Al Qaeda’s Foot Soldiers and the Problem of Moral Equality
“This guy Padilla is a bad guy, and he is where he needs to be—detained.”
--President G. W. Bush, in defending his decision to classify Jose Padilla,
In the aftermath
of September 11th,
In this paper I
will argue that terrorism and its particular brand of “soldiers” pose a unique
moral challenge for
The solution the American government has arrived upon thus far from
encapsulating the moral equality that Walzer prescribes. In fact,
media sources have variously attacked this policy, calling it among other
things a malicious “diluting” of the Geneva Convention and a case of
“legal limbo.” Legal
scholars like David Luban of
Walzer’s Argument for the Moral Equality of Soldiers (in brief).
Michael Walzer argues in Just and Unjust Wars that much of the moral evil of war lies in its “tyranny,” or the moral wrong entailed by making soldiers fight and die against their will. Soldiers most often end up fighting because their parent states have coerced them to do so, often either through legal guidelines or a deliberate campaign of patriotism—fighting usually for circumstances that under normal conditions would not obviously compel them to do so. Dire conditions of self-defense aside, states employ military force in many types of conflicts, and need soldiers to do so. To fill the ranks, states through the use of various agencies often employ methods that seize upon their citizens’ ideologies, legal obligations, financial desires, and patriotism in order to obtain their services. When states employ these methods, Walzer argues that the conditions for decision that ensue for citizens virtually eliminate any possible free choice for “essentially private reasons” for them.
The more soldiers respond to a desire to serve a common cause, Walzer charges, “the more likely we are to regard it as a crime to force him to fight. We assume that his commitment is to the safety of his country, that he fights only when it is threatened, and that then he has to fight (he has been ‘put to it’): it is his duty and not a free choice.” Since states and not soldiers bear the responsibility for decisions to wage war (and to obtain soldiers to fight those wars), we ought not judge soldiers based on the wars they fight, as those wars are not theirs. Rather, our judgment of them must be limited to how they fight. Soldiers and soldiers who oppose them (the entire suite of combatants in a conflict) are therefore moral equals, and fully entitled on all sides to warriors’ rights as prescribed by the rules of war. In simplified form, the argument runs like this:
The Problem with “Unlawful Combatants.”
Clearly, Walzer’s argument eliminates immediately the type of terrorist who attacks innocents. Premise 5 evokes the rules of war as an initial sorting device, and it seems fair to say that soldiers of Al Qaeda who hijack planes, blow themselves up in crowded marketplaces, and perpetrate other similar acts of violence against innocents obviously break the rules of war, and thus forfeit their status and rights as legitimate combatants. There is no moral obligation to offer benevolent quarantine to suicide terrorists, as they obviate their moral equality as combatants by targeting the very people that legitimate combatants are morally charged to protect.
question, though, is how Al Qaeda foot soldiers figure in to this moral
Though not clearly articulated by U.S. authorities, one might argue that the moral basis for the legal minuet described above might be roughly stated this way: these soldiers, though they fought conventionally and in accordance with the rules of war, are ultimately aligned with an illegitimate and inherently evil cause that seeks the intentional murder of innocents to further its goals. This means that when they resist apprehension by force, they are murderers when they kill our soldiers. This very obviously makes them the wholesale “enemies of civilization,” and the worst sort of criminals. In short, they are “bad guys” who need to be locked up and the keys thrown away. Granting them rights runs the risk of granting them some degree of ability to continue to wreak havoc against the peaceful world.
about the legitimacy of Terrorism as a sponsoring entity for soldiers is an
important point, though one for which a thorough discussion appeals more
directly to the jus ad bellum dimension of Just War Theory, and is
beyond the scope of this paper. A comment worth mentioning, however, is that
any questions leveled at the notion of Terrorism being a “state-like” entity
must also call into question the ability of “real” states to declare and wage
war (in the fullest sense of the term) on such more closely resemble criminal
conglomerations, and are more appropriately addressed from within the
boundaries of traditional law enforcement. Or, to borrow a
The argument I
want to advance here rather centers on the problem that the
soldiers inside a larger judgment about the justness of their cause clearly
violates Just War Theory’s prescription against the requirement for jus ad
…the moral status of individual soldiers on both sides is
very much the same: they are led to fight by their loyalty
to their own states and by their lawful obedience. They
are most likely to believe that their wars are just, and while
the basis of that belief in not necessarily rational inquiry
but, more often, a kind of unquestioning acceptance of
official propaganda, nevertheless they are not criminals;
they face each other as moral equals. 
Opposing soldiers have every right to want to kill their opponents, and cannot be called murderers provided that in doing so they, as Walzer terms it, “fight well,” or abide by the rules of war. It is after all a common task of all soldiers—to defeat, and if necessary as part of that process, kill the soldiers from the force that opposes them. To deny this based on a subjective assessment of the cause of those soldiers’ war—a cause that they do not choose—is to deny them the very role that they are called—and in most cases coerced—to fill.
