Michael Walzer talks to IC

Posted on 09/01/09


The political philosopher Michael Walzer is a self-described man of the left, but he has often found himself at odds with his ideological allies. In recent years, he has been an especially interesting and independent voice on questions related to terrorism and to strife in the Middle East, drawing on arguments first advanced in his now classic book Just and Unjust Wars (1977). He was kind enough to share his wisdom with In Character.

In the chaos of war, is it possible to strike a balance between general principles and wisdom on the ground?

I have to begin by wondering what you mean by wisdom. It sounds as if you have in mind some combination of intelligence and morality. I have a different set of meanings in my mind, which come from the ancient world, and particularly from the Bible, where wisdom was identified with the counselors of the king. Those were the wise men. They were men of experience and prudence, and they were contrasted, in ancient Israel, with the religious or moral leaders of the community. The prophets repeatedly denounce the wise. The wise are the people who think that everything can be solved by clever policies. The wise are those who don’t have a proper respect for God’s law or for human justice. The wise are people who make alliances with Egypt and enlarge the army. They fortify the walls and prepare for a siege — which is indeed the wise thing to do if you’re facing an Assyrian onslaught.

But this was not what the prophets thought. That is a powerful contrast. It still lives in contemporary America. When the newspapers use a phrase like “the wise men,” they usually mean former secretaries of state who have a lot of experience in government and know how to talk to the Russians or the Iranians, or whomever. They don’t necessarily think of the wise as those who are going to do the right thing in deciding to go to war or in deciding about how to fight a war. The wise, I think, are for most Americans “the best and the brightest,” even if they turn out not to have much wisdom, even about prudence and policy.

Obviously, there is another view of wisdom, which associates it with justice and righteousness. But the contrast of these two views — prudence and policy versus justice — may be more interesting than the alliance. The person who speaks truth to power may not be wise in the sense that that isn’t the smart thing to do, even if it is the right thing to do. 

In warfare, we do look for some combination of intelligence and prudential calculation and morality. We look for some kind of balance, and perhaps that balance should be called wisdom. In my writing about war, I have tended to argue that that sort of balance is actually built into any full moral perspective. If you think that what has to be balanced is the national interest against some moral principal, well, political leaders have a moral obligation to protect the national interest. That’s why they were chosen. That is the commitment they make to their fellow citizens. But they are also bound, and so are the citizens, to act morally. So the balance between moral principal and national interest is already internal to our moral lives. But I don’t think I’ve ever used the word wisdom in writing about just and unjust wars.

Let’s say you are an officer in the current U.S. military, and you refuse to fight because you feel a war is immoral. What should be done?

I must say first that when a democracy decides democratically to go to war, its citizens are obligated to fight the war. They can go on arguing against it, they can go on opposing it, but they are obligated to share the risks that have been decided upon democratically. Now, I would also argue that a generous democracy, a democracy with self-confidence, would allow conscientious objection on the part of citizens, including citizens in the military, out of respect for individual conscience and a commitment to accommodate, so far as possible, those who have very deep moral disagreements with the war. But I do regard this not as an obligation, but as an example of political magnanimity.

Do military institutions recognize a need for wisdom and try to inculcate it?

They teach military strategy. They teach the kind of prudential calculation that is necessary in warfare. They teach the military code, which is an ethical code. They have a conception of how soldiering is a profession that has standards. They don’t want their profession to be confused with butchery. That is why military officers often have much higher standards of professional conduct than do the politicians who send them into battle. There were many professional officers in Britain in World War II, for example, who opposed the bombing of German cities, the decision to target residential areas. That was thought to be unprofessional conduct by many officers — not all of them, but many. There were American officers, leading American officers, who opposed the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. There were professional officers who opposed going into Iraq. If you went to West Point and talked to the officers who teach there, they would be appalled by Abu Ghraib.

Do we now face an enemy who requires that we rethink the rules?

I don’t think so. There have been many wars fought against enemies who don’t respect the moral principles that we claim to be committed to. The war against the Nazis was a war like that. The question of how you live by your principles if the other side doesn’t accept them — that’s not a new question. It’s the military equivalent of the political question of whether you tolerate those who are intolerant. In war, how do you deal in a principled way with enemies who don’t share those principles? If we were enduring a series of terrorist attacks, a series of 9/11s, that question would be posed for us in a very acute way. In general, in World War II, we treated captured prisoners according to the Geneva rules, even though we knew that the Germans were not necessarily treating prisoners that way. And that seems the right thing to do.

