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Michael Walzer’s book ‘Just and Unjust Wars’ main
focus is on morality in war, having widely shaped the trend of questioning as
to whether wars are ultimately fair and just and what constitutes as
illegitimate war. The contextual factors at the time that Walzer was writing
such as the Vietnam War and the influence of Christian theology is essentially
what allowed Walzer’s ideas about war to be circulated and discussed as truly
relevant and of concern to people who were already questioning the legitimacy
of acts of war. The inevitable conflict between states forever existing means
that his stance on morality in war will always be demonstrative and relevant
across times.


One of the ways in which Walzer has shaped thought
in international politics is through his proposed framework of ideas that the
justice of war is judged from two independent claims; ‘Jus ad bellum’ (justice
to war) and ‘Jus in bello’ (justice in war). The justice to war element relates
to the idea that there needs to be questioning of when to wage war and also
when it is permissible to fight; justice in war addresses the issue of how to
fight and what methods are considered just or unjust in relation to war crimes.
An example of Walzer’s requirements for a just war is that,

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“it is wrong to cut the throats of their wounded or
to shoot them down when they are trying to surrender” (Walzer,36)

Through illustrating conditions of a just war such
as these, Walzer succeeds at providing a structure for war which can be applied
across time. These conditions he proposed should be addressed and used to
decide if a war is morally permissible or not. These claims are not dependent
on one another meaning that a war can be just yet fought unjustly, whilst a war
can be unjust and fought justly. Across time we can see that Walzer’s ideas can
be applied to different conflicts such as World War II and the devastating
effects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan; it is widely agreed that World War
II was a war fought with legitimacy in order to expel fascism, a greater
threat. However, it is also widely agreed that the fighting and tactics used in
this war such as nuclear weapons are never permissible due to the scale of
damage they cause. Similarly, a more recent example of how these two claims can
work independently of each other is the 2003 United States invasion of Iraq –
an unjust war that was arguably fought justly. The United States’ decision to
invade Iraq was one which was highly controversial and in present day is
predominantly seen as a self-interested and a wrongful disruption. Despite
this, it has been suggested that the United States took great precaution in
ensuring there was minimal civilian deaths or injuries. One of the reasons they
were commended was for their use of precision-guided munitions in Iraq which
were aimed at militant bases instead of civilians. In this sense, critics have
argued that the Iraq war was an unjustifiable invasion however it was fought
justly. We can apply Walzer’s theories to modern day wars in order to
distinguish between what wars the international community can accept as just
and what wars should be rejected as unreasonable. In this sense, Walzer has
shaped how we think about wars today and how abruptly we accept the acts and
reasons of war through providing a framework of understanding.


Perhaps one of the major reasons Walzer’s ‘Just and
Unjust Wars’ has continued to shape how we think about international politics
today is due to the publishing of the book coinciding with the backdrop of the
end of the United States’ calamitous participation in Vietnam for ten years.
The context of the Vietnam War being the first war that was broadcasted and
explicitly shown through televisions to the rest of the world, the sheer horror
of what was occurring in Vietnam, provided a climate in which people became
concerned as to why atrocities such as the My Lai Massacre were allowed to
occur and whether this war was in fact legitimate. Two years following the
withdrawal of the United States’ in Vietnam, Michael Walzer acted as an opposition
voice against the Vietnam War and tackled many of the questions surrounding how
just the United States’ invasion was; things that had been circulating in the
international community and had caused the erosion of public favour. It was
this fragile atmosphere which allowed Walzer’s book to have a major impact on
the way we think about war and international politics today. In this very same
way, today we can use the contentious Vietnam war to compare to wars since then
such as the dispute over Kosovo which led to a breakout of war in 1998 in which
the international community were less permissive and willing to accept violence
as they had been during the Vietnam War. The most relatable and up-to-date
argument would be the ongoing civil war in Syria; it has been highly
controversial and disputed especially in regards to the United States’
continuing airstrikes. Walzer highlighted ‘the
necessity for violence in a world where God has not instituted the sword’
(Walzer, The Problem of Dirty Hands, 176), implying that war will always
evolve and will always exist and so should be regulated and strictly monitored
against morality which we can see is needed since the horrors of the Vietnam
war have been very much mimicked in conflict since. Walzer’s book being published
in such a critical time where these ideas of condemning states for their war
actions were flourishing, he added a foundation for these arguments and
encouraged a platform where the public could express their opposition against
the Vietnam War. This trend is what has allowed international politics to not
be so complacent with reasoning for war and to question war tactics in the same
way that was done in the 1970s.


