Rejecting the Moral Equality of Soldiers

The Supposed “Moral Equality of Soldiers”

Traditional Notion of the Soldiers’ Moral Equality
BLUF: Those who defend rights do not forfeit their own rights.

My argument thus far has assumed that we are the “good guys” and enemy combatants are the “bad guys”; that we retain our right to not be killed while they have forfeited theirs. Believe it or not, the long tradition of just-war thought rejects this notion—instead claiming that all combatants, on both sides of a conflict, are “moral equals” (Walzer 1977; Christopher 1999).

Briefly, the argument for the “moral equality of soldiers” states that since combatants on both sides take up arms against each other, then all combatants are both threats to their enemy and threatened by their enemy. Combatants on both sides, by this account, are equally guilty of being threats, so they all forfeit their right to not be killed. Consequently, all combatants are also equally innocent of violating their enemy’s rights. Thus, soldiers on both sides are moral equals, and no moral wrong is committed when one combatant kills another.

The moral equality of soldiers has an obvious superficial appeal to both soldiers and politicians. To soldiers, it anesthetizes them of their responsibility to fight only for a just cause, and it relieves them of any moral responsibility for killing enemy combatants. To politicians, it ensures that their armies will wage the wars they launch. We should not be surprised, then, that the moral equality of soldiers has been written into the laws of war. It makes war more palatable, morally and politically.

Moral Implications of the Moral Equality of Soldiers
BLUF: To subscribe to the moral equality of soldiers is to equate soldiers to mafia thugs or gang members, no better or worse than their enemies.

Should we accept the idea that enemy combatants are our moral equals? As a soldier, I am offended at the claim that soldiers who fight for human rights and freedoms have the same moral standing as those who fight for Nazi or Islamist fascism. Moreover, as an ethicist, I am concerned that we would accept an argument that rationalizes killing on the basis that no one is morally wrong because everyone is morally wrong; i.e., all combatants have forfeited their right to not be killed, so none of them is wrong to kill each other. This line of reasoning has implications that we should be unwilling to accept. As we will see in the ensuing paragraphs, it is only the moral inequality among people in a context that gives killing in self defense its moral authority.

Consider, for example, a situation in which someone who has forfeited his right to not be killed engages in conflict with someone who retains that right. Imagine that an armed bank robber has taken a hostage at gunpoint. By threatening the life of the hostage, the robber has forfeited his right to not be killed. Imagine further that a police officer then arrives at the scene and aims her firearm at the robber. Has the officer done anything wrong? No. Not only has the robber already forfeited his right to not be killed, but also the police officer has an obligation to protect innocent people, including the hostage. Would we say that the police officer, by virtue of “threatening” the robber, forfeits her own right to not be killed? Would the robber be justified in shooting the officer in “self defense”? Of course not, on both counts. Context matters. The officer cannot violate the rights of someone who has already forfeited them. The moral inequality between the robber and police officer makes it morally acceptable for the officer to kill the robber, but not vice versa.

Consider, on the other hand, a situation in which all parties have forfeited their rights to not be killed. Imagine two organized crime “families” that make their money by threatening the lives of businessmen and who compete over the same turf. They are “at war,” ready to knock off their rival extortionists at any opportunity. In this situation, “family members” (assuming that membership is voluntary and informed) on both sides have forfeited their rights to not be killed. If a member of one family attacked someone from the other family, there would be no violation of rights. If the body guards fended off the attack and killed the attacker, they would not be morally justified. Nor, by this argument, would they be morally wrong. They would simply be killing in self interest, not justified self defense. In itself, that is not a violation of rights. However, if any innocent bystanders were killed in the exchange, the Mafioso would bear a grave moral burden, because they would have violated the victims’ rights to not be killed, and have done so for no morally worthy reason.

