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Just and Unjust Wars:

A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations

Bibliographic Content

Michael Walzer, PhD


BasicBooks of HarperCollins Publishers

Kindle,  Paperback (416 pgs),  Hardback (361 pgs),  Audible (14hrs:18min)

Synopsis from Author

From the Athenian attack on Melos to the My Lai Massacre, from the wars in the Balkans through the first war in Iraq, Michael Walzer examines the moral issues surrounding military theory, war crimes, and the spoils of war. He studies a variety of conflicts over the course of history, as well as the testimony of those who have been most directly involved - participants, decision makers, and victims. In his introduction to this new edition, Walzer specifically addresses the moral issues surrounding the war in and occupation of Iraq, reminding us once again that "the argument about war and justice is still a political and moral necessity."

If you are interested in purchasing this book, we have provided a helpful link directly to its storefront page on Amazon; purchase the book and we get a small affiliate bonus for every referral.  Unfortunately, the physical and Kindle versions of the book are separate from the Audible audiobook so here we will provide links to both.

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Summary of Book from War Is My Business

Walzer discusses the conditions that make warfare, its waging and conduct, either just or unjust. It is about the decision making process of those senior civilian and military leaders that have to determine the courses of action that may lead to war, as well as the junior military leaders and their warfighters who have to actually carry out the fighting. How do they achieve their military objectives while not causing excessive harm to non-combatants? How can a soldier, who is under the most significant stress a human can endure, make ethical decisions? When presented with multiple courses of action, each having their moral quandaries, which courses should you take?

The market has unique variables, and the consequences for failure are not as devastating as one sees during warfare. Nonetheless, businesses have their own ethical quandaries and face similar dilemmas like the ones that Walzer presents. Business is about influencing other humans and shaping our environments for our benefit, just as it is in combat, and as a result, looking through some of the examples that the author presents can provide us with surrogates for the private sector. The effects of a poor business decision can devastate lives just as much as a military action, but what can you do to mitigate it? Walzer has his ways to determine what is best. Something that you can take from the military sphere and apply it to your own.

Like other discussions on the ethics of warfare, Walzer points to the philosophical and political perspectives that should outline what makes engaging in war just or unjust. Either in the right to go to war: jus ad bellum, or in its just conduct: jus in bello. This book expounds on those two aspects in great detail, and here I will try to provide a quick glimpse of what you should come to expect when reading through his chapters.

Jus Ad Bellum vs. Jus In Bello

These are two separate elements, and either can be violated based on how they are carried out.

In one instance, a war may be waged for the right causes and be seen as just. Its warfighters, however, may be carrying out the campaigns necessary to achieve their strategic aims, unjustly. In the American Civil War, you may find that the Union's decision to suppress the South's rebellion, and secure the Union, as a just reason to wage war. On the other hand, you may see General Sherman's scorched-earth campaign against Confederate towns and infrastructure as wrongful conduct. In the Second World War, you may find the waging of war against the Axis powers as just, but the decision to utilize terror bombings against their cities to be unjust.

In the second instance, a war may be declared unjustly, yet still carried out by its warfighters in a just manner. In the Second World War, Germany's conquest was seen as unjust, as was the actions they undertook leading up to war being declared against them. German military leaders, like Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, can be seen as carrying out the conduct of the war in a just manner. For example, when Rommel refused to execute captured Allied commandos in North Africa against Hitler's orders.

One particular topic from Walzer book that I would like to discuss comes with his emphasis on the rights afforded to combatants and noncombatants. It is important to note that though some people may use the term "civilian" and "noncombatant" interchangeably, they are in fact two separate terms. A civilian is simply a person not serving in their nation's military, while a non-combatant is the situational status that they hold in regards to targeting. For example, a militia, partisan, or insurgency group that is formed by civilians can be considered combatants when they engage in armed conflict with foreign military forces. A wounded soldier who is unable to fight, or one that has surrendered, has become a noncombatant as a result of the situation. Combatants can be targeted while noncombatant can not, but that isn't to say that noncombatants aren't harmed in conflict, as Walzer states in Chapter Nine - Noncombatant Immunity and Military Necessity:

“Noncombatants are often endangered not because anyone sets out to attack them, but only because of their proximity to battle that is being fought against someone else.”

Military leaders should execute any course of action that seeks to limit friendly casualties and increase chances for success. Contemporary military commanders aren't laissez-faire about the lives of those under their command and will do what they deem necessary to protect them. For one, it is a pragmatic approach, as our Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, and Airmen are assets, as are the vehicles and weapons they use, and losing assets is not necessarily a good thing. But mostly, commanders are humans too and therefore compelled under the same social pressures to do right by their subordinates and hold their lives with great care and esteem as their civilian counterparts.

