Relaciones Internacionales – Comunicación Internacional

Just War, Unjust Soldiers, & American Public Opinion, with Scott D. Sagan

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Carnegie Council for Ethics in Int Affairs

ADAM READ-BROWN: Hello, and welcome to another episode in our Ethics & International Affairs (EIA) interview series, sponsored by Carnegie Council. My name is Adam Read-Brown, and I’m the editor of Ethics & International Affairs, the Council’s quarterly peer-reviewed journal, published by Cambridge University Press.

In this episode we’re going to be chatting on the phone with Professor Scott Sagan of Stanford University, discussing issues of just war, war crimes, moral licensing, and much more. At Stanford, Professor Sagan is the Caroline S. G. Munro Professor of Political Science, the Mimi and Peter Haas University Fellow in Undergraduate Education, and senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation.

He recently co-authored an article for Ethics & International Affairs along with Professor Benjamin Valentino of Dartmouth College called «Just War and Unjust Soldiers: American Public Opinion on the Moral Equality of Combatants.» That article appears as the lead piece in a symposium that ran in the winter issue of the journal and included responses from Michael WalzerRobert Keohane, and Jeff McMahan. You can find the whole thing by going online to

With that, welcome, Professor Sagan. Thanks for joining us.

SCOTT SAGAN: Thank you for having me, Adam.

ADAM READ-BROWN: Your article with Benjamin Valentino for EIA, as I just noted, is called «Just War and Unjust Soldiers: American Public Opinion on the Moral Equality of Combatants.» That’s a bit of a mouthful.

Before we dive in, there are a couple of terms that are going to play a central role in our discussion that I just want to go over for listeners who might not be as familiar with these topics. First, broadly speaking, what are we talking about when we use the terms «just war» and «unjust war?»

SCOTT SAGAN: There are two main categories of issues that get raised in just war doctrine in the laws of armed conflict. The first deals with the justice of the war: the causes of the war, or the initiation of the conflict. There the law of armed conflict and the principles of just war doctrine are pretty much in agreement that one state attacking another state to seize property or to seize individuals is aggression. That is against the UN Charter and is a war crime. Self-defense, on the other hand, is both justified morally and is legal under the United Nations.

There are many other aspects of the justice of the war—what’s called jus ad bellum—that are addressed in the real world, but that’s the primary one, and politicians are responsible not to engage in aggression but also are responsible for their state acting in self-defense. Aggression is unjust; self-defense is just.

On the other hand, there is another set of standards or rules dealing with combat operations. What is jus in bello, that is, justice in the war? Here the soldiers are responsible. They are told that it’s okay to kill combatants—you can target military targets or military objects—but it is not acceptable to deliberately kill civilians, noncombatants. The principle of noncombatant immunity is the key rule of justice in war. That is the responsibility primarily of soldiers. Soldiers are asked to kill fellow combatants on the other side but never deliberately to kill civilians.

There are certainly other rules—the rule of proportionality, that you know that there will be collateral damage, but it cannot be disproportionate to the importance of the military target, the military objective that you’re trying to destroy. Soldiers are also responsible for those kinds of rules as well, but the key one is to not kill noncombatants, and a noncombatant could be a civilian or it could be a prisoner, somebody who has given up his or her combat status and is under your authority at this point. That would be equally illegal under the Additional Protocol of the Geneva Conventions and earlier rules, and immoral for a soldier to kill a prisoner of war or an innocent civilian.

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