Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Killing enemy combatants--a justification

The profession of arms talks about ‘morality and war’ using legal terms and concepts. For example, we justify our decision to deploy and fight when the President orders us because we signed a contract to obey the officers appointed over us. Similarly, we consider ourselves blameless when we kill enemy combatants as long as we do not violate the laws of war or the rules of engagement in doing so. These legal rules are so important to our professional identity that all soldiers receive instruction on the laws of war in basic combat training and then annually thereafter, and soldiers at war review the rules of engagement much more often, sometimes daily.

Not everyone in our society, however, accepts these legal answers to moral questions. War pacifists are people who believe that war is morally unjustifiable. They claim that soldiers are morally wrong to participate in war and to kill other human beings, regardless of what’s legally permissible at the time.

Currently, we military leaders do not do enough to prepare our soldiers to understand and justify their actions in moral terms. This not only leads many soldiers to needlessly suffer moral guilt, but it also leaves them vulnerable to the arguments of war pacifists. Our troops deserve better from us.

In this essay, I investigate “morality and war” from a soldier’s perspective without resorting to legal justifications. My intent is to empower our profession to better understand the moral reality of war. What I write here is not doctrine. I speak only for myself—a career officer and Army-educated ethicist—and hope that our discussions around this topic will deepen our commitment to and comfort with our vocation as warriors.

This paper is divided into two sections. The first section puts forth an explanation of why soldiers are morally justified in killing enemy combatants, and it offers a framework for moral decision-making in those tragic circumstances of war when our actions will likely cause unintentional harm to non-combatants (i.e., collateral damage). The second section challenges the age-old notion of the “moral equality of soldiers” and suggests that soldiers’ moral justification for killing in war depends on the overall justice of the war.

Section I: Killing in War
Why killing enemy combatants is morally justified

thesis: When we kill enemy combatants, we are not violating their rights to not be killed, because they have already forfeited that right by their free choice to violate the rights of others not to be killed.

Every person, by virtue of being a human being, possesses the right not to be killed by another person.[1] This is commonly referred to as the “right to life,” but the term “right not be be killed” is more precise. Our rights, for example, are not violated when we die of heart disease, cancer, or a lightning strike. Our “right to life” is violated only when another person intentionally or negligently acts to kill us. [2]

The term “right not to be killed” also makes clear that we possess rights only in relation to other human beings. If a dog bites us, the animal has not violated our rights. Perhaps the dog’s owner has, if she negligently allowed the dog to roam unleashed, but the dog itself cannot be said to have violated our rights. We possess rights only in relation to other human beings who can be held accountable for their choices.

Our rights as human beings put limits on how others can act towards us. One person’s right has priority over another person’s freedom. For example, my right not to be killed trumps my angry neighbor’s freedom to kill me over our dandelion dispute. Were he to kill me, he would commit a moral wrong. To paraphrase the philosopher J. S. Mill, we possess the freedom to choose our actions provided they do not violate the rights of another. Rights must trump freedoms, if rights are to have any meaning at all.

Rights themselves are absolute, but possession of them is not. People forfeit their rights if and while they are engaged in violating the rights of others. This explains the rights of self defense and defense of others. When an attacker violates the right not to be killed of those who possess it, he forfeits his own right not to be killed.

Enemy combatants are people who are engaged in violating and threatening the rights of others not to be killed or enslaved. Thus, when we kill combatants, we do no moral wrong; we violate no rights. In fact, we vindicate the rights of those people whom the enemy combatants were threatening.

The Problem of Collateral Damage
thesis: In war, the least morally wrong option is the morally right choice.

War would be morally less complicated if our enemy would agree to face us on a field of battle away from noncombatants. That way, we could be sure to kill only those who had already forfeited their right not to be killed.

Unfortunately, our enemy is our enemy precisely because he seeks the death of non-combatants, if not by his own guns than even better by ours. Thus, we must fight against an enemy who hides among noncombatants, using them as human shields to create for us a moral dilemma—whether to protect the noncombatants (which is our end, or goal) or to kill enemy combatants (which is a primary means to achieve our goal).

What should a soldier do when faced with a situation in which a proposed plan of action to kill enemy combatants will likely also kill noncombatants? It is impossible to say outside of the context of the particular battle space; the soldier will have to make difficult decisions that involve tradeoffs. The decision, however, should be based on a framework that respects the rights—short-term and long-term—of those who still retain them, i.e., their own soldiers and noncombatants.

