide every individual with the same basic life opportunities, and that these are the life opportunities each individual ought to want.

Walzer is currently a professor at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, and has served as editor-in-chief of Dissent, America’s leading progressive journal of politics, since 1976. Through his acclaimed books Just and Unjust Wars (1977) and Obligations (1982), and his numerous articles in both academic and popular journals, Walzer has had a profound impact on American discourse on questions related to war. Arguing About War is a collection of previously published essays, but the book’s six chapters on terrorism, Iraq, and humanitarian intervention give the book currency, while the five general essays Walzer has chosen give it intellectual depth.
Self-described “realists” argue that moral worries must give way to questions of military necessity and national security. But as Walzer contends, we cannot help but talk about justice and injustice, right and wrong, in relation to war. States are indeed responsive to moral concerns, even if they fail to live up to them: Should the United States deal with the threat of a nuclear Iran by forcibly preventing the mullahs from realizing their nuclear ambitions? Can captured Iraqi insurgents be tortured to reveal potentially life-saving information? The realist, Walzer shows, is engaged in moral arguments about war when he offers excuses for soldiers and politicians who are accused of violating our moral sense. Moreover, the realist is unrealistic about the military, diplomatic, or national-security price incurred by violations of the moral standards of armed conflict.
Walzer’s name for the work of worrying about morality in war is “just war theory,” a combined reflection on jus ad bellum, or when it is just to fight, and jus in bello, how it is just to fight. It is just to fight, we sense, if the goal is to resist and reverse aggression, whether it be in self-defense or in the aid of a community unjustly attacked. It is also just, we intuit, to fight to stop crimes committed by states against their own populations, if those crimes are big enough and shocking enough. Thus it would be wrong, we feel, for a major power to permit a massacre of thousands of civilians in a city under the guns of its battleships.
The defense and subsequent liberation of Kuwait during the first Gulf War, for instance, is a near paradigmatic case of a just war waged against unjust aggression. Walzer’s famously forthright defense of America’s military action in that war, “Justice and Injustice in the Gulf War,” reprinted in Arguing About War, is so simple and irrefutable that one wonders if anything other than irrational hatred of the United States can explain why the war was as controversial as it was both in American and European intellectual circles as well as in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Just war theory is thus opposed to conventional realism, but it is equally opposed to pacifism. Unlike pacifism, Walzer explains in this book, just war theory is a doctrine of radical responsibility, which teaches that we are responsible for refraining from doing those things that are wrong to do even to an enemy. It also teaches that we are responsible for maintaining the moral world within which our and others’ ways of life have a place, and for passing that world on to our children as a decent place in which to live. It is only by maintaining the appropriate limits on war, Walzer argues, that we can hope to win “hearts and minds”—that is to say, to show that we are a decent people and that our purposes are decent.

Michael S. Kochin is a senior lecturer in political science at Tel Aviv University. He is the author of Gender and Rhetoric in Plato’s Political Thought (Cambridge, 2002).

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