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Dying for the state: the missing just war question?


This article introduces the problem of having to risk one's life for the state in war, asking first why this question is no longer asked in the just war literature and then suggesting five issues that relate to this question: 1) that of individual consent, 2) whether or not any state can be justified in obliging its citizens in this regard and whether or not the type of government is important, 3) whether or not the problem of the obligation differs between conscript and volunteer armies, 4) the problem of political obligation and how any individual could be justifiably obliged to risk his or her life for the state in war, and 5) the question of whether a citizen may be obliged to go into any war. The argument is that these questions are no longer given much attention in the just war literature because of the way that the concept of proper authority has come to be understood. The article concludes by suggesting that the problem of the ‘obligation to die’ should be included in our understanding and use of just war theory and the ethics of war.

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1 MSNBC Hardball with Chris Mathews, 16 December 2008.

2 Michael Walzer, Obligations: Essays on Disobedience, War and Citizenship (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970).

3 This article raises questions that I address in greater length in, Ilan Zvi Baron, Justifying the Obligation to Die: War Ethics, and Political Obligation with Illustrations from Zionism (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009).

4 See for example the American Civil Liberties Union's legal request for access to such information, noting that the Defense Department was, ‘Banning photographers on US military bases from covering the arrival of caskets containing the remains of US soldiers killed overseas’, ACLU Releases Navy Files On Civilian Casualties In Iraq War (7/2/2008), {} accessed on 17 October 2008). See also the National Security Archive at the George Washington University, {} accessed 17 October 2008.

5 Peter Paret, Understanding War: Essays on Clausewitz and the History of Military Power (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992).

6 Michael Walzer, Obligations: Essays on Disobedience, War and Citizenship (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970), p. 83.

7 Samuel Pufendorf, in James Tully (ed.), On the Duty of Man and Citizen, trans. Michael Silverthorne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 158. He uses the term ‘compel’ instead of obliged.

8 Chris Brown, Sovereignty, Rights and Justice: International Political Theory Today (Oxford; Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2002), p. 104.

9 For examples of these different ways of using just war theory see, Jean Bethke Elshtain, (ed.), Just War Theory (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1992).

10 Alex J. Bellamy, Just Wars: From Cicero to Iraq (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006).

11 Christopher Coker, Ethics and War in the 21st Century (London: Routledge, 2008).

12 Proportionality is more complex then this. See, Thomas Hurka, ‘Proportionality in the Morality of War’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 33:1 (2005).

13 Some notable texts on political obligation are, James S. Fishkin, The Limits of Obligation (London: Yale University Press, 1982); Margaret Gilbert, A Theory of Political Obligation: Membership, Commitment, and the Bonds of Society (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006); John Horton, ‘In Defense of Associative Political Obligations: Part One’, Political Studies, 54 (2006), ———, ‘In Defense of Associative Political Obligations: Part Two’, Political Studies, 55:1 (2007); Carole Pateman, The Problem of Political Obligation: A Critical Analysis of Liberal Theory (Chichester: Wiley, 1979); Hanna Pitkin, ‘Obligation and Consent’, in Peter Laslett and W. G. R. Runciman and Quentin Skinner (eds), Philosophy, Politics and Society (Fourth Series) (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1972); ———, John Plamenatz, Consent, Freedom and Political Obligation, 2nd edn (London: Oxford University Press, 1968); A. John Simmons, Moral Principles and Political Obligation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980).

14 Plato, The Last Days of Socrates: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, trans. Hugh Tredennick and Harold Tarrant (London: Penguin Books, 2003).

15 Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, J. L. Ackrill (ed.), and trans. J. O. Urmson and David Ross (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

16 Which is not to say that conscription in ancient Athens was unproblematic. See, Matthew R. Christ, ‘Conscription of Hoplites in Classical Athens’, The Classical Quarterly, New Series, 51:2 (2001). The problem of justifying an obligation to die is also taken up by Socrates in and immediately after his trial. See, Plato, The Last Days of Socrates: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, trans. Hugh Tredennick and Harold Tarrant (London: Penguin Books, 2003).

17 Augustine, The City of God against the Pagans, R.W. Dyson (ed.), trans. R.W. Dyson (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 934, (Book XIX 12).

18 Augustine, The City of God, p. 39, (Book I 26).

19 For more on the political thought of St. Augustine see, Herbert A. Deane, The Political and Social Ideas of St. Augustine (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963); Augustine, Political Writings, E. M. Atkins and R.J. Dodaro (eds) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); R. W. Dyson, Normative Theories of Society and Government in Five Medieval Thinkers: St. Augustine, John of Salisbury, Giles of Rome, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Marsilius of Padua (Lewiston, N.Y.; Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press, 2003); Jean Bethke Elshtain, Augustine and the Limits of Politics (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998); Paul Ramsey, in Jean Bethke Elshtain (ed.), ‘The Just War According to St. Augustine’, Just War Theory (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1992).

