Student Generated Principles of Just War
The first step in introducing students to the basic elements of just war theory is to allow them to develop their own ideas on what the rules of war should be. A brief explanation of the basic distinction between
jus ad bellum
jus in bello
will be necessary to enable students to categorize the rules that they develop. Students should be divided into small groups of three to four students to brainstorm as many rules as they can in each category. Prompts such as “list circumstances that would justify a nation going to war” and “identify rules that define whom soldiers can kill in war and who should be immune from attack.” will help the groups to get started. It may also be necessary to introduce the concept of discrimination to narrow the focus of the
jus in bello
rules. As each group reports back to the class, the most coherent and essential rules should be listed on the board. These could be listed in the form of a web type graphic organizer with
jus ad bellum
in the center of one web and
jus in bello
in the center of the other. Ideally, by the end of the lesson the class has reached a kind of teacher-guided consensus on the most basic just war principles. A detailed version of this lesson is included in the “Classroom Activities” section of the unit.
Strategic Bombing in World War II
The bombing of civilians with aircraft far from the battlefield is an act which falls within the purview of the war convention as it was an act of war generally (but not entirely as we shall see below) unrelated to the question of whether the war - from the Allied perspective - was just. As this is the first case study of the unit, however, it may make sense to open the lesson by raising the basic
jus ad bellum
questions: was this a just war for the Allied powers and if so what made it so? As long as students are versed in the basic facts of the war student’s should be able to respond and defend their responses without too much difficulty. As a legitimate response to naked aggression on the part of the Axis powers, the war is probably the clearest example of a just war in the 20th Century. Once this has been established the next question to consider, although not necessarily answer yet, is whether that fact justifies any bending of the rules of the war convention if it may be the only way for the just cause to avoid defeat.
The Bombing of German Cities
This point is certainly germane to a discussion of how the decision to bomb civilians came about because it was used as a justification for the bombing of civilians by the British in the early years of the war. The decision was made in the desperate months after the fall of France when Britain stood alone and invasion by Germany seemed imminent. At the time the bombing of cities was seen as the only way British military forces could strike at Germany and possibly forestall defeat.9 The nature of this act was dictated in part in the early years of the war by the limitations of Britain’s Bomber Command. Lightly armed and without the benefit of a long-range fighter escort, British bombers were committed to nighttime raids in order to avoid being shot down by German fighters. This fact along with the lack of the proper navigational equipment meant that only one third of all British bombers got within five miles of their targets in 1941. The strategy was a result of more than just technological limitations, however, for the leadership of Britain, including Winston Churchill, believed that terror bombing (or what one of Churchill’s advisors preferred to call “dehousing”) could indeed win the war by turning the German people against the Nazi leadership.10 Thus the strategy was not changed when the ability to hit targets with greater accuracy was developed later in the war nor when the tide had turned and victory by the Allies was all but assured.
The bombing of Germany did indeed become a terror, although it never brought about a popular uprising. One of the most appalling examples of this strategy was the firestorm created in the German port city of Hamburg in July 1943 as the result of four nights of “area” bombing. By the time the fires had died down 62,000 acres were burned, 80 per cent of the buildings were destroyed and 30,000 people (20 per cent of whom were children) were killed. Similar firestorms were ignited in eight other German cities over the next two years including Dresden which was destroyed in the closing months of the war when Germany’s armies were already defeated.11 Altogether some 600,000 German civilians died from bombing in the war and 800,000 were seriously injured.12
American Bombing of Japan
While the British carried out a strategy of “area bombing” the Americans held to a strategy of precision daylight raids in Europe that, in theory, kept civilian deaths to a minimum. Against Japan, however, the Americans changed that strategy to one which closely matched the British. Beginning in February 1945 the Army Air Force switched from high-level daylight strikes to low level bombing at night using incendiaries - tactics that were intended to burn entire cities. Contributing to the destructive effects of these tactics was the lack of any Japanese air force by 1945 to oppose U.S. bombers and the fact that Japanese cities were built largely of wood and paper which burned so much better than European stone and brick. The devastation and civilian death tolls were to surpass even the shocking destruction in Germany. In March a single raid on Tokyo killed almost 100,000 people and burned 16 square miles. The firestorm was so intense that the city’s canals were brought to a boil. Over the next four months, Japan’s five largest cities had been destroyed at a cost to civilians of 260,000 killed and between 9 and 13 million homeless.13
In the context of such loss and destruction, the decision to use atomic weapons against Japan was not really a change of strategy or a significantly greater violation of the war convention -- it was simply a more efficient way of performing the same task. Nevertheless, the use of the Atomic Bomb was dramatic and it represented such a greater potential for destruction that it brought many of the previously ignored moral questions to the fore. The weapon had not even been developed for use against Japan, but as a deterrent to its use by Germany should that nation develop one. Several top American military leaders and technical advisors raised profound moral questions about using such a weapon. One member of an advisory panel on the issue stated that “it introduces the question of mass slaughter, really for the first time in history.”14 Mass slaughter was of course already a part of the strategic plan, but now the issue was more difficult to avoid.
