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Walzer's 'Just And Unust Wars'

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Kevin Kearney

March 23, 2003

History 220

Walzer, Michael. Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations. New York: BasicBooks, 1992. 368 pp.

Michael Walzer first wrote Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with

Historical Illustrations in the years following the Vietnam War, and unfortunately its

premise on morality in war will always remain as relevant as it was then as it is now, with

conflict between states forever existing. Michael Walzer is one of the most prominent

social critics in North America and in this book, he explores two main concepts, the

justice of war and the justice in war in a great depth, and uses numerous historical

references to support his claims. It is a very well configured piece, written in such a way

of persuasion that your personal view on morality in war may ultimately change after

delving into thoughts for several hundred pages.

To an overwhelming majority of people, the words 'war' and 'morality' have

seemingly opposing meanings, however in the preface to his book, Walzer points out that

"whether or not its specific terminology is adapted, just-war theory has always played a

part in official argument about war" (Walzer XI). He proceeds to discuss in a greater

detail the ways that war has been perceived and how this impacts the topics of war and

morality, and in doing so, he provides an intelligently structured and persuasive argument

that can be viewed within a moral context. He addresses this topic both from the view of

the role of the state and also from the perspective of how the decision to fight impacts the


Walzer takes the position that an individual should fight only for private and

personal reasons rather then from nationalistic feelings because he feels that it is crucial

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that this decision should be freely chosen and that it constitutes one of the crucial

requirements for a 'just' war. Walzer defines a 'just war' as a 'limited war,' and that just

wars are governed by a set of rules, designed to prevent, as much as possible, "the use of

violence and coercion against non-combatant populations" (Walzer XVII); On the other

hand, a limited war attempts to establish the way things were prior to the aggression

taking place. Aside from extreme cases, just wars do not have legitimate reasons for

reaching beyond this goal, including the replacing of the aggressor's regime or altering its

politics. Accomplishing these goals would require a prolonged task for the aggressor

nation and an extreme constraint of its civilian population, overthrowing its sovereignty

which is exactly what is condemned by his aggression discussion. In a 'just' war the

combat is between combatants only. A perfect example of this occurred in the Gulf War;

The pilots in the Gulf War had specific orders to support this requirement, becaused if

they were unable to get a clear shot on their assigned targets, they were instructed to

return with their bombs and missiles intact.

Walzer also addresses the rules of war as applied to soldiers on foot involved in

battle. Walzer's central principle on warfare is that soldiers on both sides of battle have

the equal right to kill. Under this central principle are two groups of restrictions; The first

group of these pertains to when and how soldiers can kill, and the second details whom

they can kill. An observer cannot decipher between war and murder without such

limitations. Walzer stays primarily concerned with the second group of restrictions.

Traditionally, these protected groups have included people who are not actively engaged

in the act of war (i.e. women, children, priests etc.), simplistically expressed by Walzer as

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"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" (Walzer 38).

War is generally thought of as a business of the state, however it can be

considered a matter of personal volition if men choose to join an army and participate in a

war. Catholic writers, for example, have argued that Catholics should not volunteer for

military service if the war is known to be unjust. In contrast, Walzer argues that an

individual soldier can make moral decisions within the context of war, using the

Nazi General, Erwin Rommel, to



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