Just War and Unjust Soldiers: American Public Opinion on the Moral Equality of Combatants

Ethics and International Affairs 33 (4):411-444 (2019)
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Traditional just war doctrine holds that political leaders are morally responsible for the decision to initiate war, while individual soldiers should be judged solely by their conduct in war. According to this view, soldiers fighting in an unjust war of aggression and soldiers on the opposing side seeking to defend their country are morally equal as long as each obeys the rules of combat. Revisionist scholars, however, maintain that soldiers who fight for an unjust cause bear at least some responsibility for advancing an immoral end, even if they otherwise fight ethically. This article examines the attitudes of the American public regarding the moral equality of combatants. Utilizing an original survey experiment, we find that the public's moral reasoning is generally more consistent with that of the revisionists than with traditional just war theory. Americans in our study judged soldiers who participate in unjust wars as less ethical than soldiers in just wars, even when their battlefield conduct is identical, and a large proportion supported harsh punishments for soldiers simply for participating in unjust wars. We also find, however, that much of the American public is willing to extend the moral license of just cause significantly further than revisionist scholars advocate: half of the Americans in our survey were willing to allow an unambiguous war crime—a massacre of innocent women and children—to go unpunished when the act was committed by soldiers fighting for a just cause. Our findings suggest that incorporation of revisionist principles into the laws of war would reinforce dangerous moral intuitions encouraging the killing of civilians.



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