A Framework for Choosing a Course of Action

In a situation where a combat action could foreseeably risk the rights of non-combatants, soldiers are morally obligated to choose the course of action that in their judgment best respects the rights of those affected. Leaders must take into account: the mission, their fellow soldiers, and non-combatants.

Mission accomplishment can be understood in terms of rights. In a just war, the overall mission is to defend human rights. The many missions that subordinate units accomplish in support of that overall mission are the means by which the overall mission gets accomplished. These sub-unit missions may vary in how directly and substantively they support the overall mission, but they do contribute. The more directly and substantively they contribute, the more significance they have to supporting human rights. Any mission, then, can be evaluated in terms of its importance to the long-term defense of rights of everyone involved.

Military leaders must also take into account the rights of their own soldiers, who are fighting to defend the rights of others. Although soldiers are volunteers who willingly accept the risks of their profession, their leaders must develop and choose courses of action that accomplish the mission without unduly risking the lives of those entrusted to them.

Finally, leaders must incorporate the rights of potentially affected noncombatants into their course-of-action analyses. To some in our profession, the leadership mantra “Mission First, People Always” is interpreted as “Mission First, Soldiers Always,” thus overlooking our duty as military professionals to protect noncombatants. The fact is, every human being possesses the right not to be killed, unless by his own choice to violate the rights of someone who retains her rights, he forfeits his own right. This is not a binary condition; people can forfeit some of their rights claim, according to their participation in a rights violation. Thus, civilians can lose some of their right to not be killed if they support the rights-violating activities of enemy combatants. For example, a noncombatant who allows enemy combatants to assemble in her house forfeits much of her right to not be killed, so it is less of a moral wrong to take action against morally legitimate targets that results in her death.

Because there are, in combat situations, a nearly infinite number of possible situations involving varying levels of risk to mission, soldiers, and noncombatants, it is impossible to develop a flow-chart-like algorithm that would produce morally justified courses of action. Leaders have to assess their particular situations and use their professional judgment. As a guideline and to foster discussion on this important topic, I offer the following two examples to demonstrate how the Mission-Soldiers-Noncombatants framework can inform leaders’ decisions.

Situation 1: a water-supply convoy that is moving through a built-up area in a town receives poorly aimed small-arms fire to their flank at 250 meters.

Analysis 1: in this situation, accomplishment of the mission (water re-supply) does not require the soldiers to kill their attackers. In the big story of the war, the ambush will not even be a footnote. Also, given the distance of the ambush, the safety of the soldiers is not a major issue as they continue their mission. Finally, there is no evidence that the noncombatants who may be in the line of fire to the ambushers have forfeited their own rights not to be killed.

One reasonable conclusion: the soldiers would NOT be justified in returning large volumes of un-aimed fire. The risk to the rights of noncombatants would not be balanced by a commensurate benefit to mission accomplishment (long-term rights) or force protection (soldiers’ rights).
Situation 2: an infantry unit that is deliberately attacking a fortified urban area is receiving effective fire from an enemy strongpoint that is adjacent to the occupied homes of non-combatants. Civilians in the area had been warned about the attack and given opportunity to relocate. The enemy fire has halted the main effort of the operation.

Analysis 2: in this situation, accomplishment of the mission does require destruction of the enemy. Our own soldiers are already at great risk; their loss of momentum is likely providing the enemy time to maneuver. Moreover, other soldiers in adjacent units are relying on the soldiers’ continued progress to protect their flanks. Finally, the civilians had the opportunity to escape the situation, so they must bear some of the risk; they have compromised some of their own rights not to be killed.

One reasonable conclusion: destroy the enemy position with direct tank or fighting-vehicle fires. Respect for noncombatant rights should limit our use of less discriminating systems such as unguided field artillery and close-air support. Respect for our own soldiers’ rights impels us not to attempt a dismounted assault.
There is much more that could be said about these examples—much more information that leaders should take into account. What is important morally, though, is that military leaders’ course-of-action analyses and decisions give due respect to the three relevant categories in such situations—the mission, friendly soldiers, and noncombatants.

Section II: The Supposed “Moral Equality of Soldiers”

Traditional Notion of the Soldiers’ Moral Equality
thesis: Those who defend rights do not forfeit their own rights.