Are American soldiers analogous to the police officer or to the mafia hit men? Are we defenders of rights or amoral mercenaries? To subscribe to the moral equality of soldiers is to equate soldiers to the mafia thugs, no better or worse than their enemies. On the other hand, to subscribe to the idea that soldiers are analogous to the police officer entails that soldiers must act for a just cause. Soldiers must maintain their moral authority by threatening only those people who have already forfeited their rights to not be killed, and they must not do anything that forfeits their own rights. In other words, they have to fight in wars that are just. Is this a reasonable requirement?

The notion of the moral equality of soldiers can be traced to the Medieval Age and the concept of soldiers’ “invincible ignorance.” Invincible ignorance was the claim that soldiers are either too ignorant or uninformed, or both, to determine whether their side is the aggressor or the defender in a war. Thus was born the conditions that gave rise to the moral equality of soldiers. These conditions, however, no longer apply, at least not in the developed world. Perhaps it was once the case that soldiers were invincibly ignorant, when feudal lords rallied their illiterate serfs to battle, but it is certainly not true today. Today’s soldiers are educated and have access to a wealth of information. To assume that all soldiers are “invincible ignorant” and thus incapable of judging the justice of a war is misinformed, inaccurate, and insulting to soldiers.


Anonymous said...

The article was a good discussion of morality and violence, however, I believe that the author “left the reservation.” He frames his article on the moral equality of solders without considering the difference between lawful and unlawful combatants. This is not a trivial point. It is the basis of international law on the laws of land warfare. Recall that international law on this topic was made by the “great powers.” They crafted the rules of war that favored their great power status. Thus, lawful combatants were combatants who fought the way that the Great Powers did. Lesser powers who could not field armies against the great powers were at an immediate disadvantage. For instance, if a soldier takes off his uniform, infiltrates behind enemy lines and disrupts supply and is caught he is not considered a lawful combatant, but rather a spy, and can be summarily executed. This happened in the opening hours of the Battle of the Bulge. German soldiers who knew English were sent to Bastogne- they wore US Army MP uniforms and screwed up traffic control (sending people in wrong directions). Several were caught and immediately shot. Had they been lawful combatants the 101st would have held them prisoner as required by international law.

This confusion leads the author to make the statement: “To subscribe to the moral equality of soldiers is to equate soldiers to mafia thugs or gang members, no better or worse than their enemies.” My argument above shows this is clearly incorrect. Mafia thugs or gang members are not recognized as “lawful combatants” by any society that I am aware of.

The author’s overall theme, if put thusly: “that lawful combatants all forfeit their right to not be killed by lawful combatants” is entirely correct and the basis of the rules of land warfare. It is also why the terrorist is an unlawful combatant and have very little protection under international law.

Pete Kilner said...


Thank you for your comment. It raises some issues that are helpful to discuss.

I am willing to guess that Peter is a lawyer, because lawyers are prone to conflate what is legal with what is moral,. I'm confident that there is a difference. To wit (to borrow a legal term), abortion didn't suddenly "become moral" when Roe v. Wade was announced, and discriminating against African-Americans who are trying to vote didn't suddenly "become immoral" when President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. We'd all like to think that what the "powers that be" declare to be legal corresponds perfectly to morality, but we know it doesn't always.

Whether or not the "great (colonial) powers" declared some actions "lawful" and others "unlawful" may be very significant even today from a legal perspective, but it has little bearing on the moral justification of those actions. Law is legislated and arbitrary; morality is not. Law looks at what is; ethics looks at what should be.

The "moral equality of soldiers" is, as I argued, an anachronism that serves the legal and political status quo, but has no justification in morality. Our Soldiers, by their actions, know better. They are right not because they wear uniforms and answer to a CoC (a legal perspective), but because they are fighting justly for a just cause.

Al said...

Should, according to Walzer's sliding scale, the "Least just" nation's foot-soldiers be held responsible for the war they are carrying out? Isn't it possible that they were lied to or ill-informed to think they are fighting a just war? I would propose that only leaders of the "least just" opposing force be held accountable, even if they do abide by the Law of Armed Conflict on the battlefield, as they really know why they are fighting and are much better informed than the common foot-soldier. No doubt, if it can be proved that even the common soldiers know of the unjust nature of the war they are fighting for and still wage their war, these men should not be seen as moral equals. But don't you think that most unjust nations will tell their men anything to get them to fight for their cause?