The debate over the legitimacy of the atomic bombings of Japan generally revolves around what it was going to take to get Japan to agree to an unconditional surrender and what that might cost in American and Japanese lives. Those who supported the use of the bomb took the utilitarian view that it would end the war quickly and thereby save even greater numbers of American and Japanese lives by avoiding an Allied invasion of the home islands. They point to the ferocious suicidal defense of Okinawa as proof that the costs would be very high. Those in opposition question whether an invasion would even have been necessary if the demand for unconditional surrender had been altered to allow for the survival of the Emperor. Another alternative that was seriously considered at the time was a demonstration of the bomb in a sparsely populated area. (An excellent classroom resource on the decision to drop the bomb is the video,
Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
See resource list below.) “In the context of
jus in bellum
, however, the issue still comes down to the legitimacy of targeting civilians and this line had already been crossed. Utilitarian considerations, such as the doctrine of double effect, only apply if the intended target is indeed military. Strategic bombing in World War II essentially was a decision to kill people not because of their military role, but because of their nationality.
Applying Just War Theory to the Issue
The best way for students to tackle strategic bombing from a just war perspective is to develop an informed position on whether the basic provision barring the intentional targeting of civilians should be altered. John Keegan’s book, The Second World War, has an excellent chapter on strategic bombing (“Strategic Bombing,” Chapter 22, pp. 415-433) that should give students the necessary background on the specifics of the strategy of “area bombing”. With this background and an understanding of the basic concepts of the war convention, students should be able to engage in a formal debate on whether such a strategy is morally acceptable. It may be necessary to assign teams, but in my experience there are always students ready to argue the “war is hell - all’s fair in war” position, while others naturally recoil from the idea. Students will usually make a greater effort if they are defending a personal belief.
In preparation for the debate, students should be asked to consider questions that will help them focus on the key issues. See the lesson plan below for examples. After some preparation students should be able to debate the following resolution: The prohibition against the targeting of civilians in war time should not be violated under any circumstances.
The U.S. Decision to Defend South Korea
On the face of it the Korean War appears to be a straight forward example of aggression in which the essential principles of
jus ad bellum
should be easy to apply. In June of 1950, North Korean forces invaded South Korea with the clear intention of conquering South Korea and bringing its territory under the control of the government in North Korea. These circumstances imply that not only did South Korea have just cause to defend itself, but other nations had the right to come to its aid. Indeed the United States was able to take advantage of a boycott of the United Nations by the Soviet Union and get the Security Council to authorize military action against North Korea under the leadership of the United States. The notion of just cause is inherent in the portions of the UN Charter which confers on the Security Council the power to take such action: the prohibition on the aggressive use of force in Article 2(4), the responsibility of the Security Council to maintain “international peace and security” articulated in Article 24(1), and Article 39 which provides that the coercive powers of the Council were to be triggered by a determination of “any threat to the peace, breach of peace, or act of aggression.”15 It would appear then that the United Nations was playing its proper role as the duly appointed protector of peace. However the case of the Korean War includes a number of complicating factors which will illustrate for students the difficulties of applying just war principles in a way that really seeks to serve a higher purpose.
