Walzer probes morality in war

April 27, 2012, 2:13 a.m.

Arguing that “the good guys can win,” Michael Walzer, professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, called for fixed and unambiguous rules in war during a presentation at Annenberg Auditorium Thursday night.

Walzer addressed a host of issues pertaining to the morality of war and drew examples from many conflicts past and present from all around the world.

Debra Satz, the Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society, introduced Walzer as “the individual who, more than any other, has established political theories that have set the bar for thinking and writing about war.” Satz also praised his “novel and formidable approach to political philosophy.”

Walzer began by describing “moral dilemmas in asymmetric wars as the most important current challenge to the current principles of just war theory.” This challenge pits armed forces’ desire for victory against their desire to act justly, he said.

According to Walzer, this dilemma is the product of “increasingly significant, small-scale non-state actors, insurgents and terrorist organizations” that resort to unconventional warfare to further their interests.

“The problem is that one side says that the rules put in place penalize them for their weakness,” Walzer said. “And the other says that the enemy’s violation of those rules leaves them with no other options.”

Putting forward his central premise, Walzer said that “the argument that to win wars you must stray from the rules of war will be shown as wrong.”

He also stressed using public opinion as an arbitrator for the standards of war and called for a need to assess what victory truly means. Walzer argued against using proportionality as an argument for civilian losses and using one side’s belligerence against civilians to justify retaliatory actions.

“It is not enough to not intend to kill civilians,” Walzer said, “but to intend not to kill civilians.”

Walzer did, however, concede that in the most extreme of situations some conventional rules of war can perhaps be subverted.

“The controversial doctrine of supreme urgency is important to consider,” Walzer said. “Self-defense, in the context of an enormous looming danger, may allow an entity to violate the rules of just war.”

He qualified this statement by reiterating that this sort of belligerence would absolutely require that the war be a just reaction to a large impending threat.

Walzer argued against attempting to justify violations of the rules of war, asserting that “claims of legitimacy, conviction and justification cannot be the arbitrators of justice.” He furthermore expressed the need to inculcate armed forces with understanding.

“Incompetence breeds brutality,” Walzer said. “I acknowledge that in the heat of battle some may lose their bearings, but well-trained and well-disciplined armies are less brutal.”

He praised the work of retired U.S. General Stanley McChrystal as stressing this belief and applauded his value system that “morality and strategy can unite, and that it is important to sometimes take on more risk to prevent civilian harm.”

The presentation was well-received, with one spectator publicly thanking Walzer for “the opportunity to simply hear you think,” a statement that met great applause.

However, there were some who had mixed feelings about Walzer’s thesis.

“There’s a fine line between ‘rules’ and ‘laws’ that Walzer acknowledges,” said Paul Bator, a lecturer in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric. “Whether the ‘rules’ have become more stringent or whether the enforcement of such rules by international courts of war has become more stringently applied is worth considering.”

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