Pete Kilner said...


I'm not sure why you adopt an external perspective, talking about "proving" what someone knows or doesn't know.

All moral decisions are individual decisions. I think that every Soldier is morally responsible--and can held legally accountable--for what he or she knew at the time. Not all soldiers in an army have to be held to the same standard. Judgment, if it comes from outside, should be on individuals, not collectives.

Anonymous said...

The moral equality of soldiers or combatants is tied to traditional notions of what a soverign nation state is IAW Internantional Law, etc. The laws of war are a product of tradionally recognized nations with recognized political leadership/government, recognized political boundaries, and recognizable armies that wear their nation's uniform. A soldier or combatant takes an oath to his nation and his nation's army to uphold both with his/her life if necessary. Inherent in this is the assumption that the soldier has offered his life (or been obliged to thru a DRAFT or required service by his feudal lord, nation, tribe or government - some political organization greater than himself and representing the interests of a nation or group of people). The assumption is under international law that soverign nation states have no higher power. The U.N. really only has as much power as individual states confer upon it. Again, under classical international law born of the Treaty of Westphalia (1648 I believe - the beginning of the modern nation-state system that most members of the UN ascribe to), there is no power higher than the individual soverign nation. How else can our government act morally in a unilateral fashion? We have said as a matter of foreign policy - "you are with us or against" us in the war on terrorism. This is a classic case of a powerful sovereign nation doing what is in it's own best interest in the application of military force - which is politics by another means (Clausewitz). So, if a terrorist or a revolutionary has offered to give his/her life to his/her tribe or organization in the pursuit of the tribe/organization/government's political agenda as a combatant and in so doing is performing what he/she considers is his/her duty - then what separates them morally from the soldier or combatant serving the other side? I would argue - nothing - provided that both combatants are dedicated to acting in the best interest of their parent organizations independent of their own self-interest. The other assumption in traditional international law is that combatants don't choose the politics or make the political decisions that got them into the war as combatants - they are merely obliged to carry out the political will (thru military/armed means) of those that did make the decisions. This is where the fighting man derives his moral equivalency with his enemy counterpart. Neither generally chose the time/place/conditions or politics that got them into harms way. They are merely duty-bound to execute war IAW the policies of their political leadership and (in the case of most western countries) the laws of land warfare. Even the Old Testament teaches that God understands the moral situation of all soldiers - soldiers are duty-bound to execute operations IAW the political leadership of their nation. All soldiers and combatants have forefeited their right to live because they threaten the lives of their opponents. This is exactly why the profession of arms is so honorable - by its nature the profession of arms calls for the ultimate sacrifice, if necessary, when the state calls for it, independent of the soldier's wishes. No matter what the nature of the political cause, if the individual combatant has taken an oath to execute the military operations as dictated by his/her political organization as a duty to the higher political organization - then no matter what the politics are behind the organization - the individual is morally equivalent to the opposing combatants who are also doing their duty to their political organization as they see it.

Pete Kilner said...


IMO, the top-down argument you describe relies on an anachronistic paragdigm of political legitimacy and makes an unjustififed move from legal requirement to moral obligation.

The foundation of LLW was established before the enlightenment. It presupposes the absolute rights of sovereigns and treats the people--and thus soldiers--as mere pawns. Is this approach still valid?

I have real concerns about the assumption that 14th-century lawyers can write rules that somehow trump individual morality in the 21st century.

Assumptions of lawyers should never be permitted to define morality. They didn't during slavery (e.g., Dred Scott), and they don't now.

If, as democracy supposes, the authority to govern derives from the consent of the governed, then why would we think that the gov't has "override" over what is most personal and important--our moral decisions?

The justice of the war should and does matter to those who fight it. It is not noble to give one's life for a bad cause; we don't make monuments to bank robbers who are killed.

Our soldiers are not invincibly ignorant feudal serfs, and we should not assume them to be so. If ever that was the case, it is no longer.

Pete Kilner said...