My argument thus far has assumed that we are the “good guys” and enemy combatants are the “bad guys”; that we retain our right not to be killed while they have forfeited theirs. Believe it or not, the long tradition of just-war thought rejects this notion—instead claiming that all combatants, on both sides of a conflict, are “moral equals” (Walzer 1977; Christopher 1999).
Briefly, the argument for the “moral equality of soldiers” states that since combatants on both sides take up arms against each other, then all combatants are both threats to their enemy and threatened by their enemy. Combatants on both sides, by this account, are equally guilty of being threats, so they all forfeit their right to not be killed. Consequently, all combatants are also equally innocent of violating their enemy’s rights. Thus, soldiers on both sides are moral equals, and no moral wrong is committed when one combatant kills another.

The moral equality of soldiers has an obvious superficial appeal to both soldiers and politicians. To soldiers, it anesthetizes them of their responsibility to fight only for a just cause, and it relieves them of any moral responsibility for killing enemy combatants. To politicians, it ensures that their armies will wage the wars they launch. We should not be surprised, then, that the moral equality of soldiers has been written into the laws of war. It makes war more palatable, morally and politically.

Moral Implications of the Moral Equality of Soldiers
thesis: To subscribe to the moral equality of soldiers is to equate soldiers to mafia thugs or gang members, no better or worse than their enemies.

Should we accept the idea that enemy combatants are our moral equals? As a soldier, I am offended at the claim that soldiers who fight for human rights and freedoms have the same moral standing as those who fight for Nazi or Islamist fascism. Moreover, as an ethicist, I am concerned that we would accept an argument that rationalizes killing on the basis that no one is morally wrong because everyone is morally wrong; i.e., all combatants have forfeited their right to not be killed, so none of them is wrong to kill each other. This line of reasoning has implications that we should be unwilling to accept. As we will see in the ensuing paragraphs, it is only the moral inequality among people in a context that gives killing in self defense[3] its moral authority.

Consider, for example, a situation in which someone who has forfeited his right not bo be killed engages in conflict with someone who retains that right. Imagine that an armed bank robber has taken a hostage at gunpoint. By threatening the life of the hostage, the robber has forfeited his right not to be killed. Imagine further that a police officer then arrives at the scene and aims her firearm at the robber. Has the officer done anything wrong? No. Not only has the robber already forfeited his right not to be killed, but also the police officer has an obligation to protect innocent people, including the hostage. Would we say that the police officer, by virtue of “threatening” the robber, forfeits her own right not to be killed? Would the robber be justified in shooting the officer in “self defense”? Of course not, on both counts. Context matters. The officer cannot violate the rights of someone who has already forfeited them. The moral inequality between the robber and police officer makes it morally acceptable for the officer to kill the robber, but not vice versa.

Consider, on the other hand, a situation in which all parties have forfeited their rights not to be killed. Imagine two organized crime “families” that make their money by threatening the lives of businessmen and who compete over the same turf. They are “at war,” ready to knock off their rival extortionists at any opportunity. In this situation, “family members” on both sides who participate have forfeited their rights not to be killed. If a member of one family attacked someone from the other family, there would be no violation of rights. If the body guards fended off the attack and killed the attacker, they would not be morally justified. Nor, by this argument, would they be morally wrong. They would simply be killing in self interest, not justified self defense. In itself, that is not a violation of rights. However, if any innocent bystanders were killed in the exchange, the Mafioso would bear a grave moral burden, because they would have violated the victims’ rights to not be killed, and have done so for no morally worthy reason.

Are American soldiers analogous to the police officer or to the mafia hit men? Are we defenders of rights or amoral mercenaries? To subscribe to the moral equality of soldiers is to equate soldiers to the mafia thugs, no better or worse than their enemies. On the other hand, to subscribe to the idea that soldiers are analogous to the police officer entails that soldiers must act for a just cause. Soldiers must maintain their moral authority by threatening only those people who have already forfeited their rights not to be killed, and they must not do anything that forfeits their own rights. In other words, they have to fight in wars that are just. Is this a reasonable requirement?

