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.