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The moral equality of combatants
The moral equality of combatants

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II The traditional criterion of liability to attack

I have noted that ‘innocent’ has two distinct meanings in discourse about war but that they are commonly assumed to coincide. The sense in which ‘innocent’ is virtually synonymous with ‘civilian’ is given by etymology. The Latin nocentes means ‘those who injure or are harmful’. The innocent are those who are not nocentes – those who aren’t threatening or harmful. Those who are not threatening will also be those who retain their right not to be attacked if one loses this right by posing a threat to others. This is precisely the traditional view. According to Walzer, ‘our right not to be attacked … is lost by those who bear arms ‘effectively’ because they pose a danger to other people. It is retained by those who don’t bear arms at all.’ Footnote 6 This is the foundation of the virtually unquestioned premise of contemporary just war theory that the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate targets coincides with that between combatants and noncombatants.

But, as I noted earlier, the idea that one loses the right not to be attacked merely by posing a threat to others has no plausibility outside the context of war. Many people think, however, that war is somehow different. They think that even unjust combatants have, at a minimum, the right to defend themselves on the battlefield. But if this is true, we need to know exactly what it is about the circumstances of war that causes people to lose their rights merely by justifiably defending themselves and others against an unprovoked attack – something that doesn’t happen outside the context of war. But to identify this special feature of war, if such a feature exists, would be to offer an argument that goes beyond the simple, traditional claim that combatants make themselves liable to attack merely by posing a threat to others. What might that argument be?


  1. 6 Just and Unjust Wars , p. 145. On p. 136 he claims that ‘simply by fighting … [combatants] have lost their title to life and liberty.’ Back to main text