The notion of the moral equality of soldiers can be traced to the Medieval Age and the concept of soldiers’ “invincible ignorance.” Invincible ignorance was the claim that soldiers are either too ignorant or uninformed, or both, to determine whether their side is the aggressor or the defender in a war. Thus was born the conditions that gave rise to the moral equality of soldiers. These conditions, however, no longer apply, at least not in the developed world. Perhaps it was once the case that soldiers were invincibly ignorant, when feudal lords rallied their illiterate serfs to battle, but it is certainly not true today. Today’s soldiers are educated and have access to a wealth of information. To assume that all soldiers are “invincibly ignorant” and thus incapable of judging the justice of a war is misinformed, inaccurate, and insulting to soldiers.

War is not a “moral-free zone.” Prosecuted by humans on their fellow humans, it involves the fundamental moral issues of life and death. In this paper, I have argued that every human being possesses the right to not be killed, and therefore, killing in war is justified only when the enemy soldiers have already forfeited their own rights not to be killed. I further argued that combat situations in which the legitimate killing of enemy combatants may potentially risk the rights of noncombatants require that military leaders give due to respect to the rights of everyone involved by considering the mission, their own soldiers, and affected noncombatants. I further argued that this rights-based justification for killing in war requires a moral inequality among soldiers. After all, if the enemy combatants aren’t wrong, then we have no right to kill them. Finally, I claimed that contemporary soldiers are capable of judging the morality of a war, and thus are responsible for ensuring that they are supporting a morally justified cause.
[1] The right to not be killed and the right to not be enslaved are both rights that are worth killing and dying for. For the sake of brevity, in this article I will refer only to the right to not be killed, but the same argument applies to the right to not be enslaved.
[2] For the sake of brevity, in this article I will treat “violate rights” to include “threaten imminently to violate rights.” We do not have to wait for our rights to be actually violated for the violator to forfeit his or her own rights.
[3] The right of self defense and the right to defense of another are distinct but based on the same principles. Also, the justification of killing in war relates to both rights. For the sake of brevity in this article, I will refer only to the right of self defense, but the right to defend another also applies.

Christopher, P. (1999). The Ethics of War and Peace: An Introduction to Legal and Moral Issues. Upper Saddle River, NJ, Prentice Hall.

Walzer, M. (1977). Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations. United States of America, Basic Books.


Christopher Smith said...

I understand your general argument – that when an American soldier kills enemy combatants he or she is justified in doing so due to the fact that the enemy combatants, through their actions, have forfeited their right not to be killed. To this end you describe enemy combatants as “people who are engaged in violating and threatening the rights of others not to be killed or enslaved.”

This logic works nicely when applied to, say, an American soldier who shoots a suicide bomber a moment before the bomber detonates his charge in a crowded market (this was an image that popped into my head various time while reading your article, although it’s not one that you specifically invoked.) And it is clear, in such a case, that the individual that the American soldier has engaged has, indeed, given up his rights. The American soldier can verify this with his own eyes before pulling the trigger.

But what of the myriad of other cases which require soldiers to ruck up and travel to a distant destination to engage an enemy?

It would seem to me that a moral justification for killing which draws as its primary support the “rightness” of the cause for which the soldier is fighting puts soldiers on ethically thin ice. Upon receiving an order from our Commander in Chief, soldiers would incur an obligation to probe the underlying ethical arguments, evaluate the evidence presented to them, and approve the soundness of the case before moving to execute.

As a citizen this is not something that I want to hold my armed forces responsible for. This moral responsibility, in my opinion, should lie with our elected officials - and ultimately with the voters. I’m no expert, but I’ve spent a significant portion of my civilian career living and working in Latin America, and I have some first hand experience in countries in which the support of the military must be actively courted and lobbied for by the government.

The idea that our America soldiers are morally equivalent to the soldiers that we face seems distasteful in the context of our current conflict, but that in itself might not be a good reason for discarding the idea entirely. It does, as you point out, anesthetize soldiers of the responsibility of fighting only for a just cause – but the question I think we should ask ourselves is whether or not we want soldiers opining on the “justness” of the cause which we’re sending them to fight for as a prerequisite for executing orders given to them by their Commander in Chief.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read or thought about Walzer, but I do remember that the legalistic arguments justifying killing in combat felt opaque when I studied them – and I can image that they might provide a flexible toolkit for a young company commander wrestling with these issues. But those tortured legalistic arguments, while not particularly emotive, did strike me as universal and flexible. Walzer is sitting in my book case so maybe I’ll have to go pick it up.

My experiences have shown me that our American system is the best in the world. But “best” doesn’t mean “infallible”. Our decisions makers are human, and like all human beings they are vulnerable to ethical lapses and distortions. Our country’s founding documents have given us a host of mechanisms for keeping the nation on course – and they work. Our leaders, on occasion, will get it wrong.

