U.S. Army soldiers in Iraq, March 2008. CREDIT: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/soldiersmediacenter/2340862578">The U.S. Army</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">(CC)</a>
U.S. Army soldiers in Iraq, March 2008. CREDIT: The U.S. Army (CC)

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

Jan 27, 2020

Do soldiers fighting for a "just cause" have more rights than soldiers fighting on the other side? In this interview following up on an "Ethics & International Affairs" article, Stanford's Professor Scott D. Sagan discusses the results of a study he conducted with Dartmouth's Professor Benjamin A. Valentino on how Americans think about this profound question.

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 Walzer, Robert Keohane, and Jeff McMahan. You can find the whole thing by going online to www.eiajournal.org.

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.

ADAM READ-BROWN: Another term from the title, "moral equality of combatants"—what's that about?

SCOTT SAGAN: The moral equality of combatants is enshrined in the Geneva Additional Protocols. That is, the rules apply to all soldiers regardless of the cause for which they are fighting. They are all obligated to fight according to the rules of war, the laws of armed conflict.

That also means that all soldiers have equal rights to kill the combatants on the other side, regardless of what the cause is. Politicians are supposed to be responsible for the cause. Soldiers—even fighting for an unjust side—have the right to kill soldiers on the other side.

There's a major debate in just war doctrine with Michael Walzer as the proponent of the more traditional perspective, saying that it's important to keep moral equality of soldiers, and Jeff McMahan as a revisionist moral philosopher, saying the moral equality of combatants does not really make sense. You would never say, for example, McMahan argues, that a robber going into a bank has equal rights to kill a cop inside the bank, even though the cop is threatening him now by pulling out a gun to stop the robbery. If you're fighting on an unjust side, you cannot, in his views, justly kill a combatant.

He says that the tradition of just war doctrine and the laws of armed conflict reflecting that do not give soldiers who are asked to fight an unjust war a reason not to obey. He believes that if we end that moral equality of combatants and say, "You don't have a right to kill a combatant"—not only not kill a civilian but not kill a combatant as well if you're fighting for the unjust side—McMahan believes that that will reduce the likelihood that soldiers will honor a call to fight in an unjust war.

ADAM READ-BROWN: With a little of that background, let's get into some of your research now. I know that the study that you built your Ethics & International Affairs article around is also itself an outgrowth of research that you've been doing for a number of years, doing American public opinion surveys on other issues related to war and peace, including most notably a study surrounding the use of nuclear weapons and Iran, a follow-on to questions surrounding Truman's dropping of the bomb at the end of World War II. [Editor's note: For more on this study, check out Sagan's 2017 Carnegie Council talk.] Could you start there and tell us how this has developed?

SCOTT SAGAN: First, let me mention what this survey experiment methodology is. Survey experiment is a survey. It's a representative sample of the American public, and you measure their public attitudes, but it's also an experiment because you can take with modern techniques two virtually identical representative samples and slightly alter a scenario that they have been asked to consider, and measure therefore how that change, how that one alteration, changes public opinion.

In 2017 Ben Valentino and I published an article in International Security called "Revisiting Hiroshima in Iran." The public in regular surveys now says that they do not support the dropping of the bomb in 1945; only 46 percent of the public supports that. But we did a survey experiment set in Iran, where the public was asked to consider the possible invasion of Iran in a conventional conflict that would cause 20,000 American soldiers to die versus dropping a bomb against Iran like Truman did in 1945 to try to end the war. As an experiment, we varied the number of Iranians killed in that bombing. What we found—shockingly—is that 60 percent of the public supported dropping the bomb and killing 100,000 people rather than invading Iran, which would cause 20,000 GIs to die.


SCOTT SAGAN: Even more shockingly, the number didn't go down when we increased the number of Iranians killed; 60 percent of the public supported dropping a bomb that would kill 2 million Iranians in order to save 20,000 GIs. To us that suggested that American moral attitudes toward nuclear weapons had not changed as much as people had assumed and that there is no taboo against using nuclear weapons. I think that's deeply unfortunate, but I think it's something that we need to keep in mind.

The other thing that was really surprising about our findings in this "Revisiting Hiroshima in Iran" article, that was published in International Security in 2017, was that the single demographic factor that most strongly correlates with willingness to use nuclear weapons in this scenario was whether you supported the death penalty in America for convicted murderers.

That suggests that what we have done is somehow seen that views of retribution or revenge can get triggered very quickly and very deeply among many people, and that's part of what we saw in this particular study. We find it again when we study this question about the moral equality of soldiers.

ADAM READ-BROWN: Frame this up for us, then, the study on the moral equality of combatants. You set out trying to answer what question? What was the motivating question here?

