Facing the tragedy of war

USC Gould School of Law • September 13, 2023
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By Leslie Ridgeway

The Morality of the Laws of WarA new book by Professor Marcela Prieto examines personal stories of combatants and others affected by unjust wars to make a moral argument for international law to take a stand for the elimination of war altogether.

The Morality of the Laws of War: War, Law and Murder” (Oxford University Press, 2023) is an exploration of Prieto’s interests in international law, international laws of armed conflict and moral philosophy and an expansion of ideas developed in her JSD dissertation at New York University, “The Laws of War: The Fragility in Regulated Killing,” which won the 2021 NYU University-Wide Outstanding Dissertation Award in Social Sciences.

“I wanted to know why we have an international legal regime that allows soldiers to kill each other, and when I dove into moral philosophy, all the answers were unsatisfying,” she says. “Some say that war is a tragedy for everyone involved, including the combatants; others say when combatants fight in an unjust war, they lose their basic right against being killed. Part of the tragedy of unjust wars is the power of states to force thousands of people to fight for unjust ends.”

The book parses accounts from soldiers in books including “Zinky Boys” and “The Unwomanly Face of War” by award-winning Belarussian journalist Svetlana Alexievich, and uses the tools of moral philosophy to tease out the justifications and blame for unjust wars, such as the Soviet-Afghan war following the USSR invasion in 1979.

“We think people should not cooperate with extreme wrongdoing, that there is a limit to how much people can cooperate,” Prieto says. “Some of the young [Soviet] men drafted to fight [in the Afghan war] had very limited options other than fighting or staying at home and allowing the burden of fighting to fall on someone else. They often face a dilemma and are not always like people who kill the innocent.”

Prieto sees the Russia-Ukraine War as a prime example of the human tendency to justify actions, no matter how wrongful. Her book questions how international institutions can allow leaders like Vladimir Putin and others to force people to fight for unjust ends and argues that the responsibility to stop nations from conscripting soldiers into fighting wars of aggression lies with international legal institutions.

“The book is partly concerned with how we can change institutions to help low level combatants to not fight at all in unjust wars,” she says. “The draft dodgers in the Vietnam War [are an example]. The refusal to be drafted should not be punished. [Potential] combatants should have permission [through international law] not to fight, and nations should offer refugee status to those who refuse to take part in unjust wars.”

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