Korean War: Issues to Consider
Difficulty of defining aggression -- This problem would naturally apply to any act of war that is deemed by some an unprovoked attack. Aggression is a tricky concept to define in a way that most nations are comfortable with. It has been used as an excuse for true acts of aggression for as long as nations have fought wars. Even Nazi Germany claimed that it had been attacked by Poland at the start of World War II. Many nations have also been concerned that a precise definition could limit a nation’s legitimate right to self defense, particularly in circumstances which might require preemptive military action. Since 1952 various United Nations committees have attempted to craft an acceptable definition to no avail. Today the job of defining aggression at the U.N. is essentially left up to the Security Council which does so on a case by case basis. This of course gives the five permanent members the ability to veto any resolution which seeks to define their own acts as aggressive.16 Perhaps this is an element of
which most nations are willing to live with. It may be that aggression is a bit like what a Supreme Court justice once wrote about pornography: “I could never succeed [in defining it], but I know it when I see it.”17
A civil war? -- An authentic civil war generally cannot be defined as a war of aggression because it does not involve other nations. Consequently any unprovoked intervention by an outside power in a civil war
potentially a form of aggression as it seeks to impose an outcome that denies a nation’s right to self determination. We would not, for example, view the Union as the aggressor in the American Civil War thereby justifying intervention by Britain on the side of the Confederacy. The only justifiable role of an outside power in a civil war that Walzer acknowledges would be one of counter-intervention which is intended to balance the forces inserted by an aggressive outside power.18
By 1950, South Korea had a democratically elected and internationally recognized government with strong support south of the 38
parallel where the country was divided. Although the United States had provided political and economic support, military support had been limited because, ironically, American policy makers feared that it would be used to attack the North. The North Korean government on the other hand, which was not recognized by the United Nations, had been established by the Soviet Union and provided with a powerful offensive military capability. Communist support in the South was almost nonexistent, although this may have been due in part to the increasingly repressive nature of the South Korean regime.19
Korean Interests vs. U.S. Interests - One common problem of the cold war was the tendency of the United States to define the interests of other countries on its own terms. Clearly President Truman had geopolitical and domestic political concerns over North Korea’s invasion especially as it came so closely on the heels of the successful communist revolution in China. Although it had only begun to be applied in Asia, the policy of containment required that communism could not be allowed to expand. Domestically, a red scare was sweeping the nation as Senator Joe McCarthy and his followers pilloried policy makers for the loss of China. Truman and his advisors feared that allowing South Korea to fall would be viewed as a policy of appeasement that would endanger him politically at home and encourage further communist advances elsewhere.20 These issues were obviously not a direct concern of the vast majority of Koreans however. Was it legitimate for the United States to decide the political future of Korea based on U.S. interests? This question is especially significant when one takes into consideration the somewhat repressive and authoritarian nature of the South Korean government. The answer is closely related to and dependent on how one decides the issues of aggression and civil war outlined above.
U.S. Objectives - Finally, to assess the propriety of the U.S. role in the Korean War students must consider whether American objectives in the war were legitimate. This is an especially important point to consider in light of the fact that U.S. objectives changed as the war progressed. At the outset, the U.N. Security Council (which was largely under the control of the United States at the time) authorized U.N. forces to “repel the armed attack and restore international peace and security in the area.”21 This implied merely a return to the status quo
After General Macarthur’s invasion at Inchon led to a rout of North Korean forces, however, the U.S. leadership decided to change that goal to the unification (conquest?) of Korea under South Korean control. There was certainly some justification for advancing beyond the 38
parallel for the purpose of pursuit and destruction of enemy forces, but the reformulation of objectives went far beyond that.22 The “inflation of ends” as Walzer calls it is often a dangerous temptation after success on the battlefield and can lead to unforeseen negative consequences. It is usually not justified by the precepts of
jus ad bellum
unless it actually leads to a better state of peace
In the case of Korea, as we now know, it led to intervention by China, a greatly increased risk of a wider conflict, and possibly lengthened the war by several years.
