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Just War Theory

Sweeping changes in the way wars are fought have brought current scholars' attention to the ethical concept of the Just War. The concept of the Just War is nearly as old as war itself; it is perhaps best codified in Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. There have historically been two main approaches to deciding what is, in fact, fair in war: deontological and consequentialist. In short, these opposing poles represent: on the one hand, duty, what war "ought" to be, and the notion that war requires a moral motivation and morally justifiable means; on the other hand, realpolitik, pragmatic considerations, and an account based on justifiable ends rather than means. The deontological approach takes many cues from Kant's ethics, while the consequentialist or Realist school finds its roots in John Stuart Mill, among others.

Recent work in political philosophy and ethics has attempted to place international terrorism, and the Bush doctrine of preventive war, in the context of the Just War theory. Philosophers have focused on updating Just War theory to take different distributions of international power into account. However, one area that has not received very much attention is the impact of information technology on the formation of public opinion, and the interface between Just War theory and the ethics of propaganda. Below, I will explore historical changes in the conscious stakeholders in war, how the media has aided this shift, and whether this had substantially changed how the jus in bello are constituted. Specifically, I will focus on the media's treatment of events at Abu Ghraib prison, and whether they require substantial change in contemporary formulations of Just War theory.

Early Modern Work

Most current Just War theorists cite Michael Walzer's work as the foundation of contemporary thinking on Just Wars. Walzer dealt mainly with the problems of WWII and the Vietnam war -- namely, the problems raised for Just War Theory by the vast destructive power of the atomic bomb (Walzer, 263), and issues of justice related to the draft of unwilling participants in war (Walzer, 138). However, as Walzer himself acknowledges, the tenor of war has changed dramatically since Just and Unjust Wars' first publication in 1977. As he writes, "[t]he issues that I discussed under the name "interventions," which were peripheral to the main concerns of the book, have moved dramatically to the center" (Walzer, xi). There is some debate as to whether interventions indeed count as "war" or are a species of international police action (Carnegie Council, web). This debate centers on the notion of equality between combatant forces. If there is a drastic disparity between forces and the aggressor is the stronger, interventions have the character of a police action in the international community rather than a war as such. Since the ethical status of war is still more serious than that of a police action, it should be unsurprising that the conduct of soldiers during wartime may be held to higher standards than during a 'mere' intervention. However, public perception of an international conflict may not differentiate between these categories if, as Walzer indicates, interventions are the most common type of war conducted these days.

Contemporary authors have been concerned with the consent of the populace to certain techniques used in war -- most notably, the use of the atomic bomb, but also the use of assassination and most recently the debate over the use of torture to extract information (Kaufman, 172). Interestingly, governments and individual soldiers alike have justified some instances of torture by claiming that they were not torture at all, but merely boyish pranks. This attempt to discount soldiers' activities in order to excuse them from ethical scrutiny quickly came under fire by the public, the media, and legislators (Oliver, 64). The debate over Abu Ghraib suggests that the ethical content of the jus in bello are different when the voting public can critique the praxis of war on a moment-by-moment basis. Debates about the right of the voting public to knowledge about war are central to the development of a theory of Just War that encompasses modern (and postmodern) reality.

Contemporary Perspectives

Like their predecessors, current scholars of the ethics of war acknowledge that practical politics will beat out deontology in most cases. However, the interventionist turn in war-waging has fundamentally deontological roots -- we bomb Kosovo because "somebody should do something" about ethnic cleansing; we feel guilt about Rwanda and the Sudan because we did not do what ought to have been done. Still, most public reasoning behind military interventions is consequentialist in nature (Carnegie Council, web). Critiquing the tentative American approach to intervention, Peter Maass said "we need not only to be imaginative in looking at the possible consequences of what we do, but also the possible consequences of what we don't do" (ibid.). His argument is that the moral outrage is not enough of a motivating factor in producing military action, and thus the deontological perspective is not necessary.

However, with growing concern about governmental transparency, policymakers have been forced to address the public's moral outrage about jus in bello. One of the cornerstones of Just War Theory is the concept that the jus in bello should be congruent with, or follow from, the jus ad bellum. In other words, the way a war is carried out and fought should be as just and morally responsible as the reasons that motivate declaring war in the first place. Indeed, the outrage of the American public about such scandals as Abu Ghraib and conditions in the Guantanamo Bay prison shows that most people are motivated by a deontological compass that coheres with Just War Theory. The mismatch between the moral (albeit still consequentialist) justification for the second Gulf war -- that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction for use against American allies -- and the way that war was carried out was not morally permissible in the eyes of most of the voting public. The military's initial attempts to discount the behavior of its soldiers in Abu Ghraib, particularly the humiliating photographic "souvenirs" taken by several soldiers, was seen as morally bankrupt by both the public and legislators. The defense of these actions as "joking around" and "having fun" points to a disconnect between the deontological sense of jus in bello possessed by the non-fighting public and the consequentialist arguments made by those in the military and their apologists (Oliver, 63).

Public knowledge of the mechanics of war has its own set of duties, rights, and consequences that are not directly addressed in Just War Theory, but that are highly relevant to contemporary political decision-making -- and thus, to war itself. The argument that transparency advocates make is primarily a deontological one: information about what the military is doing should be made public, because the government has a duty to avoid lying to its citizens unless in a limited way, for their defense (Tirimanna, 240). The government's counterargument is itself mostly realist: making information available would do more harm than good; it would aid the terrorists; it would cause unnecessary panic, and so forth.

Interestingly, this is a reversal of older alignments, in which governments waged war to carry out the duty bound upon an offended sense of national honor, and the anti-war voice has made a consequentialist case. Especially in the U.S., but also in other industrialized countries, the public largely does not view itself as the body from which soldiers are drawn; the military is a separate entity and to some extent a separate culture, with its own rules and value system different from the norm. In some cases, military values contradict public values. Although this has always been the case (cf. killing other individuals in peacetime would be called 'murder'), recent developments have highlighted differences in how Just War theory is handled by these two cultures. Specifically, elements of the military appear to believe that even soldiers on duty, when performing acts that cannot be justified within a Just War theoretic framework, are exempt from any moral assessment -- they are like children, and any questionable actions are explained within a pre-moral framework in which actions against the enemy do not have a moral meaning. In contrast, the public holds soldiers to a constant standard of honorable behavior towards the enemy.


Public outcry against the behavior of American soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison during the 2nd Gulf War contrasts with the military's initial handling of the incidents in question. This contrast reveals an interesting cultural fact about the way these two groups conceptualize justice during wartime. For individual soldiers, any behavior that dehumanizes the enemy, as long as it can be reframed as "goofing around" or "having fun," is allowed to exist outside the bounds of duty and honor. For the public, jus in bello is a constant imperative, and its violation can retroactively call into question the jus ad bellum if the motives for war are already on shaky ground.

Changes in the way we wage…[continue]


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