Review and Analysis of Michael Walzer’s Arguing About War

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            Author Michael Walzer’ Arguing About War is an extremely well-written and meaningful examination of what is unfortunately occupying so many people around the world—why is there so much warfare and how can it be justified. Walzer does not pretend to be a policy-maker or adviser to those who are. Today’s wars are affecting everyone to some degree and he writes for the large audience of readers who are trying to understand the complexity and morality of the various conflicts. As Walzer states in his preface “we are doomed to continue arguing about war; it is a necessary activity of democratic citizens” (xiv). Arguing About War is and will continue to be a very influential book as it will help shape positions either in support of or in opposition to American involvement in far-ranging conflicts. Walzer has taken a topic which could fill volumes and distilled it into three understandable segments: the first part reviewing moral theory as it pertains to war; a section describing specific current conflicts; and a final section posing questions and a scenario for the future.

            Walzer uses the first part of his text to frame his thesis of the necessity of “just war theory” and its specific application to several scenarios. The “just war theory” and term “just war” are not of recent origin, although the term has been in common American use since Operation Desert Storm. Walzer believes that the term “just war”, originally used by those against war, particularly the war in Vietnam, has been taken over, so to speak, by the leaders and generals who actually make the decisions. While he believes “that war is still, sometimes, necessary” his fear is that the “triumph of just war” has led to a “softening of the critical mind, a truce between theorists and soldiers” (14-15). I strongly agree with his position; wars necessary to return peace and stability threatened by an aggressive force, and for other reasons to be discussed, are certainly necessary. It is not dissimilar to the concept of self-defense and the defense of others necessary for self-preservation or others’ preservation. However, it is not a blanket justification. If the concept of just war is to be accepted Walzer asserts the “control” of just war is necessary.

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            The first application of Walzer’s thesis goes to the individual soldier. Every soldier has a specific place in the chain of command, and is this responsible to those above him as well as those under his command. He must balance the requirements mandated by his commanders yet do everything in his power to safeguard the lives of his troops. This “hierarchical” responsibility is well-known and structured in the chain of command. However, the non-hierarchical responsibility to non-combatants has no “institutional form” (31). I disagree with his contention that soldiers need a “certain sensitivity that the chain of command does not ordinarily elicit or impose” (32). First, all soldiers operate under a code of conduct and are thus under the scrutiny of senior officers as well as the Inspector General’s office. Second, soldiers have been, and continue to be peer-monitored, as recent indictments and prosecutions of war-time abuses in Iraq have demonstrated. With the fluid nature of the battlefield there is no provision for any other source of scrutiny, and those that do clearly function can certainly be improved.

            The next application goes to what he refers to as the “supreme emergency” the term used to “refer to the crisis of British survival during the darkest days of World War Two” (33) This presents the dilemma of “moral communities make great immoralities morally possible” (50). As difficult as this concept may be to reconcile, I believe Walzer sums up the rationale, if not necessity for it: it goes to the literal survival of “the innocent” (50). It is a concept that is controlled by a series of “only”—only if survival is imminently threatened, only if the source can be targeted and only if just enough force is used to suppress the impending destruction. This concept is similar to the concept of self-defense where the use of force necessary to overcome the “emergency” threat is justified but what is not justified, and is in fact criminal, is the continued use of deadly force once the attacker has been subdued.

            Walzer’s next application is to terrorism and his “critique of excuses” is nothing short of superb. His definition and description of terrorism does not equivocate: it is an “indefensible attack upon the innocent”. Despite this unambiguous and widely accepted definition there are a host of people willing to provide excuses for terrorism, and Walzer carefully and logically destroys each excuse. Excuses include “last resort”, similar to “nothing else is possible”, the third is that “terrorism works” and the fourth is that terrorism is a “universal resort”. He points out that terrorism has never “achieved national liberation—no nation I know of owes it freedom to a campaign of random murder” (56). I firmly agree with his idea that attacking terrorism requires the violence of repression and retaliation against the terrorists; further, the notion that we should, or even have the duty to address the “oppression causing terrorism” is, in his words, just another excuse (62). As he succinctly states terrorism is not caused by oppression, it is exploited by terrorists; “the real cause of terrorism is the decision to launch a terrorist campaign, a decision made by that group of people sitting around a table…” (62). His straightforward, logical and unemotional response to anyone looking to justify or create a dialog with terrorists should be required reading.