20 Thomas Aquinas, Political Writings, R.W. Dyson (ed.), trans. R. W. Dyson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 7 (De Regimine Principum).

21 Aquinas, Political Writings, pp. 5–6 (De Regimine Principum). There is some debate as to the accuracy of Aquinas' translation of Aristotle's famous description of man as a political animal (a zõon politikon). Dyson argues that Aquinas' translation (which Aquinas takes from a Latin translation of Aristotle, but is apparently already used by Seneca) is more accurate in its inclusion of the word social than the ‘literal’ translation that uses only the adjective political to describe ‘man’. Hannah Arendt, however, argues that the Latin translation is erroneous in that the ‘word “social” is Roman in origin and has no equivalent in Greek language or thought.’ Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (London and Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1958), p. 23.

22 Aquinas, Political Writings, p. 67.

23 Alessandro Passerin d'Entrèves, The Medieval Contribution to Political Thought: Thomas Aquinas, Marsilius of Padua, Richard Hooker (New York: Humanities Press, 1959), p. 34.

24 Aquinas, Political Writings, p. 141 (Summa Theologiae IaIIae 96).

25 Aquinas, Political Writings. p. 56 (Summa Theologiae IaIIae 105:1).

26 Passerin d'Entrèves, The Medieval Contribution to Political Thought.

27 Martin Wight, ‘Why Is There No International Theory’, International Relations, 21:1 (1960).

28 Max Weber, ‘The Profession and Vocation of Politics’, in Max Weber, Peter Lassman, and Ronald Speirs (eds), Political Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 310–1.

29 Yoram Dinstein, War, Aggression and Self-Defence, 3rd edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 63.

30 Robert L. Holmes, On War and Morality (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 163.

31 Although post 9/11 and especially in regard to the war in Iraq the debate has broadened over the justifiable causes for war. See, James Turner Johnson, The War to Oust Saddam Hussein: Just War and the New Face of Conflict (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005); Lee Feinstein and Anne-Marie Slaughter, ‘A Duty to Prevent’, Foreign Affairs, 83:1 (2004); Neta C. Crawford, ‘The Slippery Slope to Preventive War’, Ethics and International Affairs, 17:1 (2003); Whitley Kaufman, ‘What's Wrong with Preventive War? The Moral and Legal Basis for the Preventive Use of Force’, Ethics and International Affairs, 19:3 (2005); Jeff McMahan, ‘Just Cause for War’, Ethics and International Affairs, 19:3 (2005); Jeff McMahan, ‘War as Self-Defense’, Ethics and International Affairs,18:1 (2004); Thomas M. Nichols, ‘Just War, Not Prevention’, Ethics and International Affairs, 17:1 (2003); Cian O'Driscoll, ‘Negotiating the Just War Tradition: Anticipation, Punishment, Humanitarianism and the Right to War after Iraq’ (University of Wales, 2006); Michael Walzer, Arguing About War (New Haven, CT; London: Yale University Press, 2004).

32 Dinstein, War, Aggression and Self-Defence, p. 63. Dinstein references J. L. Brierly, ‘International Law and Resort to Armed Force’, Cambridge Journal of Law, 4 (1930–32), p. 308. In this article J. L Brierly, in turn, references William Edward Hall, in A. Pearce Higgins (ed.), Treatise on International Law, 8th edn (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924), p. 81.

33 Hall, Treatise on International Law, p. 81.

34 Ibid., p. 82.

35 Ibid.

36 Ayala's De Jure et Officiis Bellicis was published in 1582. Hugo Grotius lived from 1583–1645. Emmerich de Vattel lived from 1714–1767.

37 Hall, Treatise on International Law, p. 82.

38 Ibid.

39 Hans Kelsen, in Robert W. Tucker (ed.), Principles of International Law, 2nd edn (New York; London: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1966).

40 See chapter XXX in, Josef L. Kunz, The Changing Law of Nations: Essays on International Law (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1968).

41 Although Carl Schmitt argues that the Kellogg/Briand Pact actually sanctifies war. See, Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), p. 50 fn. 21. Alternatively, Hans Kelsen does not claim that the Kellogg/Briand pact sanctions war; rather he argues that the pact differentiates between types of war. See, Kelsen, Principles of International Law, p. 27.

42 Dinstein, War, Aggression and Self-Defence, p. 80. The UN Charter can also be accessed online at {}.

43 Kelsen, Principles of International Law, p. 25. See also pages 29–39 for his discussion of just war doctrine.

44 Bull's ‘Grotian conception of international society’ is presented in opposition to Oppenheim's approach that takes war to be a prerogative of the state and claims that international law is concerned with the conduct of war and not the legality of going to war. See, Hedley Bull, ‘The Grotian Conception of International Society’, in Herbet Butterfield and Martin Wight (eds), Diplomatic Investigations: Essays in the Theory of International Politics (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1966).

