The moral equality of combatants
The moral equality of combatants

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The moral equality of combatants

Can unjust wars be fought justly?

Activity 1

Now read Reading 1 ‘Walzer on the moral equality of soldiers’ at the end of this free course. This is an extract from Walzer’s book Just and Unjust Wars .

Link to Reading 1

What, in brief, is Walzer’s view of the moral status of Erwin Rommel?


Walzer thinks of Rommel as someone who fought justly but in an unjust cause. In particular, he cites Rommel’s burning of the ‘commando order’.

The ‘commando order’ was sent directly from Hitler and decreed that Allied commandos who were captured should be killed. Clearly, this order required that Rommel violate the rules of war concerning the treatment of prisoners (and the rules of war concerning the treatment of prisoners derive from the JiB condition of discrimination between those liable and those not liable to be killed in war). Walzer commends Rommel, then, for acting in accordance with the principles of JiB , even while he fought in a cause that Walzer takes to be wholly unjust. He uses this example to illustrate a claim about the moral equality of combatants.

Activity 2

Now listen to the audio recording ‘McMahan on Erwin Rommel’.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: ‘McMahan on Erwin Rommel’
Skip transcript: ‘McMahan on Erwin Rommel’

Transcript: ‘McMahan on Erwin Rommel’

Jeff McMahan
I do not think that Rommel acted permissibly. I don’t even think he acted admirably or honourably. He’s like a housebreaker who has a code that says, ‘Well, when we break into houses and steal things, we don’t cause unnecessary harm to the inhabitants and we don’t burn the house down and don’t torture the animals and that kind of thing, while we’re doing it.’ In other words, he’s somebody who’s engaging in completely wrongful action but obeys some rules that do constrain the wrongful activity in desirable ways; so one of the things that Rommel wouldn’t do was to execute prisoners on certain occasions. That’s certainly better and more admirable than executing prisoners, but it doesn’t do anything to justify his actual military action; it just makes him less bad than many of the other Nazi commanders.
Jon Pike
So we can think of Rommel, on your account, as a murderer, not as someone who simply fought in an unjust cause according to the rules of war. There are no strongly extenuating circumstances for him?
Jeff McMahan
Well, that’s maybe putting it a bit strongly, because the understanding of the morality of war that was dominant at that time was the traditional theory that I have been attacking, and it doesn’t condemn Rommel as long as he obeys the rules. And of course he knew that, so, subjectively, from his point of view, he thought he was acting permissibly and acting honourably by obeying the rules, and that isn’t characteristic of murderers. That is, we have a mens rea requirement for a charge of murder – that is, a guilty mind. Now, I’m not going to try to explain all that that involves, but Rommel was not pursuing his aims for self-interested reasons or that sort of thing; he thought he was fulfilling his moral duties as a soldier. So I wouldn’t want to say he was a murderer, but what I can say is that when he was leading tanks in battle and that sort of thing, he was acting wrongly. And whether he had some good excusing conditions for that is another question.
End transcript: ‘McMahan on Erwin Rommel’
‘McMahan on Erwin Rommel’
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What analogy does the philosopher Jeff McMahan use to explain his own analysis of Rommel?


For McMahan, Rommel is like a burglar who refrains from torturing your pets. It is better that they do not torture your pets, but not really the point. Whether or not they torture your pets, they should not be burgling your house. Their actions are still impermissible – wrong. They act wrongly, not honourably.


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