Animals and the Ethics of War: A Call for an Inclusive Just War Theory

Ukrainian refugees with their companion animals on the Ukraine-Poland border. Photo copyright Milos Bicanski – We Animals Media. Used with permission. Josh Milburn (Loughborough University) and Sara Van Goozen (University of York) Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, heartrending images of Ukrainian refugees and their companion animals fleeing Russian forces circulated among Western media, and the press covered stories of organisations and individuals traveling into Ukraine to feed or rescue the animals left behind. The impact of war on animals became an issue difficult to ignore. Companion animals are not the only ones impacted by war. Disturbing stories about harm to Ukraine’s farmed animals appeared, while Ukraine’s zookeepers faced difficult choices about whether to evacuate animals. The war’s impact on wild animals is, currently, unknown. War has always affected animals. Soldiers have always used animals as transport, guards, and mascots. Armies have always staged battles in places where animals live. And domesticated animals have always felt the brunt when hostilities kill or displace their caregivers. Collectively, though, we’ve overlooked these issues. In the fog of war, we lose sight of animals. Given the impact that war has on animals, it is surprising that we lack the language to meaningfully discuss the ethical questions that animals in war raise. This is because just war theory – the dominant approach to the ethics of war in the western philosophical tradition – is resolutely anthropocentric. At least, it has been until now. “In the fog of war, we lose sight of animals.” Just War Just war theory is a set of tools for assessing when it is right to go to war (typically known by the Latin phrase jus ad bellum), how it is appropriate to behave in war (jus in bello), and related questions. Just war theorists tend to concede that states will wage war and that violence can be legitimate, but aim to reduce the occurrence of unjust wars and unjust behaviour in war. In the words of Michael Walzer, war may be hell, but even ‘in hell, it is possible to be more or less humane, to fight with or without restraint’ – just war theorists address ‘how this can be so’. It is fundamentally a philosophical theory, but one recognised as deeply important by international humanitarian lawyers (as it is the foundation of the international laws of war, such as the Hague Conventions, the Geneva Conventions, and the UN Charter) and militaries themselves (who use it to assess their activities). International humanitarian lawyers have started to explore how existing laws protect animals. Just last month, Cambridge University Press published Anne Peters, Jérôme de Hemptinne, and Robert Kolb’s pathbreaking Animals in the International Law of Armed Conflict. And, for a variety of reasons, militaries themselves grapple with questions about the treatment of animals. Many navies, for example, have policies to limit the impact of sonar on whales and dolphins. But just war theory lags behind.  An inclusive theory? What would a more inclusive, more humane, just war