The profession of arms is honorable not merely because its members are willing to sacrifice their own lives, but because they are willng to do so in the name of justice. The justice of the cause does matter.

Anonymous said...

All just nations and by extension their governments have a moral obligation to those they lead to provide a safe environment for their constituents. If it cannot provide these services to its constituents that enable those governed to live peaceably within their borders as well as to be free of agressions from other states - then the people have a moral obligation and right to over-throw that government. This is just one aspect of national self-determination. By the same contract the government - until replaced (as in a democracy such as ours) or overthrown in a revolution - has the moral responsiblility to compel its citizens to provide the resources and manpower to assure its security and national survival as it sees fit via the armed forces of that nation.
When you as a commisioned officer, took your comissioning oath - you pledged to uphold the orders of the President of the United States and the officers appointed over you. Not at a time of your choosing or when you agreed with them. You pledged yourself to your nation thru your oath and have a moral obligation to execute legal orders given you. Your nation even has the right to pull you out of military retirement (if you have achieved that status) up until age 55 and compel you to serve your nation again - indefinitely - again not WHEN you choose to or HOW you choose to serve your nation. Why is this? It is because our Federal Government was given the legal authority by our citizens to compel military service under the laws that the people, thru their Congressmen, enacted. Our people always have the option to change those laws through their Congressmen or vote the government out of office. By extension, these laws apply to you as an officer not because the government has the power to compel you so much as the people of our nation provided the authority for the government to direct the nature of your military service (after you volunteered). As another example, soldiers who have refused to deploy with their units to war have been courts-martialed - and rightfully so. The terms of their service are not their choice and are not negotiable. Once the oath of service is taken - in this nation - it entitles the government to compel your service - pretty much whenever it wants to. This is deemed in the best interest of the whole of the people of the United States. Once you take the oath of service to the country - you have a moral responsibility to follow the orders of the President and the officers appointed over you - unless you can prove that the orders were unlawful in accordance with the above legal references. It would be immoral for the individual soldier (having voluntarily taken the oath of service to his/her nation)to decide for himself/herself that following orders today isn't in their personal best interest anymore for any reason other than to deliberately violate an unlawful order and then immediately report the incident to the proper authorities. It is morally right for soldiers to follow the orders given them - unless they of their own knowledge and education beleive that they are truly violating an illegal order. The state has the moral obligation to protect its citizens from infringements of their human rights - both at home and abroad. This necessitates narrowly defined military service for those that volunteer for it - in service of their nation. Once they volunteer - they are morally obligated to follow the legal orders given them. It would be immoral for each individual to have the power to decide for themselves based upon the situation they find themselves in during any given moment - if they were going to obey their military chain of command. If there were not penalties for this - except in the cases where disobedience was found to be justified - then we would have no military able to act morally on behalf of the people of the United States and in their best interest.
If everyone always retains the right to decide for themselves what they will do and not do - that is pure anarchy - an immoral state of being for any nation of people - and our national survival would be in dire jeopardy.
Enlightenment is a catchy ethnocentric concept - but it refers really to a period in the history of mankind. You cite it as if it is an absolute - but I can ask my children what it is and will get blank stares. Try explaining enlightenment to a non-western culture or society that does not place self above all others. The value systems that place the welfare of the whole above the welfare of self constitute the majority of the value systems in the world - not the other way around.
Certainly, if the Law of Land Warfare was not found by the people of the United States to be a tremendously enduring and powerful moral position with regard to warfare, and the international rights of all people whether they are noncombatants or combatants - it would not stand the test of time as it has. Further, if we as a society did not believe in it - we would not suffer the decision of our government to ensure to the best of its ability that our armed forces observed it. We as a people would not be alarmed at the violations of human rights that occurred at Abu-Grab - it wouldn't matter to us as a nation. We would not allow 19 soldiers a week (casualty rate for the first week of Novemever 06 in Iraq)to die from IEDs/combat if the desire to adhere to human rights expressed in the Law of Land Warfare was not woven into our national fabric as a people. Certainly you are not saying, I would hope, that we as a people have not exercised any independent though on this "since the 14th century lawyers" told us what to think. I don't think you are giving the American people enough credit here.
The great thing about being a soldier in the United States is that you don't lose your rights completely. You can vote and you can even demonstrate as long as you are not doing it in uniform or using your affiliation with the Department of Defense as a platform for your political views. However, in the service - you are morally bound to follow the lawful orders given you. And, you are bound morally to disobey any order you think is morally wrong. If our government judges you were in the right - you remain in good standing. If you are found to have been in the wrong - you are punished under the law because you chose to place your self-interests above those you swore to protect, defend and obey in your oath to your nation - and even enlightened people agree that violating an oath to your nation taken freely and without reservation is immoral.
This is important because - who has the corner on the market on what defines a good or bad cause? Do you? Not as far as I'm concerned. What you as an individual think is a good or bad cause is irrelevant to me. I put my faith and trust in my government - because it represents something bigger than any one person's ideas of right and wrong -it represents our national character. And when our government gets it wrong - we change it. I have a moral obligation to obey the government selected for me by the majority of the people of this land. I have a moral obligation to work to change my government if I think its policies are immoral - while still being a law-abiding citizen. I have the right to expect that my government will provide for my safety thru the armed forces - and that armed forces that is empowered to act decisively as one unified body under the best moral leadership we as a nation can provide for it. The soldiers have a moral obligation to obey all orders that are legally given - or face the consequences if judged to not be in the right.
Being a soldier is noble and honorable - because the act of voluntary military service to our nation, especially in times of great personal danger as in times of war, no longer affords a soldier a legal option to chose not to fight or carry out lawful orders if he begins to feel that what he is participating in has become "a bad cause" or even a "lost cause". That option is not available to those in active military service. It is precisely because of this fact that military service is so honorable and those that perform it have a right to be led by the most able leaders we can as a nation muster to lead them. Military service is defined as subordinating the good of "self" to the good of the nation. I guess this could in some circles be misconstrued as invincible ignorance - but you are just kidding yourself if you impart any moral legitimacy or logic to that argument in the 21st century. That's like Kerry saying if you don't do your homework - you get stuck in Iraq. Sure, we all know his comment was taken out of context - but the logic of its intended context still escapes most Americans. And for good cause - it is born of a world view that is morally bankrupt - one that chooses to accept all the blessings of a great nation enabled by those who selflessly serve the greater good of the whole - while categorizing as "invincibly ignorant" those who would give their lives even for a potentially lost cause - while seeking dutifully to fulfill their moral obligation to the government of the people they swore to defend.
Duty, Honor, Country....