SCOTT SAGAN: There are two motivating questions: First, does the public think the way that traditional just war theorists think, which is that the cause of the war should be independent of the behavior of soldiers in war, that all soldiers have a right to kill soldiers on the other side, but you should not have any relationship between the cause and the moral rights and the moral responsibilities of soldiers? Or do they agree with revisionists, that soldiers fighting on a just side have more rights and that soldiers fighting on an unjust side can't even kill combatants on the other side?

What we found is that a significant number of the public agrees with the revisionists, that is, they are willing to give more rights to soldiers fighting on a just side and willing to punish soldiers fighting on an unjust side, even if they follow the laws of armed conflict and don't kill any civilians.

The second big issue that we're trying to explore is that last question more generally, does the public think about war crimes, the killing of innocent civilians, as something that all soldiers shouldn't do and that all soldiers should be punished regardless of whether they are fighting for a just or an unjust side if they cross the line and violate the laws of armed conflict and kill innocent civilians?

The most disturbing finding that we found was that a significant number of the public, even in an abstract scenario where the countries aren't real but one is clearly an aggressor and the other one is clearly fighting on the defense, they're willing to grant more license to the soldiers who are fighting on the just side. So we have a scenario in which the aggressed side—that is, the side fighting in self-defense—is retaliating against aggression, and their soldiers line up 48 women and children and execute them, clearly a war crime, but much of the American public is willing to forgive that.

So our attitudes as Americans about war crimes are influenced not just by whether it's Americans or somebody else or what we think about particular people, but also by our sense that people fighting on a just side should be given a little more moral license. That's certainly against the laws of armed conflict. I believe in that case it's certainly against moral principles, but many Americans hold that view.

ADAM READ-BROWN: Could you say just a little more about this idea of moral licensing? There's something intuitive about the phrase itself. What's going on there?

SCOTT SAGAN: It's hard to know for certain. Jeff McMahan puts it often in the symposium that the American public seems quite confused often, but what I think is happening here is that if you believe that somebody is righteous in general, is moral in general, you look at their later behavior, and even if you question that behavior, you're willing to look at it in a different light because you judge that person's intent differently. We do this commonly I think with people like police officers, and they'll look the other way a little bit if police officers behave in an immoral way because, "They're police officers and I like them, and I want to support them in general." That's moral licensing.

What we found was that, even in the abstract, when a country is just deemed to be fighting on a just side, they were aggressed, that a significant number of people are willing to say it's okay to kill civilians, or at least we shouldn't punish the soldiers who have killed civilians. That helps explain quite a bit about our public views about war crimes.

ADAM READ-BROWN: What should we take away from this? You say it explains a lot about the public's views on war crimes. Who is the "we" here? What's the audience that you would want to learn from this? What kind of lessons can we draw from a study like this? Are there takeaways for policymakers, for ethicists, for podcast listeners?

SCOTT SAGAN: Certainly there are different lessons for those different groups. For scholars, for ethicists, I think this is a sign of how much hard work we still have to do as educators to be arguing for this view that all soldiers, regardless of what side they're fighting on, must follow the laws of armed conflict and should behave justly, and that the logic of that needs to be explained more clearly and more often. Not everyone will read Michael Walzer or Jeff McMahan or Bob Keohane, but it does mean that in our classes and our writings we need to focus on this.

I do believe that just war doctrine is extremely important but that it shouldn't just be studied and analyzed by philosophers and political theorists. It needs to also be studied by empirical political scientists, who can study what the public thinks, what soldiers think, etc.

The other group I think should learn a lot about this are soldiers. It is disturbing, I think, to many of the soldiers I have talked to about these findings who say, "Wow, the public's giving us this license. That is not good." Because soldiers, especially since the days of the My Lai massacre and all the training that has gone on after that, I think have really drunk the Kool-Aid about the laws of armed conflict.

They know that this is difficult, they know that it is often a challenge and that you have to take risks in order to follow the laws of armed conflict in really deadly situations, but they desperately want to be warriors and not murderers. Knowing that, they see occasionally a murderer will be in their ranks and they want to report it. They want to be able to stop it because they think it's wrong and because they think it threatens them. We have had a number of incidents during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in which soldiers have crossed the line, and they have been appropriately put on trial for war crimes by the U.S. military.

One of the most disturbing recent phenomena is President Trump's pardoning of some of these individuals—not all of them, but some of them—and a really concerted effort on his part to make them into war heroes. As a follow-on study, Ben Valentino and I decided to try to study what the public thinks about the pardons that Trump gave.