It is human nature to value your own people over that of others, and this can manifest in the form of a greater acceptance of collateral damage to protect them. Such as preferring stand-off weaponry over an infantry attack which is more likely to put at risk noncombatants who live or work in the area. Walzer argues; however, that it is the duty of combatants, who execute the will of their political communities through the use of violence, to do their utmost to remove the risk on those noncombatants. If that requires assuming higher risk upon their warfighters, then so be it. But there is always a limit as the risk can be too great, and commanders will have to accept noncombatant casualties in action. Looking back at Chapter Nine:

“The limits of risk are fixed, then, roughly at that point where any further risk-taking would almost certainly doom the military venture or make it so costly that it could not be repeated. There is obviously leeway for military judgment here: strategists and planners will for reasons of their own weigh the importance of their target against the importance of their soldiers’ lives. But even if the target is very important, and the number of innocent people threatened relatively small, they must risk soldiers before they kill civilians.”

In the situations when the military can no longer assume greater risk, because failure would subsequently result, what are the conditions that Walzer argues can make it permissible to endanger or even knowingly kill noncombatants in the prosecution of a target.

  1. That the action is against a legitimate military target.
  2. That the desired effect from attacking that target is towards a greater military aim.
  3. That killing noncombatants isn’t the intent of the action.
  4. That the positive outcome achieved is greater or neutral to the equal effects produced.

To expound on these four conditions, they are common aspects of modern military targeting:

(1)  We always ensure that the targets we plan against are positively identified as military targets. That isn't to say that noncombatants aren't present. Walzer uses the term double effect to describe those times in which noncombatants are killed during the attack due to their close proximity. These four conditions are attempting to justified targets that are double effect in nature.

(2)   We work towards complementary effects that, in turn, work towards achieving a greater effect upon an enemy and towards achieving some objective. We don’t kill enemy combatants or destroy their stuff for the sake of killing or destroying alone, destruction is simply a means to an end. A premise of effects-based operations, or the effects-based approach, is looking backwards through a causal chain of effects in order to determine what should be done now while moving forward to that ultimate end.

(3)  Even if a double effect target is legitimately military in nature, we attack it in order to deny its use for military purposes. The object of the attack is not the noncombatants that support it. For example, we seek to destroy the weapons factory, not the civilians making the weapons. If the enemy is using the basement of a hospital as a command headquarters or for weapons storage, our target is the basement, not the hospital. Many of these are what we call dual-use in that they have both military and civilian uses, so special consideration must be made planning every strike.

(4)  Along with the idea that we are looking to achieve a greater end, we must ensure that the initial positive effects we produce aren't outweighed by negative second and third-order effects. Otherwise, there would be little point, in the big picture, to attacking the target. War is inherently chaotic since the complexities present with trying to unify the efforts of multiple assets can be difficult. You have joint and combined military forces, as well as interagency, intergovernmental, and multinational assets; each with their own methods of doing things. Trying to get this hodgepodge of organizations to produce the desired effects needed; all the while enemy forces and non-cooperative nations try to derail your plans, is problematic enough. The actual effects of a particular action are difficult to determine, but targeteers and planners have to try to determine what effects if any will get us closer to those desired ends.

The purpose of everything is to defeat the enemy and bring about some measure of peace for the community, as "war is hell" and the most ethical thing we could do is bring about its end as quickly as possible. As a result, some have argued that the most ethical thing we can do is to do what it takes to bring about the end of the war as swiftly as possible; therefore, holding back for ethical reasons becomes unethical since it prolongs the conflict. What Walzer provides is an option to do something unethical to achieve an aim that brings the war’s conclusion closer, in the least unethical way possible.

Just and Unjust Wars for Business

There is value in the discussion of whether or not going to war is just or unjust, as a business decision to carry out a particular course of action can might have similar justifications. A business has numerous stakeholders that need to be taken into account during the planning of a decision, and with who positive and negative impacts will invariably arise when a decision is finally executed. The terms just and unjust come with it a lot of baggage that deals with legality and morality, especially in the conduct of one of humanity’s most important human activities; organized violence, but that is the same for every other activity, only to a less severe degree. Just and unjust is about the justification for doing something, obviously, but in this way can mean the same thing as actions you “could and should do” and those that you “could and shouldn't do.”

Walzer provided his four conditions for accepting noncombatant casualties, mentioned above, which is, in reality, merely a method for determining under what conditions doing something that is unjust becomes something that is just. Or in more simple terms by assessing the four conditions, you may make a course of action that you normally shouldn't execute into a course of action that you should execute. We are basically playing with ethics. We can know that an action is inherently unethical, but when you have multiple unethical options in which we have to choose, the four conditions provide you an option for picking the least unethical. Rephrasing those four conditions for business:

  1. That the action is a legitimate business activity.
  2. That the desired effect of executing that action builds toward a greater business aim.
  3. That the undesirable effects aren’t the intention of the action itself.
  4. That the positive outcome achieved is greater or equal to the negative effects produced.