You wrote a famous essay entitled “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands” in the 1970s that argued that sometimes a leader must do something wrong. Does this have relevance to our struggles with terrorists?

I was reflecting on the use of torture in Algeria and writing about the ticking bomb case that was used by French officers to defend their use of torture. My argument — this was a generalized argument that also applied to lying in an election or taking money from a corrupt campaign contributor — was, first of all, that it’s very important to be clear about right and wrong, to maintain an absolute standard that says politicians shouldn’t take money from gangsters and military leaders shouldn’t torture captured prisoners. But I am not prepared to say, “Do justice though the heavens fall.” That’s never seemed to me a morally acceptable position, especially for people who have been chosen by their fellow citizens to protect them against the heavens falling. Imagine the case of the ticking bomb, as described by French officers in Algeria: there is a bomb in a schoolhouse and the French have captured somebody who knows the location of the bomb, who, to make the case clearer, flatly says that he knows the location, but won’t tell because of his political commitment to the terrorist campaign. What do you do? You are an elected official, you’ve been elected by the parents of the children in the school. I think that most people would agree that you are morally obligated to do what is necessary to get the information — plead for the information, drug the prisoner to elicit it, or use torture. What you can’t do is pretend that what you are doing is right. We have different moral systems to deal with the “dirty hands” dilemma — doing penance; if you are Catholic, confessing; if you are Protestant, suffering with the guilt. What we shouldn’t do is change the rules. We want the person who acts wrongly to know that he is acting wrongly. We should consider the possibility that we could punish him afterwards. The ticking bomb is a piece of political science fiction — you very rarely have that kind of situation — and it should never be turned into a general justification of torture.

I have to tell you that this essay of mine is often assigned in philosophy classes as an example of philosophical incoherence — because for most philosophers it is necessary to come up with something that is, all things considered, the right thing to do. And here I was arguing that something was simultaneously right and wrong.

Winston Churchill originally opposed the Nuremberg trials — he thought it was just to shoot captured Nazis. It seems to me that these trials are almost always show trials in some way. Saddam was never going to be acquitted. Should everything end up in court?

I wrote a book in defense of the trial of Louis XVI, where the arguments were exactly like the arguments about Nuremberg. The Jacobins had the Churchillian position. They wanted Louis to be captured and killed without a trial. He was an “enemy of the people,” and it was dangerous to hold him because he would forever be the focus of uprisings. The Girondins argued that he wasn’t an enemy of the people; he was one of the people — plain Louis Capet. He was a French citizen who had committed crimes, specifically the crime of treason, collaborating with an enemy army, and he should be put on trial; he should have a defense attorney and should know the evidence against him. The trial should be as fair as it could be in the circumstances of revolution, when you are trying a king who could not be brought to trial under the old laws. He was a citizen and should be treated according to the new rules that applied to all citizens. That is what the Girondins did and it was indeed an imperfect trial; his acquittal was highly unlikely, although there was quite a strong debate about the death penalty. Tom Paine participated in that debate, arguing that Louis should be sent into exile to Philadelphia, where he could open a watchmaker’s shop.

At the time of Nuremberg, the position of a substantial portion of the British cabinet was that we should follow the principles of the Roman proscription — we publish a list of Nazi war criminals, and they should be shot as they are captured. It was Robert Jackson, our own Supreme Court justice, who argued passionately for a full and fair trial. And I think the fairness of the Nuremberg trials was actually quite remarkable. In contrast to the trial of Louis, there were even a number of acquittals. 

It wasn’t military justice — it was real justice. And it did set a precedent which the courts in The Hague and in Sierra Leone and Rwanda are trying to match. We are slowly creating something like a real international law. Saddam wasn’t tried by an international tribunal. We decided that he should be tried by his own people, which was, you might say, a wise decision. Admittedly, the quality of justice in Iraq is not what we would recognize as meeting our standards. That was true for Saddam, and I suspect that it’s still true. So it wasn’t a great trial, but I think, on balance, that it worked: the presentation of evidence in front of the whole country was a valuable thing to do.


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