            His final concept, “the politics of rescue” goes to the very uncomfortable use of military force or intervention to rescue those about to be massacred. In view of American casualties in Somalia it is a very difficult concept to accept. Most Americans, including me, will accept the use of military force for the rescue missions for American civilians, as it is a common belief that is one of our military’s missions. To sacrifice American lives for civilians of other countries many Americans are not familiar with brings in the debate, addressed by Walzer, of America as a global policeman. Here the concept of distant altruism conflicts with at-home reality. While I see the need on a humanitarian basis to come to the aid of the defenseless about to be slaughtered, I don’t think I would fare very well explaining that belief to the survivors of a soldier who lost his life coming to their aid. I have very conflicting ideas about the issue, as do many. For those of us reluctant to see American blood shed in distant lands for reasons other than national security Walzer leaves us with this: “whenever the filthy work can be stopped, it should be stopped. And if not by us, the supposedly decent people of this world, then by whom?” (81)

            In the second part of his book Walzer provides analysis of five situations: the Gulf War, the fighting and “ethnic cleansing” in Kosovo, the Palestinian “intifada” against Israel and Israeli boundary issues, the Israeli-Palestinian wars, questions regarding terrorism, and questions on the War in Iraq. While the nature of his discussions must be taken in the context of being “dated” (his book was published in 2004) he is successful in providing a “to date” analysis of these very fluid situations. In each situation Walzer takes the approach that I have often felt in that there are a great many more questions than answers. I have often not even been sure of what questions to ask, and for that problem he provides an excellent framework.

            Overall he gives what I believe to be the first issue or question to be raised: is this a situation where a traditional truce or solution can be had with the assistance of third-party mediators; is it a situation best left to the resolution and/or intervention of neighbor states; is it of the magnitude where the necessity of a regional structure or even the United Nations should be involved, and finally is it something America should take on, alone or in concert with an alliance of other powers. Although the results to date of 2004 are presented each situation is essentially unresolved.

            I must take issue with what I believe to be a failing, perhaps minor, of his analysis of these situations “to date” as well as the future. While his thesis is obviously directed to the morality of the issues, I do not believe any world event of these proportions can be discussed without at least a mention and preferably a small analysis of the role of economics. Certainly there is a cost to political and military action and intervention, a cost in money and lives in a war zone, and a cost to support and occupation. This is only alluded to, and what is very lacking is the greater cost in terms of lost commerce and resource development on a global basis. Nonetheless this section of his book is very compelling, particularly the chapters regarding our response to terrorism and our involvement in Iraq. It is an unfortunate fact both issues will occupy America for a long and uncertain time.

            He provides an excellent formula which can be applied, with modification, to both situations: (1) definitional, as in what is terrorism; (2) to what extent should it be explained; (3) describe how it is defended or excused; (4) describe our potential responses; and (5) provide a method to determine success. To me this provides the objective, fact-based forward-looking examination of these two massive issues that is necessary for understanding and negates the emotional factors that will cloud any argument. It is obviously a very thought-provoking method of analysis that is a necessary substitute for the all-to-typical response of acting first and asking questions later.

            Walzer’s final section, “Futures: Governing the Globe” provides an excellent framework consistent with many other global concepts, such as the “global village” and “the world is flat” paradigms of world-connectedness. He advocates, and essentially predicts a model capable of addressing the global issues he has discussed in previous chapters. He takes the position of a continuum: on the left extreme is a situation of a global state; on the right is a state of total anarchy. Movement on both sides goes towards the middle. On the left the extreme of a global state moves through a “multinational empire” to a “federation”; a “United States of the World”. On the right the move is from anarchy through what he refers to as three degrees of “global pluralism” (186). When both sides meet collective action can be taken against state, regional or global problems.

            He does not leave this model as a utopia; in fact he presents the various problems not the least of which is any potential risk to equality and individual liberties. Given those safeguards I agree with his statement that it is possibly “the political arrangement that most facilitates the everyday pursuit of justice under conditions least dangerous to the overall cause of justice” (190). I agree with the model and applaud him and anyone who is willing to look at the incredible problems facing the world, not just our nation or any one nation, and the prospect that things will get worse. Although unmentioned by Walzer I believe the first real test of global collaboration will not be in the context of war but in the context of the environment, as the crisis of global warming begins to reach catastrophic proportion in certain areas. If this concept is firmly bedded in human rights, equality and democracy it will succeed, but not without difficulty. There is of course the maxim that democracy is a terrible form of government but no one has provided a better one; for the increasing number of problems on a global scale it will likely be the best solution.

Works Cited

Walzer, Michael. Arguing About War. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.


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Review and Analysis of Michael Walzer’s Arguing About War. (2016, Jul 11). Retrieved from

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