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