War, like the poor, we have always with us. Continued reflection upon warfare is, therefore, one of the first things that must occupy the public life of any people. And anyone needing to engage in such reflection could scarcely find a better place to start than Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations . As an opponent of the Vietnam War, Walzer promised himself that he would write such a book, and it transcended the occasion that produced it. Rich with historical illustrations rather than merely hypothetical cases, the book pushes its readers into the complexities of moral judgment. Reckoning with the fact that war is always hell, never falling into the trap of confusing mere violence with force, Walzer tries to think about our responsibilities within that hell”to carve out a moral regime even in the midst of hell.

Central to the morality of war is a tension between two kinds of judgments we make about it: judgments about the circumstances under which it is permissible to wage war, and judgments about what it is permissible to do in the conduct of war. But these two kinds of judgments may sometimes pull in different directions. What if the “good guys” (who have the best of reasons for waging war) seem able to win only if they fight in ways that are not permitted”and thereby become “bad guys”? What then?

Walzer develops the tradition of just war as a deontological tradition”that is, even the good guys are not allowed to do just anything that is necessary to win. Even they must fight justly, and if they do they may sometimes lose. There is no guarantee that truth and goodness will always triumph in human history. Sometimes the good guys must accept losing; they must fight justly, refuse to win by evil means, refuse to let good consequences outweigh evil methods, and bide their time as they wait for another day. That is the first and central response Walzer makes to the tension between the two sorts of moral judgment we make about war.

Nevertheless, consequences do matter. How could they not in politics, a realm in which some accept responsibility for the lives of many others? So Walzer considers the possibility that a time might come when the good guys simply had to win. Why? Because not to win would mean handing over our neighbors not just to an enemy but to an abomination. What kind of enemy would that be? It would, Walzer answers, be a “Nazi“like power,” one that simply had to be defeated, whatever it might take.

In such a moment, which Walzer calls a moment of “supreme emergency,” leaders have, he thinks, little choice but to let the consequences count. They embrace evil and accept guilt because, as political leaders responsible for others, they can do nothing else. They bomb German cities because the Nazi regime must be defeated”though if they bomb them longer than necessary, bomb them even when it would be possible to defeat that regime by morally acceptable (though slower and more costly) means, they have given in too easily and imagined they faced a supreme emergency when they did not.

Some moralists would argue that Walzer would have done better never to develop the notion of supreme emergency, never to accept that there could come a moment when the good guys would have to do evil. For then how can they still be good? Perhaps such moralists are right. It is certainly the central moral issue, and Walzer displays it for his readers with great imagination and force.

But what makes this book a “must read” is that he does still more. Grant, for the moment, the course of his argument. Grant that there might come a time when good”even the best”political leaders might have to dirty their hands in order to defeat an enemy that must be beaten. What then? To answer this question, Walzer reflects upon what he calls “the dishonoring of Arthur Harris.”

After the bombing of German cities had succeeded and the war had been won, Britain needed to find a way to reinstate the moral rules it had”in the moment of supreme emergency”overridden. Walzer interprets the dishonoring of Arthur Harris as such a reinstatement. Harris had directed the British Bomber Command’s campaign of terror against German cities. He had, it is perhaps not too strong to say, been good enough to be on the right side but not too good to do what was needed in Britain’s time of peril.

After the war he expected his reward: public honor. He received none, however, and finally left Britain and returned to his native Rhodesia. By dishonoring him, Britain dissociated itself from what had been done”it reinstated the moral code. We may, Walzer grants, feel that this is not quite fair to Harris, but it may be the best a people can manage.

Notice: the dishonoring of Arthur Harris does not solve the moral problem Walzer has unfolded. In the moment of supreme emergency the laws of war are overridden but not set aside, and those who override them are guilty for doing what they “had” to do. There is, in fact, no moral solution to this problem.

When Walzer reaches for “dishonoring” as a way of reinstating the once overridden moral code, he gropes for something that is better called religious than moral. Though Walzer himself never says so, who can doubt that Arthur Harris is the scapegoat of Leviticus 16”sent off into the wilderness on the day of atonement, bearing the sins of the people?

At the deepest reaches of morality we discover that we need something more than morality itself can offer: expiation. Whether Walzer himself intended it or not, that is where Just and Unjust Wars leads the reader. We see, in the end, what moral reasoning alone cannot accomplish.

Gilbert Meilaender holds the Board of Directors Chair in Theological Ethics at Valparaiso University.