Just war theory and the UK soldier killing

About three years ago, I became interested in just war theory, a long-running literature about what makes warfare just. As you’d expect, the field has diverse opinions ranging from pacifists who say war is never just to realists who think talking about justice in the context of warfare is wrong-headed to begin with. In between these camps is where most of the action is, and in that space, a fairly coherent set of principles has been established to demarcate just wars from unjust wars.

Perhaps the most widely-accepted principle within just war theory is that of non-combatant immunity (NCI). Under this principle, it is unjust to target non-combatants, e.g. civilians (although not all civilians are actually non-combatants). I was interested in the philosophical justification for NCI, and I ended up publishing a paper called “Rethinking Non-Combatant Immunity” in an academic ethics journal about it.

In the paper, I trace the origin of the idea that non-combatants be immune from attack back to the Peace of God movement in the 10th century, which initially forbade attacks against certain kinds of people, namely pilgrims, clerics, Jews, women, merchants and peasants. From there, the list of protected people gets expanded over time by varying scholars until Aquinas comes along three centuries later and articulates the general principle that the innocent not be targeted in war. Aquinas’ articulation basically survives with little modification into the present-day just war consensus, which I call the neutrality-innocence justification (NIJ) for NCI.

My big argument in the paper is that the NIJ does not make much sense when ripped out of the feudal context of its origination. In the feudal era, “subjects of feudal systems did not decide to go to war, did not elect the feudal lord that made those decisions, and were not involved in the conduct of wars themselves. These subjects, because of the way feudal society worked, were genuinely neutral and innocent.” Between now and the time of Aquinas, liberalism happened, both the philosophical theory and governmental innovation. But modern-day scholars of just war theory take no special notice of liberalism and the way it fundamentally undermines the NIJ for NCI.

Under liberal theories of governance, the role of the civilian individual changes dramatically. They are no longer merely subjects that an external government acts its will upon. Instead, they are citizens and the ultimate source of all sovereign power and action. You get this starting in Hobbes in the 17th century who says individuals in society are authors of “every thing their representative saith, or doth in their name” meaning that they own “all the actions the representer doth.” You get Locke’s view that individuals transfer their natural executive and legislative power to society when coming out of the state of nature, and his theory of consent to sovereign action. Finally, you get Rousseau’s elegant articulation that the people in a state “are called individually citizens, inasmuch as they participate in the sovereign power, and subjects, inasmuch as they are subjected to the laws of the State.”

Owing to this liberal shift — which again, no just war theorists I could find really accounted for before applying the feudal-era NIJ — I conclude:

In ideal liberal theory, citizens themselves are the source of all governmental actions in one form or another. This is a unifying principle of what makes a liberal theory a liberal theory, at least for the contractarians. The conclusion then that citizens within liberal societies are not covered under the NIJ follows in a fairly straight-forward fashion. If a government decides to go to war, that decision only comes about as a result of the citizens authorizing the government to do so. The citizenry’s role in the war is as the originator of the action towards war. This might happen electorally or it might happen by consenting to a societal structure that allows wars to be waged. Regardless of which one happens to be the case, the citizens are necessarily participating in the process of waging war. Thus, the citizens are not innocent of the decision to pursue war, for it is they who are authorizing the decision; and, the citizens are not neutral towards the war effort because it is their actions (consent) that causes the war to occur. Because the citizens are non-neutral and non-innocent, the NIJ cannot apply.

From there I go about applying this idea to the 2004 terrorist train bombings in Spain and the impact they appear to have had on the Spanish election. Prior to the train bombings, the sitting pro-war government (Spain was involved in Iraq) had a 6.2 point lead in the polls. Shortly after the bombings, that lead fell to 0.7 point and on election day the incumbent pro-war government lost by 5 points to the opposition socialist government that promised to and ultimately did get the country out of Iraq. The point of this example is just to show that the liberal government of Spain did permit citizens a choice in warring in Iraq, a choice they were going to make in the affirmative by voting for the incumbent government, but that they turned around and made in the negative after the terrorist attacks.

The point of my argument here, as I conceived it, was not really to argue that non-combatants under liberal governments should be open targets since the NIJ does not seem to apply to them anymore. It is more to raise a challenge to the dedicated just war scholars, most of whom are dedicated philosophical liberals but don’t see the apparent tension between liberalism and the NIJ for NCI. It is contradictory to simultaneously believe that citizens in liberal governments are active participants in sovereign power, but also that they have no involvement in sovereign decisions to go to war and are therefore neutral and innocent. You can’t say they are liberal citizens on the one hand to justify government power, but then treat them like detached feudal subjects on the other hand to justify NCI. Something has to give.

The UK soldier murder reminded me of my now-abandoned interest in this subject for obvious reasons. You have killers who claim to basically have anti-imperial motivations, i.e. Britain is involved in wars against Muslim people and on Muslim lands. The attack then, at least in rhetoric, is conceived of as a self-defense measure, a response to aggression. There are certain conceptual problems involved insofar as we usually think of actors in wars as nation-states, but these actors appear to conceive of themselves as belonging to a broader political community. Additionally, these attackers are apparently residents of Britain, which also complicates the just war picture. But if you put those issues aside, just war theory — as it is currently constructed (don’t blame me here! criticize just war theory for reaching this result!) — would seem to suggest that the attacks are legitimate tools of war. This holds not only because of the NIJ problems I raise above, but even more so because the target was a military target, not a civilian.

Again just because I don’t want any misconstruing going on here: this is a purely philosophical exposition and application of literature in this area. Don’t get all riled up at me. If you don’t like the conclusions, then you don’t like just war theory or you think it should be modified somehow. As for me, I’ve lost almost all interest in the subject.