Obviously I haven’t thought about these issues as much as you have, but that’s my knee jerk reaction as Joe Citizen. I’ve enjoyed following your career over the years and the impact you seem to be having on the profession.

Go Bandits
C. Smith

Pete said...

You rightly recognize the implications of my line of argument, one of which is that we should expect our soldiers to fight only in conflicts that are morally justified!

Today's soldiers are not illiterate, uninformed serfs who are incapable of judging the morality of a war. We are educated and informed. That sais, I do think we have to do more to educate soldiers--and the American public--on the moral factors to consider in war.

I think it would be great if our political leaders would feel compelled to argue for the moral justification of a proposed war before they sent us off to kill and be killed in it. If they can't make the case that it's right, why in the world should we kill and die for the cause?

I am confident that 99% of the brave Americans who volunteer to serve in our military would have no qualms about killing and being killed in a just war. (There will always be the occasional coward.)

But, if the political leaders cannot make the case that a proposed war is morally just, then why the heck should we go off and kill folks? Killing is always morally wrong; the only thing that makes killing in war morally right is that it is the lesser of alternative evils. There has to be a COMPELLING case that NOT FIGHTING leads to a morally worse outcome than fighting does.

Chris, I really appreciate your pushback. I addressed the Marine Corps CGSC class last week at Quantico, and there was some great discussion on the same points you raise. As you rightly point out, I do think we need a revolution in thinking about moral conduct of war and in war. We are long past due.

Christopher Smith said...


You point out that there needs to be a compelling case that not fighting leads to a morally worse outcome than fighting, and that the military should expect our political leaders to morally justify military missions that they’ve been ordered to execute.

I couldn’t agree more, as I agree with much that is written here. And I’ll add that civilians should also demand this moral justification for military action since those missions are executed on our behalf.

I am a person with a great respect for the collective intellectual capacity of our armed forces, so in my mind this isn’t a question of what moral judgments soldiers are capable of. It’s a question of what judgments soldiers SHOULD be held accountable for. And I note that you and I emphasize the same word – the world “should” - so in the middle of these complex ideas this seems to be the core that I wrestle with in thinking about these things.

So, personally, I think my discomfort boils down to two kernels:

First: Our great country will always be led by fallible men – fallibility is our human nature. So it’s a certainty that some American soldiers, eventually, will end up fighting in unwise conflicts. A young private who loves his country and risks his life to execute a mission needs a moral foundation that goes beyond the assumption that his leaders in Washington have acted wisely in launching that particular conflict. The “good guy” argument should be part of the moral justification – and I would hope that it holds in the vast majority of cases - but I don’t think it can be the core justification.

Second: Accountability is critical, but more of it isn’t necessarily better. The buck has to stop somewhere. And, as a civilian, my view is that it should stop with the President who leads our military and the Congress who holds the purse strings. A second level of moral accountability in which the military is charged with weighing and opining on the moral soundness of the political decision to launch a particular military action may make things less clear – and may lead to dangerous, unintended consequences.

I obviously have more questions than answers. Apply the “good guy” argument to the overall American system instead of to a particular conflict? Hold generals morally accountable for fearless, candid counsel to their civilian superiors? I don’t know. But I do know that I’ll struggle with a moral framework that doesn’t, somehow, address those two nagging concerns.

At any rate, keep it up. I’m sure that in today’s politicized Army your writing has made you both friends and enemies.

Pete said...


Too bad you didn't stay in and teach philosophy at West Point. You would have been great!

Re the first point: I agree that it's sad but true that, even if our soldiers and citizenry are educated on the morality of war and take our roles seriously, we will likely end up fighting sometime in some war that we later realize was morally wrong.

And if/when that happens, then we will be morally blameless for our objectively immoral action.

Not all moral wrongs are worthy of moral condemnation--sometimes we make decisions on bad information. Later, after we have better information, we don't want to say that the moral wrong we did was right--it wasn't. At the same time, we have to recognize that the judgment we subsequently make on that person--whether that's ourself or another--takes into account the circumstances of the decision.

This ties in somewhat with your second point, about accountability. Your language seems to imply that moral accountability entails legal accountability. It can, but it doesn't have to.

