On Protecting Civilian Life in War

Jeffrey Tiel

April 1, 2003

Americans have long been keen on preserving the lives of innocents during wartime. But this very desire to protect innocent life can be used against us. Iraqi paramilitary units are deliberately hiding behind women and children as they advance, military forces have hidden tanks and supplies inside of hospitals and mosques, and Republican Guard units have taken up positions in residential neighborhoods requiring the population to stay in place. All of this is being done not for effective tactical reasons: women and children do not stop cannon fire; hospitals when bombed bury the tanks beneath them, and military units cannot entrench that well in residential homes. No, these actions are being taken for strategic reasons: the Iraqis have figured out a central American failing: Americans care so much about taking human life that their sentiments can be manipulated to Iraqi military advantage. Hence, a hospital is a better defense than a bunker fifty feet beneath the earth, because Americans don’t bomb hospitals. A mosque is a better position to emplace a machine gun, because Americans don’t shoot at mosques.

In addition to being sentimental, however, Americans have also long been known for being practical. And perhaps some additional thought on the practical side might enable us to avoid increasing the likelihood that the very people we wish to protect will continue to be used as human shields. It is not immoral, after all, to bomb a hospital building. Nor is it immoral to destroy a mosque. Rather, these are judgments made as general rules to guide soldiers in their actions. But general rules have principled exceptions, and all soldiers know that if the enemy barricades himself in a mosque, unless that mosque is the Dome of the Rock or something of similar value (in which case getting out of range and starving the enemy out is the best idea), the enemy soldiers’ choice to make the mosque their bunker permits the mosque’s destruction. But general rules can sometimes be misinterpreted as moral laws for which there may be no exceptions. Hence, to be moral and noble, to "occupy the moral high ground," our soldiers are treating the general rule as moral law; they are simply not shooting at anyone hiding in a mosque or a school or a hospital. And paradoxically, the Iraqis are hiding in increasing numbers in mosques, schools, and hospitals. The effect? When we finally start to shoot at the enemy holed up in these places, many more of these buildings will be destroyed than would have been destroyed in the first place if our troops would simply fire on those who fire on them regardless of their location. There is such a thing as trying to be too moral, so much so that one loses both real morality and effectiveness.

Let’s look at this theoretically: in the ethics of warfighting, Americans have led the world in trying to fight justly. Our soldiers try desperately to observe the famous distinction between combatants and noncombatants, directly attacking only the former, and trying to minimize harms to the latter. But our soldiers also know that noncombatants will still die in wartime, since a shell may land badly, destroying a homeowner. But since the homeowner wasn’t the target, we don’t blame the soldier; we understand that to be one of the bad effects of war. The moral doctrine of double effect has been formulated to help us explain why we do not blame the soldier. Since the soldier did not intend the bad effect (the death of the homeowner) but did intend a good effect (the destruction of a military radar installation, e.g.), and the destruction of the radar installation was sufficiently important to the military effort to make shelling it near homes a worthy proposition (called the principle of proportionality), then no blame accrues to the soldier (even though he missed the target—these things happen.) The doctrine of double effect can even be used to justify attacks on combatants in which one knows in advance that noncombatants will be killed (not mere accidents like the homeowner case). Consider the opening shots of this second gulf war: surely the US Air Force knew that Saddam’s bunker contained civilian janitors or cooks, yet they bombed it anyhow. This attack was justified under the principle of double effect, since the attack was aimed at a legitimate target (the most legitimate of all, in this case), the attack was not aimed at the civilians, and the loss of those few civilians compared to the value of a quick end to Saddam and his sons was well worth it.

Saddam’s troops are now trying to use our adherence to the principle of double effect against us by deliberately confusing the combatant/noncombatant distinction in all of the ways we have come to know over the last few days. But the principle of double-effect is not the problem here; it’s our failure to uphold it properly. Consider again the principle of proportionality: the harm caused by the bad effect (the noncombatant casualties or the loss of historical buildings) must be weighed against the good caused by the good effect (destroying Saddam’s bunker, e.g.). If the enemy deliberately places his forces in a manner to increase the losses to noncombatants because he knows we’ll not shoot at those forces, then that enemy reaction to our upholding the principle becomes part of the future application of the principle. In other words, we are justified in worrying less about noncombatant casualties as a result of this or that attack, because if we don’t worry less here and now, the number of noncombatant casualties overall will increase significantly. Only our striking hard against Iraqi forces wherever they may be found will convince them of the strategic ineffectiveness of their plan to hide behind their people. They will then abandon that plan and replace it with a tactically effective one, like trying to hide where the bombs will not harm them, or perhaps, surrender. And that shift in Iraqi doctrine will be occasioned only by our refusal to allow the doctrine of double effect to be misused against us.

Jeffrey Tiel is an assistant professor of philosophy at Ashland University.