I was struck by something in Ian Garrick Mason's TLS review (unfortunately, not online) of A.C. Grayling's book about the Allied area bombing campaigns in World War II, Among the Dead Cities.
I haven't read Grayling's book yet, but Mason's gloss on Just War theory strikes me as confused, and leads to me wonder whether he has done justice to Grayling's thesis. Mason attributes the following view to Grayling:
Grayling's standard of judgment is just-war theory, particularly in its principles of proportionality and necessity. Though he believes that bombing industrial plans and workers is a legitimate part of war, he contends that the area bombing of cities was disproportionate in its effects on innocents: "children, the elderly, the lame and ill, and at least many of the women."
It's the next step in Mason's gloss that strikes me as a bit odd - it concerns the relationship, in Just War theory, between considerations of necessity and proportionality, on the one hand, and certain absolute prohibitions, or "taboos" (Mason's word), on the other:
[Grayling] avoids ... the most difficult question: what if [area bombing] did work? Would it still have been wrong? Consider torture, one the great moral issues of our own age. Until recently, Western societies proscribed torture out of a sense of revulsion. Torture was considered, in a word, taboo. The strength of a taboo is that it trumps everything; you don't violate it, even at the cost of your own life. Whether torture "works" or not was considered to be irrelevant. But torture is escaping from this status today, in large part because of utilitarian arguments about necessity, starting with the now-famous "ticking-bomb" scenario. There is even an argument from proportionality: what is the pain of a few "guilty" persons if it averts the death of many innocents? Just-war theory, as Grayling additionally (though unintentionally) demonstrates by using it to justify American preventative war, is far too permissive a framework to ban practices like area bombing or torture.
There are several things wrong with this passage. For a start, as I understand it, Grayling uses Just War theory to come to the conclusion that the Allied area bombing of German and Japanese cities in the latter part of World War II was a war crime. I think Mason is arguing that Grayling arrives at this conclusion in spite of, rather than because of, his commitment to the fundamental principles of Just War theory. That theory is, in Mason's view, excessively "permissive".
But Mason misunderstands the way in which, in Just War theory, absolute prohibitions on, for instance, torture and the deliberate targeting of civilians sit with the requirement that the use of force be proportionate and necessary. He takes it for granted that there's a tension, in the theory, between utilitarian considerations and absolute prohibitions. Or, rather, he assumes that absolute prohibitions or "taboos" play no role in Just War theory and that what the theory has to say about the targeting of civilians is essentially utilitarian in character.
However, there's no reason why the proportionality requirement can't sit alongside the absolute prohibitions without incoherence; principally, because the requirement, in the theory, is that force be used proportionately when attacking legitimate military targets (which Mason identifies as "oil installations and rail centres"). The absolute prohibition on not deliberately targeting civlians and/or non-combatants is an additional constraint. In other words, necessity and proporition do not have any bearing on non-combatant immunity - which is absolute and inviolable.