As we see (again) with this war, it's exceedingly difficult to make definitive right/wrong judgments on the morality of a war. IMO, attaching legal punishments on "moral" situations tends to undermine the impact of the moral judgments themselves. The practice of law is legalist/literalist and inevitably leads to loopholes and attempts to "beat the rule," whereas morality doesn't work that way.

I'd prefer to let the persuasive power of morality work on its own. If we have a good shared understanding of when it's morally justified to wage war and how to wage it morally, then there will be a strong (nonlegal) force for every soldier and nation to act morally.

Maybe I'm an idealist, but right now we're in no position to judge whether this is possible. The prevailing level of moral discourse on war is appallingly shallow. I'd love to see what happens if we have a military and citizenry that understand and value the moral principles as they apply to war. Things could change for the better.

I enjoy this exchange, Chris. Thanks! Don't worry about me. If my work has made me any enemies (excepts for PAOs who only like feel-good stories), I'm not aware of it. Folks are pretty darn supportive, in fact. Most soldiers just feel unqualified to weigh in on the subject of morality of/in war, which is more evidence for my thesis.

Bill Samuel said...

When a country invades another in violation of international law using arguments that have been proven false, then its soldiers lack moral standing. To use your language, they become somewhat equivalent to Mafia thugs. This, of course, is the situation in Iraq.

In any war, both sides consider themselves to be morally right. Thus each side considers their lives to have more value than those fighting on the other side. This is almost always the way it is.

In fact, America's enemies make a lot of good points. The U.S. has pursued for quite some time policies of dominating other nations and denying them the right to choose their own governments. Now we are openly waging "preemptive war" which is just other words for wars of aggression. Of course, the other side's claims to morality are similarly not sound.

There is no end to mass slaughter under your code of ethics. This has gone on for millenia. We know that your ethics leads to an endless cycle of wars, in which all say we are the good guys and it is right to kill the bad guys.

This madness needs to stop! People need to refuse to accept this kind of ethics. Soldiers need to lay down their weapons, and refuse to fight any more.

As one who seeks to be a follower of Jesus, I am called to a wholly different ethical standard than the one you uphold.

Pete said...


There are objective moral standards by which we can evaluate the justness of a war.

You appear to be saying that no wars are just. Especially today (Memorial Day 2008), you should take a moment to thank the Soldiers who made possible that right (Revolutionary War) and those who have preserved it (many subsequent wars).

Don't lete you political opposition to the current war cloud your judgment of the moral permissibility of all wars.

I encourage you to read Just War theorist Brian Orend's new book The Morality of War.

Finally, since you pulled the "Christian card," I'll respond briefly with just an observation and a thought experiment.

an observation: Jesus never condemned Soldiers, although he had many opportunities to do so, and he wasn't exactly one to withhold his thoughts. In fact, Jesus saves the Centurion's daughter and praises his faith, and in the early Church the centurion Cornelius is the first named convert. Although Jesus and his disciples condemned sinners such as prostitutes and religious hypocrites, there's nary a word about soldiers.

a thought experiment: think about the Good Samaritan. What if he has ambled down the road DURING the attack. Would the Christian thing to do have been to sit and watch the beating (waiting to see if there would be a survivor to "rescue"?), or to intevene and stop the beating? The Christian choice is to confront and stop evil.

That Pneumatika guy said...

I apologize for posting a fresh comment on an old discussion, but this seemed to be the best place to put it.
Greetings, Dr. Kilner.

I have been enjoying reading your blog at http://soldier-ethicist.blogspot.com. Your explanation of the moral justification of killing in war (or police action) is an excellent summary and gave me the tools to resolve a troubling path of thought for me. This closed a significant gap for me to balance the concepts of just war theory and self-defense with the alleged biblical pacifism of (predominantly non-Western) Christian thinkers.

I would like to ask a question regarding the place of extreme prejudice in the ethics of the soldier.

I have had many conversations with a friend of mine who is prior Special Forces. My friend was involved with small unit action and saw combat in diverse places such as Central America and the Middle East. He has told me of incidents where enemy combatants, such as hostage-taking hijackers, were killed (after capture) as if they were animals that had to be put down. There certainly was moral justification for killing the hijackers, but I struggle to explain the ethical reason to use extreme prejudice against these enemies. These hijackers perpetrated crimes (which I deem un-reformable) and were worthy of their deaths, but should they have been treated like animals?

