Analysis 71 (3):523 (2011)

Book review of McMahan J. "Killing in War." Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2009. --- Jeff McMahan’s "Killing in War" is, among many other things, a brief against the traditional just war doctrine of the moral equality of combatants – i.e. the doctrine that all combatants ‘have the same moral status, hence the same moral rights, immunities, and liabilities’, including ‘an equal right to kill’, irrespective of whether the war they fight is just or unjust.1 This book is a powerfully argued, nuanced, comprehensive, relentless and impassioned brief against this doctrine. It wages total war against it, eclipsing all past skirmishes. Yet, at the same time that he rejects the moral equality of combatants, McMahan affirms the ‘legal equality of combatants’, according to which ‘legal rights, liabilities, and immunities of combatants are unaffected by’ the justice or injustice of the war they fight. Not only does McMahan affirm that the legal equality of combatants holds as a matter of fact. He also affirms that such legal equality is morally justified at present. In this article, I shall expose and explore tensions that arise as the result of this uneasy combination of McMahan’s affirmation of the legal equality of combatants and his thoroughgoing rejection of their moral equality.
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