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The rules of jus in bello aim to confine the destructiveness of war, rule out certain kinds of weapons, protect civilians, and limit the area and range of fighting. Many note that the methods of contemporary war, nuclear warfare in particular, are inescapably in violation of the principles of proportionality and non-combatant immunity. Must such warfare be rejected as a moral possibility on just war grounds? Some maintain that morality does not exist in warfare, and therefore object to just war theory. War is hell, the argument goes, and one is entitled to do whatever is necessary to ensure victory for one’s own side. Just war theory, on the other hand, sets forth a moral framework for warfare and rejects the notion that “anything goes” during times of war. Belligerent armies are entitled to try to win, but they cannot do anything that is, or seems, necessary to achieve victory.
There are restraints on the extent of harm, if any, that can be done to noncombatants, and restraints on the weapons of war. These restraints aim to limit war once it has begun. The principles of humanitarian law are thought to apply in conflict, and to regulate the conduct of military forces. Total war, where neither discrimination nor proportionality serve as mitigating considerations, is to be avoided. Jus in bello also requires that the agents of war be held responsible for their actions. When soldiers attack non-combatants, pursue their enemy beyond what is reasonable, or violate other rules of fair conduct, they commit not acts of war, but acts of murder. International law suggests that every individual, regardless of rank or governmental status, is personally responsible for any war crime that he might commit.
If a soldier obeys orders that he knows to be immoral, he must be held accountable. Even if a nation lacks just cause for war, it may fight justly once war has begun. Conversely, a nation with just cause may fight unjustly. The two central principles of jus in bello, discrimination and proportionality, establish rules of just and fair conduct during warfare. The principle of discrimination concerns who are legitimate targets in war, while the principle of proportionality concerns how much force is morally appropriate. The principle of discrimination recognizes that individuals have a moral standing “independent of and resistant to the exigencies of war.
Since killing is morally problematic, just war theory must provide an account of why soldiers can become legitimate targets of attack. It must also answer whether a combatant’s status changes depending on whether his cause is just or unjust, and establish “how those victims of war who can be attacked and killed are to be distinguished from those who cannot. No individual can justly be attacked unless he has, through his own action, surrendered or lost his basic human rights. However, because individuals with combatant status forfeit some of these basic rights when they become soldiers, their death can be morally justified. Civilians, on the other hand, have not forfeited these rights, and are never permissible targets of war. Houses, places of worship, and schools should be immune from attack as well.