Anonymous said...

JUSTICE? Whose idea of justice are you refering to? There is no universal justice on earth that all mankind can agree to. Justice is another set of values that is different for every person on earth. It's very nice for political leadership to say that "we are going to bring them to justice" by exercising our rights/etc. but it only resonates truly well with the invincibly ignorant. Cognitive mizers and propagandists default to equating what is "just" or "justice" with what is "morally correct". It is a tool they can use in any way that suits them to confer credibility upon any endeavor by characterizing it as something they wish to portray as "morally correct" with the adjective "just" or by a blanket characterization of an activity as "justice". One does it to simply the word - the other to simplify it for you and me to gain our passive compliance.
No one lasts very long in the profession of arms if they think that the undisputed morality of following lawful orders is always tied to a "just cause".
That's just setting yourself up psychologically for post traumatic stress disorder.

Anonymous said...

If you took this oath and walked away from it one day due to having a bad day or situational ethics from your point of view - then you would embody immorality. Most folks never have to live up to any kind of oath of this magnitude.

"I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God." (Title 10, US Code; Act of 5 May 1960 replacing the wording first adopted in 1789, with amendment effective 5 October 1962).

"I, _____ (SSAN), having been appointed an officer in the Army of the United States, as indicated above in the grade of _____ do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter; So help me God." (DA Form 71, 1 August 1959, for officers.)

The invincibly ignorant need not apply for this job.

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