Applying Just War Theory to the Korean War
One effective way to take on the Korean War issues in the classroom is to set up a role play in which advisors to President Truman debate the legitimacy of various policy options for the United States in Korea. A detailed lesson plan using this strategy is in the “classroom activities” section at the end of the unit. The class should be divided into three groups and each assigned a different moral/political perspective. One group should be the realists who believe that U.S. policy in Korea should be strictly defined by U.S. interests. Another group should be the ideologues who see communism as an absolute evil which must ultimately be eradicated. The final group should be the just war purists who seek strict adherence to the principles of
jus ad bellum
(perhaps the least likely group to have such a role, but this is only an exercise)
Each group will be provided with a brief description of their fundamental beliefs and two situation reports: one describing the circumstances on June 25, 1950 when North Korea attacked, and one describing the circumstances in late September of 1950 after the invasion at Inchon. Students should be encouraged to take on their assigned roles and develop positions that are based on those roles despite the fact that they may not personally agree with them. In preparation for the class discussion each group will have to prepare a response to each of the complicating factors listed above. The class discussion should be structured as a debate on each of the four complicating factors described above followed by a final debate on what action the United States should take in the two situations. As a follow up assignment, students should write a persuasive essay justifying their own personal position on whether U.S. action in Korea qualifies as a just war.
Vietnam: Crimes in War
The American experience in Vietnam provides ample material for considering both
jus ad bellum
jus in bellum
issues. Indeed, one could use the same approach outlined above and apply it to Vietnam in order to explore with students whether the United States had just cause for military action there. In this section, however, this unit will revisit the question of the legitimacy of actions taken in war rather than judge whether the war itself was just. There are several reasons why the Vietnam war is useful for this purpose. In the first place it contrasts in an interesting way with the case of strategic bombing in World War II. In the first instance the actions in question were decided upon by top strategic planners and carried out by men who were so far removed from their victims that they didn’t even see them. In Vietnam atrocities such as My Lai -- which we will consider in detail -- were ordered by local commanders and committed by soldiers who could see and hear their victims begging for mercy. A second reason is the fact that the acts were committed by young American men not so far removed in age and culture from high school students today. They were for the most part not political fanatics or brutal thugs, but “ordinary men.” Finally the incident at My Lai and others like it raise the question of personal responsibility in the context of the military requirement that soldiers follow orders. The “following orders” defense was used at My Lai as it was used most famously at Nuremburg by Nazi defendants. The connection with the Holocaust is significant and this portion of the unit may resonate most effectively with students who have some background in that area.
On March 16, 1968 U.S. soldiers from Charlie Company attacked Son My village which included the hamlet of My Lai with the goal of eradicating any Viet Cong (VC) forces in the area. Although there turned out to be no enemy troops and no hostile fire was observed, the soldiers killed over 500 civilians in the hamlet and one nearby.24 Most of the victims were women, children, and old men. Many of the villagers were herded into groups before being executed despite their pleas for mercy. Although not an absolutely unique event in the Vietnam War (as we shall see below) My Lai stands as one of the most violent and well documented atrocities by American soldiers. There is no question that the acts committed that day represented a clear violation of the war convention. All the victims were unarmed civilians who were not observed to be acting to aid or support the enemy. The doctrine of double effect could not be applied because there was no legitimate military target in the area. What is important about My Lai in the context of this unit is the question of who can be held responsible for the crime and to what degree.
The first step in getting high school students to take on this question is to introduce them to the basic facts of the case and acquaint them with the leading participants. The best treatment of My Lai that I have seen and in fact the best source for high school on the entire Vietnam War is
The Lessons of Vietnam
edited by Jerold M. Starr. (See reading list below) The chapter on My Lai covers the events of the incident and the aftermath, explores the question of responsibility in terms of the rules of the war convention and considers the complicated role of civilians in a guerrilla war like Vietnam. In addition it includes excerpts of an interview Lieutenant Calley gave at the time of his trial in which he describes his state of mind -- and that of many of his men -- at the time of the incident. His comments are especially important in considering the culpability of high level commanders and policy makers in establishing an atmosphere in which such crimes were more likely to occur.
Upon completion of the chapter students should be in a position to consider the relative levels of responsibility for those who were involved. This can best be accomplished by beginning with the enlisted men and moving up the chain of command. It is also important to include the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese as potentially responsible by choosing to fight a war in a way that put civilians at risk.
