Just and Unjust Wars


by Michael Walzer

Basic Books, $15.00

A “just” war, cynics might say, is any war we choose to fight and think we can win. But how does a culture that prides itself on its reverence for human life rationalize military actions that destroy many thousands, even millions, of human lives? Not very easily, says Michael Walzer, a Harvard political scientist who has written a clear, humane, and startlingly original survey of the moral issues that complicate modern war-making.
When, for example, can a nation intervene in the internal political affairs of another nation? The simplest answer, says Walzer, is that it shouldn’t. But, he continues, suppose a tyrant is oppressing a helpless populace so terribly that human conscience makes intervention a seeming necessity? “Humanitarian” intervention is justified in such cases, but only in response to acts “that shock the moral conscience of mankind,” and only when the interventionist has reasonable expectations of success. Moreover, the intervening state must honor the apparent purposes of the people it has rescued, in recognition of the larger principle that “the members of a political community must seek their own freedom, just as the individual must cultivate his own virtue. They cannot be set free, as he cannot be made virtuous, by any external force.”
These arguments are deceptively simple. If applied rigorously, they would surely have foreshortened our involvement in Vietnam, and might have inhibited our enlargement of the conflict in Korea. They may also clarify public discussion of America’s moral obligations vis-à-vis South Africa.
The weakness of Walzer’s proscriptions (one he is quick to acknowledge) is that they will make a difference only to those capable of moral restraint, and in rough agreement about the ethical codes that might govern that restraint. As an analytical beginning, however, Walzer’s book is wholly admirable.
C. Michael Curtis