The influence of Christian theology on ‘Just and
Unjust Wars’ demonstrates that morality guides how people and states will act
and so therefore puts into perspective the reasoning as to why, in
international politics, we should question the acts of war and whether they are
just or unjust. Walzer found that almost every society and almost every major
religion has some form of guideline and code of behaviour to distinguish
between legitimate and illegitimate wars. St Augustine of the early Christian
Church proposed the idea that war can be legitimate if it is aimed at a wider
good such as restoring peace. Walzer went on to use this argument to propose
that war can therefore be justified and there can be justice in war. The
influence of religion throughout his book is shown through his language such as “aggression opens the gates of hell”
(Walzer, ch4), undeniably similar to the teachings of the Ten Commandments,
one of which prohibiting murder. It is clear that a lot of his just-war theory
is heavily influenced by values taught in Christianity. Not only this, but
throughout history leaders and state officials have attempted to justify their
decisions for war and also their actions in war; Walzer claimed that this
proved that “just-war theory has always
played a part in official argument about war” (Walzer, Preface to Second
Edition, 11) and so morality guides how everyone acts; even the
perpetrators of war are guided by morality shown through the justification of
their actions. Even Barack Obama has said that their government has made
decisions “based on fear rather than
foresight” to justify the war on terror, showing how much Walzer’s
expansion upon Christian theology has truly affected and stressed the
importance of morality in foreign policy and war, so much so that Presidents
and leaders still feel obliged to defend themselves even after proceeding with
war and deaths of civilians. Therefore, to Walzer there should be a shared
understanding that potential wars need to be queried against morality seeing as
everyone is guided by it. Walzer’s ideas being applied across history and time
gives strength to his stance on morality and proves to be a durable idea having
withstood the pressures of time, morality has been proven to be something
innate in human behaviour and society. The role that Christian theology has
played in insisting on the importance of ethics when considering war
highlighted the fact that here has always been an underlying consensus in all
societies that morality should be considered and acted upon; Walzer provided a
structure and platform for these ideas to be expressed through a framework of
conditions which should be met to ensure morality is accounted for in potential


In addition to this, Walzer’s critique of realism
and of some of the most influential thinkers in realism such as E.H Carr caused
his book to be explored even further as he questioned some of the highest
regarded thinkers and challenged their view that war is a part of a functioning
society. Therefore, his ideas began to be considered, especially at a time
where a lot of people were struggling to accept justifications for the Vietnam
War and so were tempted to disregard the realist view and now took the approach
of Walzer in that there is a moral reality. Carr argued that the world is
doomed to conflict because of human nature’s tendency to be self-interested and
adverse and in turn, the language of morality and justice is just a pursuit of
self-interest. He used the example of the United States’ invasion of Iraq in
2003; the humanitarian justification was in fact just to conceal the United
States’ agenda to pursue hegemony. 
Walzer, on the other hand, made a case for the acceptable forms of
humanitarian intervention in certain situations such as “If no common life exists, or if the state doesn’t defend the common
life that does exist, its own defence may have no moral justification” (Walzer,
54) or when it is an emergency in which “the
very existence of a community is at stake” (Walzer, 228), only in these
special circumstances is humanitarian intervention agreeable. Walzer has a much
more positive view of humanitarian intervention and believes that, unlike
realist thinkers, there can be genuine moral reasoning for intervention if the
aim is for rights and freedoms, for example he mentioned international
intervention in Nazi Germany was necessary to combat ‘an evil conspiracy’. Therefore, Walzer’s moral justification for
some use of violence in specific circumstances has arose debates of what
constitutes as ‘severe emergencies’. Nevertheless, his criticism of realism has
allowed the notions expressed in ‘Just and Unjust Wars’ to remain talked about
as a classic text of international relations.


To conclude, it is clear that the context
surrounding Walzer’s framework of ideas about just wars – the Vietnam War and
Christian theology – is what truly enabled people to relate to and understand
why there is a need for rules and constraints regarding the ethics of war. His
concise and persuasive style of writing grouped together the existing
opposition to the Vietnam War and allowed for there to be constructive and
structured propositions for what we should allow as fair and just in
international politics, something which continues to remind people and leaders
that war is only acceptable and justifiable if it is a severe emergency and
doesn’t infringe upon the rights of civilians. 

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