Enlisted Men -- Most of the actual killing that day was carried out by ordinary soldiers all of whom claimed to be following orders. There was in fact an officer on the scene -- Lieutenant Calley -- repeatedly giving direct orders to round up and kill civilians and exhorting his men when some hesitated.25 Was it lawful to follow such orders? In his treatment of My Lai, Walzer argues that a soldier is only blameless in such a situation if he is forced at the point of a gun. At My Lai this was not the case. A number of soldiers refused to participate in the killing and none were threatened with sanctions of any kind.26
From the moment they enlist, however, soldiers are trained to obey orders without question. They are not to question their role in any particular action or be concerned with its effects. The bomber pilots over Japan, for example, certainly could have known the probable effects of their actions, but they were assured of the military necessity of their missions and few people would contend even today that they were guilty of war crimes. If soldiers were to question orders on a regular basis it would severely cripple the ability of an army to fight effectively. The U.S. military code makes refusal to obey an order a serious crime which if committed in combat is punishable by death. The code also requires, however, that the orders be lawful and any order which violates the basic rules of war is not a lawful order.27 Does military training deprive the individual soldier of the ability to make judgments in such cases or do we expect our fighting men to retain an essential level of humanity despite their training? How students answer this question will define to what degree the enlisted men at My Lai were guilty of murder.
Junior Officers -- The only officer on the scene, and the only man ultimately convicted of a crime for the incident, was Lieutenant Calley. He was the commanding officer of the First Platoon of Charley Company, which did the bulk of the killing. As noted above, his orders to kill were specific, direct and repeated frequently. He even led by example, killing a number villagers himself. Calley’s claim to innocence rested on his contention that he was only carrying out the orders of Captain Ernest Medina, the company commander. Witnesses generally agree that Medina did state that all of the inhabitants of My Lai were VC and ordered his men to leave nothing behind. In addition, however, he only called for the killing of “enemies” which he defined as anyone “running from us, hiding from us, or who appeared to be the enemy.”28 These orders were dangerously ambiguous, but they did not specifically call for the killing of civilians.
Higher Chain of Command -- In 1945 General Yamashita of Japan was tried and convicted by a U.S. military court for atrocities committed by his men against Philippine civilians in 1944. The court rejected his defense that he had not ordered his men to commit such acts and that his control over and knowledge of actions by them was limited. The reasoning used by the court in this case -- that high ranking officers are liable for the actions of their men -- could certainly be used to indict the top military leadership in Vietnam. Although Walzer rejects the idea of strict liability in such cases, he does call for “serious efforts of specific sorts” on the part of high ranking officers to ensure that violations of the rules of war do not occur.29 The response of high ranking officers to My Lai after reports of the massacre began to surface gives a clear indication of what kind of effort they were willing to make. Colonel Henderson, the brigade commander, and Major General Koster, the division commander, conducted a perfunctory investigation that was intended to cover up the incident rather than get to the truth and identify the perpetrators.30 If it had not been for the persistence of a young helicopter door gunner, the story may never have come out. The cover up is but one measure of the degree to which American strategy as crafted by the top military leaders and policy makers generally allowed for an unacceptable level of civilian casualties. As students read about the overall strategy of U.S. forces in Vietnam they should consider whether it sent the message to individual soldiers that protecting civilian lives was not that important.
