The moral equality of combatants

We do not accord a policeman and a criminal equal status: the criminal is committing an injustice, and so forfeits his right not to be handled forcibly by the policeman; the policeman on the other hand has done nothing to forfeit his right not to be attacked. Their rights are not equal.

In contrast, one of the bedrocks of the laws of war is the principle of the moral equality of combatants. Assuming that one can objectively decide that a given war has a ‘just’ and an ‘unjust’ side, those fighting on the ‘just’ side are still bound by the same rules as those on the ‘unjust’ side. Unjust soldiers are entitled to shoot at the just ones, and they have the same protection under the laws of war. Just and unjust warriors are morally equal, and should treat each other as such.

Not everybody thinks that this is how things should be. The moral equality of combatants is one of the most hotly disputed issues in contemporary just war theory. Some philosophers, basing their arguments on individual human rights, now claim that a person waging an unjust war forfeits his right to life, while a person waging a just one does not. They are not morally equal.

Into this debate have stepped two officers in the war in Ukraine: a Captain Kupol of the Ukrainian Army, and Arseny Pavlov, aka ‘Motorola’, the commander of the Sparta battalion of the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic. For months Motorola’s unit has been attempting to drive the Ukrainians out of Donetsk airport. His men occupy the old terminal, while Kupol’s occupy the new one. In an unusual development, Motorola this week permitted the Ukrainians to rotate their troops in the new terminal – taking out 48 tired soldiers and bringing in 51 new ones – on condition that they did not bring any heavy weapons in. The rebels inspected the incoming Ukrainians before letting them pass. While the inspection was taking place, Motorola and Kupol met and shook hands.

The two thereby recognized each other as moral equals. This caused a fierce backlash. Nowadays, many people consider that war can only be justified if the enemy is evil, and one shouldn’t shake hands with evil. Sixty soldiers of the 63rd Brigade of the Ukrainian Army have signed a petition demanding that Kupol be punished. Meanwhile, rebel supporters have criticized Motorola. How could he shake the hands of a representative of the army which shelled the city of Donetsk and killed innocent civilians?

This criticism induced Motorola’s friend ‘Givi’ (Mikhail Tolstykh), who commands the rebel ‘Somali battalion’, to speak out in defence of his colleague. ‘Ukropy [Ukrainians] were the first to reach out for a handshake’, he told Life News, ‘and you know we all stick to the concept that we respect our enemy. Even if they’re shitty they are our enemy and they ought to be respected.’

Givi has a good point. The rights-based approach to ethics which underpins arguments against the moral equality of combatants is all well and good in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice. Everybody thinks that their cause is just, so if you say that the just side is morally superior to the unjust side and so is not subject to the same rules, you in effect release everybody from the rules.

It is probably better, therefore, not to approach the ethics of war from the foundation of human rights, and instead to think in terms of an ethic of honour. Being engaged in a violent profession, soldiers need to feel that what they do is honourable. As Shannon French has shown in her book The Code of the Warrior, this is necessary for their psychological health. But if soldiering is an honourable profession, then an opponent is honourable too and should be respected. Through this mutual recognition, some degree of restraint can operate on soldiers’ behaviour in war. In sum, the fact that you try to kill your enemy does not mean that you shouldn’t treat him with respect when the opportunity arises.

2 thoughts on “The moral equality of combatants”

  1. Extremely interesting post on the “morality” of war; there’s a good paper in philosophy worth being written on this somewhere. Any further references/sources on this topic?

    Also: this airport is now apparently fully (or more fully) under the control of rebels. Question: what exactly was the strategic/military value of this airport, so as to warrant so much vicious, protracted fighting?


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