There is both some good news and some bad news here, Adam. The good news is that a smaller proportion of the public is willing to support granting pardons to convicted war criminals in the United States compared to the war in Vietnam. So that has changed. After the My Lai massacre, the polls about the officers who had been convicted—William Calley being the main one—strongly showed support for Calley, or at least a desire to pardon him rather than support his court-martial. That is reduced today. That's the good news.

The bad news is that 41 percent of the public still supports these Trump pardons. It's very partisan—79 percent are Republicans; only 12 percent of Democrats support this—but 41 percent of the public still supports giving pardons to convicted war criminals.

ADAM READ-BROWN: I will just note here for listeners interested, more on this more recent study that you're describing can be found in a Washington Post "Monkey Cage" piece that you and Professor Valentino wrote, and we will link to that in the transcript.

I take your good news/bad news scenario. I would say on the good news side, okay, we've decreased the support perhaps for these pardons of war criminals. In the 50 years intervening, do you think this is a victory for what you were talking about, the importance of education, moral philosophers driving this point home in the classroom? What do you think has changed over those years to engender such a shift in opinion? As a follow-up, given that we still do have a commander-in-chief who doesn't seem to care much about the ethics or public opinion, where from here?

SCOTT SAGAN: I think part of the credit is due to educators, philosophers, and political theorists. Michael Walzer's book, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, had a huge impact, not only by the number of people who read it and debated it but also by the number of military cadets who read it and debated it. I was once at a meeting at the American Academy with Professor Walzer, and a very senior American military officer came in, a two-star general, with his dog-eared copy of Just and Unjust Wars from his days at West Point, asking, "Professor Walzer, would you please sign my book?" What a compliment to Michael Walzer, that senior officers in the United States all have been trained in part with his book about ethics and war.

Walzer was not the only person who trained these cadets. The hero of My Lai, the opposite of William Calley, was a helicopter pilot by the name of Hugh Thompson. Hugh Thompson saw what was going on, put his helicopter between the soldiers shooting and the innocent villagers who were being gunned down, and told his tail gunner, "I'm going to stop this, and if the Americans keep shooting, I want you to shoot the Americans."


SCOTT SAGAN: Thompson was ridiculed by some, once the story of My Lai came out, but was never kicked out of the military because they understood, even the people who tried to cover this up, that he had done something that probably ended the massacre and may have been a very good thing. Only many years later was Thompson awarded a very senior medal by the U.S. Army, and they asked him to go to West Point and to convince the cadets that: "Look, you're to follow orders, but if there's a manifestly illegal order, you cannot follow it. You must not follow it."


SCOTT SAGAN: That had I think a big impact on the U.S. military because they understood that following the laws of armed conflict not only can help you by improving your relations with local villagers, it can create reciprocity sometimes but not always, it can stop some of the really damaging domestic political outcries that occur when there is an Abu Ghraib or a My Lai incident. For lots of reasons the U.S. military wants to follow the laws of armed conflict, and I think that has changed, and that their publicity of this, their willingness to publicly condemn war criminals in their ranks, I think that had an impact on the American public too.

ADAM READ-BROWN: Yes. I want to go back for a minute to your research that appeared in EIA. We were just talking about Michael Walzer. I want to bring up one of the things he addressed in his response to your paper.

Again, we've got this fairly disturbing finding that more Americans are willing to morally license war crimes for soldiers fighting on a "just" side. Walzer looks at this and suggests that some of these disturbing findings—this one included—could perhaps be mitigated or maybe even erased, he speculates, by using a different sort of "scaffolding" in the questions that you asked respondents, so prompting respondents to home in something that he refers to as "intuitive reciprocity." Basically, if you ask people first how they would feel about, say, the treatment of their own country's soldiers, then they may be more likely to respond more generously when asked about those on the other side.

I'm curious what your thoughts are there. Some of this gets back to the methodology in building survey experiments, but how do you think about his idea of intuitive reciprocity? Could we be over-reading these results or reading them in the wrong way?

SCOTT SAGAN: Michael Walzer's view that if you prime someone by asking them to think about reciprocity, to think about how you would feel if an adversary did this to your country, your soldiers, after you did it, in response or in retaliation, would that impact people's views? The answer is probably yes.

In the same way, if we told them that they had already punished our soldiers or executed our prisoners, then people would probably be more hawkish. So I think priming them in one direction or the other could have an impact, and in the real world that happens. When people are primed by a real event or primed by the newspapers they read or the political leaders that they respect, it does shift public opinion.