The notion of
coercion is important in formulating a Walzerian objection to current
Other, more troubling reasons could include the fact that these soldiers could be assembling on the battlefield to escape a bullet to their heads if they resist—or to enable their families to escape a similar fate. Finally, the promise of payment in hard currency is compelling to many as a means to escape the desperate living conditions of places like Afghanistan. Some who are emboldened by the promise of money are mercenaries outright, arriving from other war-torn regions like Chechnya as experienced guns for hire for an organization willing to pay good money for experienced soldiers. Even these ought to be considered carefully, as arguably their ranks are filled “from among desperate and impoverished men,” whose reasons for fighting are perhaps not as stark, but most probably still stem from the coercive conditions of despair, poverty, and hopelessness that undeniably spawn in places like Chechnya. What is clear about all of these factors—religious idealism, despair, patriotic duty, poverty, and others—constitute coercive forces on Walzer’s account. Collectively, these particular Al Qaeda foot soldiers don’t in fact choose for “essentially private reasons” to take up arms against the western forces arriving in their lands; rather, they do so because they feel they must do so. Provided they follow the rules of war, the war they fight is not their war, and judgment about them must incorporate this to be right.
While the truth about the evil of Terrorism is an obvious one, judgments that attempt to paste it onto the actions of rule-following enemy soldiers wrongly blur the jus ad bellum/jus in bello distinction that Just War Theory mandates, and perhaps just as bad, do much to fuel the allegations of U.S. adversaries about the reality of American-style victors’ justice. If Walzer notions about the moral equality of soldiers are right, soldiers—even those rallying under the dubious guidon of “terrorism”—who fight justly deserve just treatment, even if such treatment dampens intelligence-gathering efforts and seems politically precarious. Clearly, upholding a reverence for the innate value of human rights in the most trying of times is a moral mandate for nations like America who weave such imperatives into the very fabric of their national being.
Arena, Kelli. “Lawyer: Dirty Bomb Suspect’s Rights Violated.” CNN.com [newsonline];
Available from http://www.cnn.com/2002/US/06/11/dirty.bomb.suspect.
Internet. Accessed 27 January 2003.
Bush, George W. The National Security Strategy of the United States. In “Full Text:
Bush’s National Security Strategy,” New York Times [news online]; Available
Internet. Accessed 20 November 2002.
Cohen, Andrew. “ ’Enemy Combatant’ in Legal Limbo.” CBSNEWS.com Court Watch
[news online]; Available from http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2002/06/21/news/opinion/courtwatch/main5130 87.shtml. Internet. Accessed 27 January 2003.
“Diluting the Geneva Convention,” New York Times, June 21 2002.
Luban, David. “The War on Terrorism and the End of Human Rights.” In Philosophy
and Public Policy Quarterly, Volume 22, No. 3, Summer 2002 .
Walzer, Michael. Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations,
3rd Ed. (New York: Basic Books, 1977).
 Kelli Arena, “Lawyer: Dirty Bomb Suspect’s Rights Violated.” CNN.com [news online]; Available from http://www.cnn.com/2002/US/06/11/dirty.bomb.suspect. Internet. Accessed 27 January 2003. Padilla remains locked up indefinitely in a Navy brig in South Carolina with no trial date currently pending.
 George W. Bush, The National Security Strategy of the United States. In “Full Text: Bush’s National Security Strategy,” New York Times [news online]; Available from http://www.nytimes.com/2002/09/20/politics/20STEXT_FULL.html. Internet. Accessed 20 November 2002.
 “Diluting the Geneva Convention,” New York Times, June 21 200 2.
 Andrew Cohen, “ ’Enemy Combatant’ in Legal Limbo.” CBSNEWS.com Court Watch [news online]; Available from http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2002/06/21/news/opinion/courtwatch/main513087.shtml. Internet. Accessed 27 January 2003.
 David Luban, “The War on Terrorism and the End of Human Rights.” In Philosophy and Public Policy Quarterly, Volume 22, No. 3, Summer 2002 , 10.
 Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, 3rd Ed. (New York: Basic Books, 1977), 27.
 “Rules of War” is Walzer’s general reference to the Laws of Armed Conflict, though he includes and often intends also reference to the moral precepts behind those laws in addition to the laws themselves. In this case, I specifically intend warriors’ rights to include provisions in place in the event of capture and/or imprisonment—what Walzer refers to as “benevolent quarantine.”
 Walzer, 27.
 Ibid, 127-8 and 138. This is the first tenet of Walzer’s “War Convention,” which prescribes the moral distinction between combatants and noncombatants.
 Luban, 10.
 The National Security Strategy of the United States. In “Full Text: Bush’s National Security Strategy,” New York Times [news online]; Available from http://www.nytimes.com/2002/09/20/politics/20STEXT_FULL.html. Internet. Accessed 20 November 2002.
 Ibid., 12. Luban remarks that calling the U.S. response to 9/11 a “war” on terrorism obscures further the moral point about captured Al Qaeda soldiers’ rights. Making it a war enables the sense of urgency and risk to elevate far beyond that of normal criminal threats, and allows the authorities at hand to abolish rights with near-impunity.
 Walzer, 127.