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Is It Ever Okay to Kill Civilians to Win a War?

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Some reject the very idea of the “morality of war”. Of those, some deny that morality applies at all once the guns strike up; for others, no plausible moral theory could license the exceptional horrors of war. The first group are sometimes called realists

The second group are pacifists. The task of just war theory is to seek a middle path between them: to justify at least some wars, but also to limit them. Although realism undoubtedly has its adherents, few philosophers find it compelling. The real challenge to just war theory comes from pacifism. And we should remember, from the outset, that this challenge is real. The justified war might well be a chimera.

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The killing of other human beings in war makes graphic an abiding moral dilemma: You might try to make an evil less outrageous, or you might try to get rid of it altogether—but it is not clear that it is possible to do both at the same time. In one of her Twenty-One Love Poems, Adrienne Rich imagines imposing controls on the use of force until it all but disappears: “Such hands might carry out an unavoidable violence / with such restraint,” she writes, “with such a grasp / of the range and limits of violence / that violence ever after would be obsolete.” Yet the lines contradict themselves: If violence is inevitable, however contained or humane, it is not gone. Nick McDonell’s striking new book about America’s forever war, The Bodies in Person, is a call to contain or minimize one kind of outrageous violence: the killing of civilians in America’s contemporary wars, fought since 9/11 across an astonishing span of the earth. At a moment when Donald Trump has relaxed controls on American killing abroad even beyond what McDonell chronicles and our long-term proxy war in Yemen has broken into gross atrocities—like the Saudi air strike that killed scores of civilians in early August this year—it is a pressing theme. And McDonell’s appeal for Americans not only to attend more to the military excess of the war but also to bring down its civilian toll in the name of the country’s own founding ideals is nothing if not noble.

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Just war theory deals with the justification of how and why wars are fought

The justification can be either theoretical or historical. The theoretical aspect is concerned with ethically justifying war and the forms that warfare may or may not take. The historical aspect, or the “just war tradition,” deals with the historical body of rules or agreements that have applied in various wars across the ages. For instance, international agreements such as the Geneva and Hague conventions are historical rules aimed at limiting certain kinds of warfare which lawyers may refer to in prosecuting transgressors, but it is the role of ethics to examine these institutional agreements for their philosophical coherence as well as to inquire into whether aspects of the conventions ought to be changed (Anscombe, Elizabeth, 1981). The just war tradition may also consider the thoughts of various philosophers and lawyers through the ages and examine both their philosophical visions of war’s ethical limits (or absence of) and whether their thoughts have contributed to the body of conventions that have evolved to guide war and warfare. Historically, the just war tradition–a set of mutually agreed rules of combat—may be said to commonly evolve between two culturally similar enemies. That is, when an array of values are shared between two warring peoples, we often find that they implicitly or explicitly agree upon limits to their warfare. But when enemies differ greatly because of different religious beliefs, race, or language, and as such they see each other as “less than human”, war conventions are rarely applied (Nagel, Thomas (1972).

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Usually, the exact nature of those additional duties will depend on the individual’s principles. What is undeniable, though, is that there is always a way to serve, to help bend the power and potential of the United States toward the good. No civilian can assume the moral burdens felt at a gut level by participants in war, but all can show an equal commitment to their country, an equal assumption of the obligations inherent in citizenship, and an equal bias for action. Ideals are one thing—the messy business of putting them into practice is another

That means giving up on any claim to moral purity. That means getting your hands dirty.

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Anscombe, Elizabeth. (1981) “War and Murder”. In Ethics, Religion, and Politics. University of Minnesota Press. pp. 51-71.

Nagel, Thomas (1972). “War and Massacre.” Philosophy and Public Affairs . Vol. 1, pp. 123-44.

Robinson, Paul. (2006). Military Honour and the Conduct of War. Routledge.

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