“For as long as men and women have talked about war, they have talked about it in terms of right and wrong.”1 This quote from Michael Walzer’s
Just and Unjust Wars
is an excellent starting point for a high school unit on the ethical considerations of war. The objective of the unit is to keep that conversation going by creating a framework which students can apply to specific wars and specific events within wars thus enabling them to make reasoned moral judgments. One of the central tenets of Walzer’s book is that despite the vast range of human culture and diversity (often well represented in the urban American classroom) human beings share a remarkable commonality on basic moral questions. By establishing basic criteria securely founded upon the values we all share it is possible to entertain questions and take defensible positions on issues of war and peace on a deeper critical level than found in most high school history text books. High school students are particularly interested in moral questions and any intellectual exercise that calls upon them to apply their own judgment in this area is usually met with enthusiasm.
Although I intend to use this unit in a course on 20th Century history, it is important that it be of practical use in a broader area. The vast majority of history courses taught in this country are survey courses in U.S. or World History. The great challenge in teaching such courses (including one which only covers the last century) is the need to cover the vast amount of material required by the curriculum while still going into enough depth to make the subject meaningful and to engage a range of skills beyond simple retention and repetition of information. It is therefore necessary to choose certain focal points to be considered in some detail that will pull together and illustrate a range of interconnected curricular issues and allow students to engage a wide range of critical thinking skills. One important objective of this unit therefore will be to provide teachers with the tools to create such a focal point out of the study of any war in the last two hundred years. In most cases it simply won’t be possible to undertake a full ethical study of every war encountered in the standard survey course. Once the vocabulary and methods of analysis have been introduced, however, it should be possible to apply them in an abbreviated fashion to a range of wars and military actions.
One aspect of this subject area that makes it especially attractive to teachers of students with a range of abilities is its basic simplicity at its core. Theories of morality in war start with a few essential uncomplicated principles that students of all levels can grasp and view critically. It should be possible therefore to engage the students in a process that will lead to some level of consensus on what those principals should be. From that point the teacher needs to show students how they can find their own way down a path of deductive reasoning resulting in judgments about specific cases that can be logically supported. “Why don’t we just nuke ‘em?” (or why didn’t we just nuke ‘em) is a question I have heard repeatedly in my fifteen years of teaching. Although in most cases it is intended to be glib, students who ask such questions really want to know the answers. What they need are the tools to work out their own answers.
To provide a starting point it is necessary to establish a position between the pacifist perspective that all war is wrong and the realist perspective that “all’s fair” in war.2 Between these two extremes lies the concept of the just war first espoused by Saint Augustine in the waning days of the Roman Empire. The just war tradition takes the position that in certain cases war is not only acceptable but sometimes morally necessary in order to protect the innocent and avert a greater wrong. It divides moral judgment on war into two sets of ethical principles: those that apply to the reasons for going to war (justice of war or
jus ad bellum
) and those that apply to actions taken while fighting a war (justice in war or
jus in bello
). For most high school students this line of thinking will seem absolutely reasonable and perfectly understandable. The possibility that some will hold firm to one of the extreme positions should be used as a basis for discussion and debate at the outset. It may even make sense for the teacher to play devil’s (or angel’s) advocate and challenge students on the validity of a position in the middle. Only a limited time can be spent on this point however before it will be necessary to reach consensus on the validity of the just war concept if only for the purposes of intellectual pursuit.
Even within the just war construct there is of course a range of perspectives. My own position in this area can best be described as “a peace-oriented non pacifist who consider[s] warfare a conceivable if distasteful possibility.”3 Essentially, this means that I view with deep suspicion any military action outside of the strict requirements of self-defense and believe that only the most extreme circumstances allow for the violation of the rules which govern the nature of military action (known as “the war convention”). It will be this position that forms the starting point for the work of this unit and its bias will be evident. Whether it is the exact position of all students or of all teachers is not really that important. What is important is for students to understand that a starting point must be established from which judgments on war can be deduced. Each step in the deductive process will be an occasion for healthy debate, especially when applied to specific circumstances. It will be necessary, however, for students to be able to defend the positions they take always by referring back to the essential principles established at the outset.
