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The moral equality of combatants
The moral equality of combatants

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Reading 1 Walzer on the moral equality of soldiers

Source: Walzer, M. (1977) Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations , New York, Basic Books, pp. 36–40 (this edition 2006). Footnotes omitted.

Soldiers cannot endure modern warfare for long without blaming someone for their pain and suffering. While it may be an example of what Marxists call ‘false consciousness’ that they do not blame the ruling class of their own or of the enemy country, the fact is that their condemnation focuses most immediately on the men with whom they are engaged. The level of hatred is high in the trenches. That is why enemy wounded are often left to die and prisoners are killed – like murderers lynched by vigilantes – as if the soldiers on the other side were personally responsible for the war. At the same time, however, we know that they are not responsible. Hatred is interrupted or overridden by a more reflective understanding, which one finds expressed again and again in letters and war memoirs. It is the sense that the enemy soldier, though his war may well be criminal, is nevertheless as blameless as oneself. Armed, he is an enemy; but he isn’t my enemy in any specific sense; the war itself isn’t a relation between persons but between political entities and their human instruments. These human instruments are not comrades-in-arms in the old style, members of the fellowship of warriors; they are ‘poor sods, just like me’, trapped in a war they didn’t make. I find in them my moral equals. That is not to say simply that I acknowledge their humanity, for it is not the recognition of fellow men that explains the rules of war; criminals are men too. It is precisely the recognition of men who are not criminals.

They can try to kill me, and I can try to kill them. But it is wrong to cut the throats of their wounded or to shoot them down when they are trying to surrender. These judgments are clear enough, I think, and they suggest that war is still, somehow, a rule-governed activity, a world of permissions and prohibitions – a moral world, therefore, in the midst of hell. Though there is no license for war-makers, there is a license for soldiers, and they hold it without regard to which side they are on; it is the first and most important of their war rights. They are entitled to kill, not anyone , but men whom we know to be victims. We could hardly understand such a title if we did not recognize that they are victims too. Hence the moral reality of war can be summed up in this way: when soldiers fight freely, choosing one another as enemies and designing their own battles, their war is not a crime; when they fight without freedom, their war is not their crime. In both cases, military conduct is governed by rules; but in the first the rules rest on mutuality and consent, in the second on a shared servitude. The first case raises no difficulties; the second is more problematic. We can best explore its problems, I think, if we turn from the trenches and the front lines to the general staff at the rear, and from the war against the Kaiser to the war against Hitler – for at that level and in that struggle, the recognition of ‘men who are not criminals’ is hard indeed.