I believe that given the right circumstances anyone is capable of the most heinous crimes. No one by nature is any more a "monster" than anyone else, and apart from the grace of God we are all equally capable of monstrous acts. Yet, I also recognize that there is a tactical "need" to dehumanize the enemy in order to combat him effectively. For example, a soldier cannot hesitate to kill while he is contemplating how the enemy he faces will never be going home again to his family.

Where is the place for killing with extreme prejudice within a morally justified killing in war? What place does extreme prejudice have in an understanding of the moral equivalence or inequivalence of combatants?

Thank you for your consideration.

Pete said...

Pneumatika guy:

Thanks for the note. You say:

"There certainly was moral justification for killing the hijackers, but I struggle to explain the ethical reason to use extreme prejudice against these enemies. These hijackers perpetrated crimes (which I deem un-reformable) and were worthy of their deaths, but should they have been treated like animals?"

What is it about the situation that is treating them like animals? The fact that they are rounded up and killed when they couldn't fight back? Let's think about what's really happening.

In general, we justly kill those who are engaged in fighting against us because they are threatening the lives of people who still retain the right not to be killed.

In general, we do not kill those who are "rounded up," such as detainees. Why? Because they are no longer a threat to rights; we have them under control for as long as we need.

In the situation you describe, the enemy personnel are controlled at that moment in time, yet the hostage-rescue personnel are not in a position to permanently detain the enemy; the spec ops guys must escape quickly from bad-guy territory to save the hostage.

So, in reality, the enemy personnel will be threats to the innocent again as soon as the good guys leave. If the spec ops folks don't kill them when they have the opportunity, it is likely that more hostages will be taken, more innocent killed.

Given that the moral justification of killing in war is predicated on protecting the innocent (those who have not forfeited their right not to be killed) against aggressors (those who have forfeited that right), the best way to protect those rights is by killing the aggressors when we have the opportunity.

Whenever we CAN detain enemy personnel and put them on trial--yes, we should. But when circumstances don't allow that, I think it is morally permissible--perhaps even obligatory--to kill them to eliminate the threat they pose.

Will it feel good to shoot someone who's sitting there? Probably not. Will that person's face show up in your dreams at night? Probably so. Is something inherently wrong about the action? Yes. Is is the morally right thing to do in the screwed-up situation called war? Yes.

War is justified only when it is the lesser evil among bad choices. So, too, is killing in war. In the situation you describe, the "killing with extreme prejudice" is wrong in a real sense, but it may be right when compared with the option of allowing proven dangerous people to continue threatening the innocent.

Thoughts from others?

Anonymous said...

Is it a legal order or is an officer holding the moral high ground when told to take off his country's flag when invading another country?


Pete said...

Rad: I think that an order to remove one's national insignia from one's uniform before invading a country would be an illegal and immoral order. It's illegal because the laws of land warfare require that combatants wear insignia that identifies them as combatants of a particular force. It's immoral because, by hiding the identity of the forces one's fighting for, discrimination between combatants and noncombatants becomes much more difficult.

Good question, and one that's timely given Russia's alleged actions in Ukraine.

Anonymous said...

Bill: "When a country invades another in violation of international law using arguments that have been proven false, then its soldiers lack moral standing. To use your language, they become somewhat equivalent to Mafia thugs. This, of course, is the situation in Iraq."

Hate to flog a dead horse, and I realize that this is late in the posts...

But Bill, I have to say that I'm disappointed in the rank assumption you just made with the above statement.

The common meme floated around democratic conventions and college campuses likes to pretend that Iraq was an unjust war not for reasons based on evidence, but on sagecraft based on political ideology.

An apolitical reading of the justifications leading up to the action reveals a number of just causes for the Iraq invasion, such as:

1) Repeated violations by Hussein of U.N. Resolutions regarding refusal to comply with weapons inspectors.

2) Genocide campaigns against Kurdish settlements and civilians using chemical weapons.

3) http://www.frontpagemag.com/2014/arnold-ahlert/saddams-wmds-the-lefts-iraq-lies-exposed/
The left's denial of W.M.D.s was not born out of evidence, but of ideological self-delusion and political self-appeasement. A fiction that we may be paying for soon, as ISIS continues to scour its way across the country.

The first was justification for Iraq alone, the second a moral justification as I rank human rights higher than national sovereignty, and the last is an abject lesson to you to stop sacrificing objective reasoning for the sake of partisan politics.