Looking at these four conditions, we don't necessarily see much difference:

(1)  Not all activities that a business can conduct are related to the ultimate purpose of the company. Peter Drucker said that "there is only one valid definition of business purpose: to create a customer." From this, we are to presume that all other activities for the business should be geared towards doing what is required to "create a customer." This includes activities that are both focused on getting your product or service known to the customer, and making new, or improving upon existing, products and services in order to entice them. There are other non-business activities that can be undertaken, but if those activities create an ethical dilemma, then it violates the first condition.

(2)  All actions should be based on working towards the desired end. If your desired end includes increasing profits, then activities that lead you towards that end would be a wise decision. So what actions would do that? Well, you naturally determine it through an effects-based approach by working backwards from the end. The equation is profit equals revenue minus cost. So activities that work towards increasing revenues or reducing costs are, therefore, steering us towards the desired end of increased profits. Working towards the end supports this second condition.

(3)  There are times in which people desire to engage in activities that don't directly serve the ends of the business in any meaningful way. In the worst situations, they work against it, such as the purposeful production of undesirable effects. I am not saying that undesirable effects won't be produced, as you may be able to predict undesirable effects, but this third condition is about whether those effects are the intention or merely a collateral effect. Why would anyone desire to do something undesirable? From what I have seen, I would say character flaws. Some people react to anger by lashing out spitefully, and this can result in regretful actions in engagements with customers, suppliers, and partners; depending on whom or what angered them. Selfishness, too, can lead to decisions where a person places their own immediate gains over that of the company.

(4)  This final condition should be obvious and applies to any profession, job, or endeavor. In the conduct of any business, there is little reason to undertake an action that costs a company more than it gains. The most likely scenario when this can occur is the short-term gains at the expense of long-term benefits. Saving money by closing down underperforming stores and laying off a certain number of employees may save you in the near term, but does it save the company and, therefore, the remaining stakeholders in the long-term? Shutting down stores and laying off personnel is a business decision, but it is also a disruption in the lives of the stakeholders involved. There may be other ways to increase their performance, different strategies, or unique market conditions that you can exploit. Regardless, ethically speaking, there is some social responsibility required of companies towards those that they employ, just as much as those employees have a responsibility to the company. But there is something to be said about sacrificing a few to save the whole. You will not be doing anyone any favors if the entire business goes under as all stakeholders would be harmed in the process.

Quoting Peter Drucker from Management: Revised Edition one again,

“It is, similarly, a value question whether a business should be run for short-term results or for ‘the long-run.’ Financial analysts believe that businesses can be run for both, simultaneously. Successful businessmen know better. To be sure, everyone has to produce short-term results. But in any conflict between short-term results and long-term growth, one company decides in favor of long-term growth, another company decides such a conflict in favor of short-term results. Again, this is not primarily a disagreement on economics. It is fundamentally a value conflict regarding the function of a business and the responsibility of management.”

So in this way, we aren’t saying that one particular course of action is better than another in regards to some desired end, like increased profits. What we are saying is that through the four conditions, you can select a course of action that effectively balances ethical imperatives with your company's strategic aims. It wouldn't be like saying, "Which is better, increased profits or ethical decision-making?" Instead, it is more akin to, "can I increase profits while still occupying an ethical position?" Or rephrasing it for military targeting, "can I attack this target in a way and still be justified in doing so?" You may not have the whole cake, but you can still eat some of it!

Rehashing what we said, Walzer has put forth four conditions by which he argued you could be justified in the taking of noncombatant life during an attack on a military target. It is a process to determine an answer to an important question, which is the least unethical decision, allowing noncombatants to perish by your hands or allowing the target to go unstruck and prolong the conflict? There is a way to use this for similar business decisions as I have said previously, but there is more to be found and applied from this book.

Walzer discusses the imperatives of warfighters in the conduct of their missions. The risks that they must assume to make warfare less hellish on the noncombatants that may be harmed in the area of operations. He discusses the ways nations view and change their own strategic aims based on the realities they see. He even makes suggestions for how such aims should be adjusted. His book is about the undertaking of humanity's most significant and unethical endeavors, warfare, and making it more ethical. The consequences of business failure aren't as severe, but just as crucial for all the stakeholders involved. Learning from Walzer, therefore, in the just waging and conduct of warfare may very well provide you a moral perspective by which you can guide your business.

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