45 Josef Kunz describes this shift as being from bellum justum to bellum legale. Kunz argues that the League of Nations Covenant replaced the justifiability and unjustifiability of war with formal legal rules about the legality or illegality of war. Thus a legal war could be fought by a state that had no just cause but had the formal approval of the League. The Kellog/Briand Pact furthered this distinction by declaring war to be, in principle, an illegal means to pursue foreign policy. See, Kunz, The Changing Law of Nations, p. 580.

46 Immanuel Kant, Kant: Political Writings, ed. Hans Reiss, trans. H. B. Nisbet, 2nd edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 166. (emphasis in original).

47 Thomas Hobbes, in Richard Tuck (ed.), Leviathan, Rev. student ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 126 (ch. 18).

48 Hobbes, Leviathan, pp. 93, 141, and 51. (Chapters 14, 20, and 21). In chapter 14 he claims that is preferable to be a slave than to die, and in chapter 21 he claims that the sovereign may not ask a subject to kill himself or another individual.

49 Paul Stern has addressed the role of nationalism in over-riding motives of self-preservation in going to risk one's life in war. Paul C. Stern, ‘Why Do People Sacrifice for Their Nations?’, Political Psychology, 16:2 (1995).

50 Augustine, in E. M. Atkins and R. J. Dodaro (eds), Political Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

51 Francisco de Vitoria, in Anthony Pagden and Jeremy Lawrance (eds), Political Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

52 Hanna Pitkin, ‘Obligation and Consent – I’, The American Political Science Review, 59:4 (1965), p. 999. See also, ———, ‘Obligation and Consent – II’, The American Political Science Review, 60:1 (1966).

53 Pitkin, ‘Obligation and Consent – I.’

54 Barry Buzan, ‘Who May We Bomb?’, in Ken Booth and Tim Dunne (eds), Worlds in Collision (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).

55 Some of these are surveyed in, George Klosko, Political Obligations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

56 The state's ability to enforce this obligation is, according to Cheyney Ryan, one of the defining characteristics of the obligation to die in war, as opposed to other situations where one might be obliged to risk one's life. See, Cheyney C. Ryan, ‘Self-Defense and the Obligations to Kill and to Die’, Ethics and International Affairs, 18:1 (2004); Ryan, ‘The State and War Making’.

57 Tim O'Brien, If I Die in a Combat Zone (London, New York, Toronto and Sydney: Harper Perennial, 2006), p. 45.

58 Cheyney Ryan, ‘The State and War Making’, in John T. Sanders and Jan Narveson (eds), For and against the State: New Philosophical Readings (Lanham, Md.; London: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996).

59 Peter Paret, ‘Justifying the Obligation of Military Service’, The Journal of Military History, 57:5 (1993).

60 Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust War: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, 3rd edn (New York: Basic Books, 2000).

61 It was not always political in the same way, for initially the politics surrounded the success of having a volunteer only force. See, Richard V. L. Cooper, ‘The All-Volunteer Force: Five Years Later’, International Security, 2:4 (1978).

62 Charles B. Rangel, ‘Bring Back the Draft’, The New York Times (31 December 2002).

63 Ann Scott Tyson, ‘Youths in Rural US Are Drawn to Military; Recruits’ Job Worries Outweigh War Fears', The Washington Post (4 November 2005).

64 Bob Herbert, ‘Someone Else's Child’, The New York Times (20 June 2005).

65 Alan Cowell, ‘Ideas and Trends: Class Wars; Britain's Upper Crust Still Soldiers On’, The New York Times (7 September 2003).

66 Tim Kane, ‘Who Bears the Burden? Demographic Characteristics of US Military Recruits before and after 9/11’, (Washington DC: The Heritage Foundation, 2005).

67 Kane, ‘Who Bears the Burden?’

68 ‘Profiles of General Demographic Characteristics’, ed. Economics and Statistics Administration US Department of Commerce, U.S Census Bureau (US Census Bureau, 2000); ‘2004 Demographics’, ed. United States of America Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (2004).

69 Mark Sappenfield, ‘Where Recruiting Runs Strongest’, The Christian Science Monitor (19 July 2005).

70 During the Vietnam War, there were many articles, often based on statistics that examined the lottery draft and examined a variety of issues ranging from salaries to demographics. A moral account of military service is addressed in Walzer, Obligations.

71 Klosko, Political Obligations.

72 Walzer, Obligations, p. 98.

73 It is both noteworthy and curious that in his review of Just and Unjust Wars, Hedley Bull commented that Walzer's research on the just war needed and suggested further work on the topic of political obligation. It is noteworthy because Bull rightly spotted an important and unaddressed side to the ethics of war, but it is curious because Walzer had already written his essay on the obligation to die. See, Hedley Bull, ‘Recapturing the Just War for Political Theory’, World Politics, 31:4 (1979).

74 Vitoria, Political Writings.

75 George Kateb, The Inner Ocean: Individualism and Democratic Culture (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992), p. 183.

76 Peter Paret, Understanding War: Essays on Clausewitz and the History of Military Power (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 40.

77 Paret, Understanding War.

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