Viet Cong and North Vietnamese -- Although they certainly cannot be held directly responsible for the actions of American soldiers, it is important to raise the question of whether the communist forces in Vietnam bear some responsibility for contributing to the vulnerability of civilians. Lacking even a fraction of the resources available to the U.S. military, they were forced to resort for the most part to guerrilla warfare. The tactics of this type of war depend on stealth, deceit and disguise. They strike at their enemies piece meal with ambush, sniper fire, mines and all manner of traps that maim or kill. Guerrillas depend on the civilian population for food, shelter, information and cover. This support might be provided willingly or under duress. Such mixing with the civilian population certainly invited attacks which threatened non-combatants and contributed to the common attitude amongst American GI’s that all Vietnamese were suspect. American infantrymen in Vietnam were likely to see many of their comrades wounded or killed by mines, traps, or snipers without ever seeing the enemy. What they did see were civilians who, from their perspective, must have known about these dangers and yet didn’t warn them. In an interview conducted at the time of his trial, Calley spoke of the frustration of taking casualties from mines “with a Vietnamese village a few hundred meters away” without getting “a VC in my killing zone.” Calley’s defense lawyer picked up this theme in his argument before the jury stating that the pressures of this type of war had led to Calley’s platoon storming into My Lai “with a feeling of revenge and reprisal.”31 One could argue with some cynicism that the Viet Cong invited such attacks because it served the purpose of driving the civilian population to support them.
Returning again to the role playing strategies that I find to be so effective in the teaching of social studies, I would suggest that a mock trial would be the best way to investigate the relative degree of responsibility each of the groups has for the events at My Lai. The class should be divided into four and each assigned one of the groups described above. Each section of the class would have the task of developing a defense for their own group and making the case for the guilt of the others. The format of the trial need not be overly structured or formal, but could take the form of a discussion and debate. Essays should be assigned as a follow up in which students make their own case for the guilt or innocence of each group.
Thuybo: A Routine Engagement
Although a compelling example of the violation of the rules of war, shocking atrocities like My Lai were probably not typical of the American experience there. More typical were engagements in which violations of the war convention were less obvious and certainly more a response to actions by communist forces. In
Vietnam: A Television History,
an eleven part PBS documentary series on the war, there is an account from both the American and Vietnamese perspectives of an attack on the village of Thuybo near Danang in January 1967. (See resource list below) The witnesses include two marines -- an officer and an enlisted man -- and four Vietnamese from the village. The account makes it clear that the Marines were ambushed as they approached the village, that they took many casualties, and that they suffered as they were pinned down for over 36 hours in the heat with little food and water. It also is clear that the Americans violated the war convention when they eventually swept through the village. The extent of that violation is disputed with the Vietnamese witnesses describing scenes reminiscent of My Lai, but one of the Marines acknowledges that after what they had been through the Americans were capable of great violence with little remorse.
The engagement at Thuybo provides a dramatic illustration of the difficulty of enforcing the rules of war in an environment which continually provided soldiers with motivations to violate them. The episode in which the incident is described, “America Takes Charge: 1965-1967,” includes a number of compelling interviews with veterans who reinforce this point. It also describes the strategies that U.S. forces were following in fighting the war. After viewing and taking notes on the film, students should consider the following questions (possible answers are in italics):
What were the military advantages that the U.S. forces had over the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong?
Answers should refer to greater firepower, mobility and air power.
How the U.S. use these advantages in a way to extract the greatest cost to the enemy at the least amount of cost in American lives?
By bombing and shelling heavily in areas thought to be controlled by the communist forces.
How did these advantages contribute to potential violations of the doctrine of double effect?
Bombing and shelling was often indiscriminate leading to unacceptable numbers of civilian dead.
How did cultural and racial differences contribute to violations of the rules of war?
American soldiers had little understanding of Vietnamese culture and language which led to suspicion and sometimes racial animosity. Many came to view all Vietnamese as the enemy which in their minds made them legitimate targets.
List the circumstances that led to the attacks on civilians in Thuybo. Who do you hold most responsible for what happened there?
Answers will vary but should refer to the ambush of the marine unit prior to the attack on the civilians. Students should be able to defend their opinion of who was most responsible.
What causes Bill Ehrhart to change from a patriotic soldier to one who considers desertion? Why does he come to see himself as a “redcoat”?
Answers should reflect the fact that Ehrhart became increasingly aware that he was not fighting a just war and violating the rules of the war convention.
Generally I have found that one of the most effective ways to utilize questions like these in a way that contributes to meaningful discussion is to read them out loud and have students write down their answers as they hear the questions. After students have finished writing their answers, go over the questions again, calling on students to read what they have written. Ask if others have different answers and ask them to share and defend them. The result is a lively discussion that tends to include all the students as each has had a chance to quietly consider the question on his/her own.