I teach at the Sound School Regional Vocational Aquaculture Center in New Haven. It is a small interdistrict magnet school (currently about 300 students) with a hands-on marine education program which seeks to prepare students for both the workplace and for college depending on the academic skills and desires of the student. About 60 percent of the students come from the surrounding suburban towns -- some as far as Old Lyme on the shoreline and Cheshire to the north. Aside from a small core of capable students who have a keen interest in fish, boats and the water, most students who come to the Sound School have not had great success in a traditional academic setting and are looking for an alternative. The result is an ethnically, racially and socioeconomically diverse student body with a wide range of academic abilities. One effect of the size of the school is the lack of tracking (grouping by academic ability), especially in the history department, which is the smallest in the school. Students of widely differing abilities and even different years are in the same classes. This posses special challenges which this unit seeks to address.
The learning objectives of this unit are indeed quite broad in that they should incorporate a grasp of the historical events to which the ethical principles of war will be applied. Those objectives more specific to the consideration of just war theory should be as follows: students should be able to
identify and articulate a basic set of ethical principles upon which the “rules of war” can be based,
identify and evaluate the basic elements of just war theory,
explain how these concepts and their underlying principles apply to three historical examples from the 20th Century,
utilize just war theory to develop and defend moral judgments on specific decisions and actions taken by individuals in those examples.
The three events to be considered are
the use of strategic bombing in World War II including the use of the atom bomb,
the decision to defend South Korea, and
actions by U.S. soldiers (using two specific examples) in the Vietnam War.
These cases have been chosen both for their central role in important wars of the 20th Century, and because they include both decisions to go to war and decisions on actions taken within wars.
Just War Theory
What follows is a very brief description of the basic elements of just war theory. It is of course a vast and potentially complex field with significant gray areas and multiple exceptions requiring in depth analyses. The basic precepts that are described below are fairly simple, however, and should be accessible to students of all abilities.
As mentioned above, the just war tradition divides ethical rules of war between
jus ad bellum,
those concerning the morality of the decision to make war, and
jus in bellum,
those concerning the morality of actions taken in a war. This distinction is intended to create relatively exclusive realms of consideration. The fact that a war is just cannot be used to excuse unethical actions in that war and it is still important for individuals to take ethical actions in a war even if the cause for which they are fighting is unjust.4
The basic requirement of
jus ad bellum
. The clearest example of just cause would be the right of
: if a nation is attacked it has the right to defend itself. By extension this also means the right to defend other nations from aggression to meet treaty obligations or under the direction of an international regime such as the United Nations. By further extrapolation, the right of self-defense allows for preemptive action if an attack is imminent.5 This does not mean that a preventative war to forestall an attack at sometime in the indeterminate future is necessarily just. Even in the clearest cases of aggression, however, the principle of
requires that all peaceful means of resolving disputes must be exhausted before resorting to military action.6 Thus a just war is military action taken only as a last resort in response to a wrong already committed or about to be committed. One other important
jus ad bellum
principle is the idea that a just war must be authorized by a
such as a national government or an international governing body. Without such authority, the thinking goes, military action is simply terrorism or banditry. In recent decades, the need for legitimate authority has been interpreted as a requirement that the United Nations approve military action, particularly in cases that concern collective security.
In the section on strategies below, I will introduce some of the other finer and potentially contradictory elements of
jus ad bellum
as they apply to specific examples. Circumstances involving intervention or civil war and questions over proportionality of response or legitimate ends in war certainly muddy the waters, but they can provide excellent opportunities for energetic debate once students have grasped the essential principles.
The rules governing conduct within a war, or what Walzer calls “the war convention,” are based on the principle of
.7 Under this principle armed enemy soldiers are legitimate targets and can be killed, while unarmed civilians are immune and deliberate attacks on them are prohibited. Enemy soldiers who disarm themselves and surrender are also immune and acquire rights as prisoners of war. Thus the war convention defines whom soldiers can kill and when they can kill. Discrimination becomes difficult to apply when civilian deaths occur as a result of attacks on legitimate military targets - what the military calls “collateral damage.” The doctrine of
attempts to deal with that problem by allowing for some negative effects - the deaths of civilians - as long as it is outweighed by positive effects - the destruction of military targets. This is also known as the principle of
in that it requires that the ends sought in a particular action be proportionate to the harm done. So some civilian deaths are permissible as long as civilians are not the intended targets and every effort is made to keep those deaths to a minimum.8 The application of proportionality is of course a judgment call and should again provide the basis for debate when individual cases are considered. More fodder for debate arises when one seeks to apply the war convention to circumstances such as guerrilla war when combatants hide among civilians and may even take on civilian disguise. The civilians may in fact support the guerrillas and provide critical military support.