But I don't think Walzer is right about one thing, which is the view about intuitive reciprocity being stronger than some of the other intuitions that people have. Walzer talks repeatedly in his response to our article about the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you want them to do unto you." I actually think that's not all that intuitive. Indeed, if it was intuitive, we wouldn't have to repeat it so often to our kids. We're trying to get them to understand that because we're trying to get them to think about reciprocity and to get them to think about setting precedents. That's a good thing to promote, but it's not intuitive.

Some people have quite a bit of that empathy and that view; others have less. Many others have I think the flip side of the Golden Rule, which is the idea about retribution, an eye for an eye: "If someone does something to you, you should do the same thing to them back." There are others who have something that is even more extreme than retribution—eye for an eye—which is about revenge. That view would hold a different moral intuition, which is that an eye for an eye is never enough. I think when you talk about war and war crimes, all three of those intuitions can get triggered, depending on how the question is put or what happens in the real world that's triggering a debate.

Unfortunately, there are many people who support revenge, not just retribution and certainly not just empathy and the Golden Rule. Revenge is less targeted; retribution has to be against the individual who did it; revenge can be against people who look like the others. Retribution is trying to restore justice, but revenge is trying to create suffering.

The tail gunner for Hugh Thompson, who I mentioned about My Lai, once told me that his view about those soldiers that he stopped from killing even more innocent civilians is that they were just filled with views of vengeance, that the Viet Cong had killed some of their friends, and they couldn't find the Viet Cong, so kill people who look like them or people who may have supported them. I do think we have a better angel of our nature, but we also have some pretty evil angels of our nature that resort a lot to feelings of vengeance.

ADAM READ-BROWN: On that note of the duality at work here, the competing motivations for responses and for thinking about these issues, it makes me think a little bit of Jeff McMahan's response in the symposium. His argument is, in part, that our takeaway with some of these shocking findings shouldn't necessarily be shock and outrage that folks are willing to morally license such heinous war crimes on the just side, but really if you look at the totality of the findings in your study, the American public is really just confused about how they think about these issues of ethics and war and moral equality, and that we're seeing these synaptic firings in a way that don't amount to any kind of cohesive worldview.

There's something appealing about that, to say, "Well, the public really just hasn't thought that deeply about these issues, so we can't really read too much into this." How do you think about that? You have touched on this a little bit as you were talking about Walzer, but I'm curious to have you dig in a little bit more.

SCOTT SAGAN: I think Jeff McMahan is partly right and partly wrong in that attitude. That is, he's right in that the public is deeply confused on these questions. They haven't thought very deeply about it. But I think he's wrong when he says, "Well, that means that we shouldn't read too much into what they say about this subject," because the public is confused and hasn't thought deeply, not just about just war doctrine, not just about war criminals; they don't think very deeply when they vote, they don't think very deeply when they support or do not support a particular act of a president or the Senate or the House on issues of war and peace. They often go by their gut intuition.

If we want to try to impact that, it's great as educators to teach on this subject, but our teaching can only have an effect on the elite. It doesn't have as much impact on the public unless we actually start writing other things—other kinds of books, other kinds of articles—that can address these kinds of subjects.

I read a lot into what they're saying, and I find it makes me even more challenged to write not just for Ethics & International Affairs, which is a great journal, but also for newspapers, to also do podcasts, to also publish other kinds of things that people can read outside of scholarly work. We need to have ethics and war issues raised not just on university campuses but in high schools. They need to be raised not just in The New York Times but in USA Today. We need to have these issues debated in deeper ways but also in much broader ways so that the American public can actually be a little less confused.

ADAM READ-BROWN: I wholeheartedly support that effort, and I think that that's a good place to land our discussion for today.

I want to thank you again for engaging in this really interesting discussion, Scott. We really appreciate you joining us today.

SCOTT SAGAN: Thank you, Adam. I care deeply about these subjects, and I think that Ethics & International Affairs is doing a great job by raising them. Thank you for giving Ben Valentino and me a chance to interact with Bob Keohane and Jeff McMahan and Michael Walzer, three scholars we respect and have learned from so much. Thank you very much for letting me do this podcast but especially for leading to the symposium in Ethics & International Affairs.

ADAM READ-BROWN: It was our pleasure. Thank you again as well.

Once again, I'm Adam Read-Brown and I have been speaking with Professor Scott Sagan, whose article, "Just War and Unjust Soldiers: American Public Opinion on the Moral Equality of Combatants," appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Ethics & International Affairs as the lead piece in a symposium of the same name. That symposium, as well as much more, is available online at www.eiajournal.org.

You can also watch Professor Sagan discuss more of his work on nuclear weapons over at www.carnegiecouncil.org. We invite you to follow us on Twitter @eiajournal. Thank you for joining us, and thank you, Professor Sagan, for this great discussion.

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