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Thursday, January 13, 2005


Deliberate killing - a brief thoughtpiece

Do not pretend that civilian casualties in war are not deliberate. Western militaries spend much energy on calculating the probable civilian deaths as a result of their actions. To then proceed with these actions is to say, ‘the lives of these people are expendable in the pursuit of our political goal’. To argue otherwise is to argue that Western militaries are negligent, or otherwise managed by morons. That is not to say these actions are automatically immoral, but it is to say that the civilians sacrificed by Western militaries in the pursuit of a political end are not, in themselves, in a different moral category to the civilians sacrificed by terrorists or insurgents in the pursuit of their political end. What are different, and what the morality or immorality of these actions is derived from, are [1] the political ends themselves and [2] the scale of human sacrifice involved in the pursuit of these aims.

you are deliberately misusing the word deliberate. to understand that part of the consequences of your actions is a certain loss of life amoung non-combatants is very different than willfully targeting them. to equate the accidental death of people in war with sawing off the heads of captives is to take moral equivelence to new depths. it frightens me to think that you can see no difference between collateral damage and willful murder. it is exactly that moral blindness that leads to guillotines in the public square, gas chambers, and terror famines.

Civilian casualties can war be divided into 3 groups

Caught in the cross fire of genuine military action. (sometimes called collateral)

People who die of Diseases etc. due to the disruptions caused by war.

War crimes.

The first is not a crime unless there is intentional misconduct or negligence. The civilian casualties are normally not intended.

The second may or may not be manslaughter depending on the knowledge and ability of the respective governments. It could possibly be murder; the nazi’s I think in some cases, intentionally went out of their way to create this. This was the greatest cause of death in most wars up until WWI.

The last being intentional criminal acts.

Forgetting or losing the distinction makes any meaningful attempt to prevent civilian casualties impossible. If an accidentally discharged weapon is the same as lining people up by a ditch and shooting them into ditch are legally the same thing:

then acquitting the person who had accident means the murder should go free,

or else to convict the murderer we convict someone who did not commit an intentional act. And if there is an accident why bother attempting to comply afterwards, if caught you will be “hung” anyway. Losing that distinction is virtually a certain way to increase war crimes.

Sean’s last sentence may be over dramatic, but that to is a real possibility.
If I conduct an action that I know will kill someone, then death of that person is deliberate, whether or not that was the principal purpose of my action. As you say, this does not, in itself, make the act immoral.

If we are to say that perfectly forseable 'collateral damage' is not deliberate damage, then we deny the label of deliberate killing from a terrorist who, in the course of attacking a military or otherwise 'legitimate' target, kills civilians. We call these killings deliberate, not simply because we argue that the terrorist knew that he or she would kill these people, but decided to carry out the act nevertheless. However, this category of killing includes any and all military action that kills civilians in a manner that is foreseable.

This does not include accidents, which are not 'collateral damage', at least when considered on the operational scale. We might describe accidents as 'collateral damage' when we look at situations at a much lower resolution, as the introduction of large numbers of armed men into an environment will, inevitably, lead to a greater number of accidental deaths. At this level, it should be foreseen by those who take the decision to introduce the armed men into the environment. This doesn't make the decision to introduce armed men into an environment immoral, but it does ask that decision makers account for their willingness to sacrifice the predictable increase in accidental deaths vis a vis their political ends. This argument carries for gun control too.

Sean writes, "it frightens me to think that you can see no difference between collateral damage and willful murder. it is exactly that moral blindness that leads to guillotines in the public square, gas chambers, and terror famines." Now, my argument does nothing of the sort. Nor does it argue that there is no difference between [foreseable] collateral damage and willful murder. While I argue that both are deliberate killings, I explicitly state that the moral difference between these lies in both the scale, and, perhaps more importantly, the political ends. The killing of an innocent person as, in itself, a means to a political end, would contradict most liberal, democratic or even socialist political goals, on the grounds that this contradicts the principle of justice. This principle of justice, it can be argued, should not be broken even if more innocent people must inadvertently die, though there deaths are a foreseable result of not killing the first innocent person. Or, at least, that is one possible argument. Though I would ask that we did not fool ourselves into thinking that these 'inadvertent' deaths were not deliberate - we (as the state, for example) could foresee, or ought to be able to foresee if we are not incompetent or reckless, that these deaths would result, and we allow them to as to act, or to not act, would be a move contrary to our political ends.

Sean mentions terror famines. We should all be aware that there is enough food in the world for not a single person to go malnourished. That we do not is as a result of an unwillingness to break with our political and economic system. Those deaths are the cost of its continued existence. I can see where that is controversial, and I see already that some will argue that kelptocratic leaders would take the aid for their own purposes. Okay, while I still believe that the example stands, let us consider the case of AIDS, where our patent protection, a particular and man-made feature of our modern political system, is a block on the distribution of AIDS drugs to those who cannot afford them. That we let them die to protect our politically constituted intellectual property laws is a mark that their deaths are considered a none too expensive price for this system.

But, as a final point, please remember Sean that, in a pervious post on this site you argued that the Central American death squads were perfectly legitimate in the pursuit of Cold War political ends, as was the action of supporting Saddam at the height of his crime. The death squads murdered and tortured civilians, as did Saddam. How do reconcile supporting this action, if you feel that these are examples of 'moral blindness'?

To continue your thought piece.

A desired goal. The pragmatic one of creating a strong incentive to keep civilian casualties to minimum and provide a solid basis to convict the guilty and acquitting the innocent. A formal definition of pragmatic is “the practical effect.” We want the practical effect of reducing civilian casualties in war.

Andrew: One deliberately caused any result of ones action?? If that is not what you are saying please correct me.

Hank: One deliberately caused what one intended.

Example: A military action is ordered, for a good cause. The commander on the spot needs to attack a certain target to achieve the goal. When the operation is over it turns out there were civilian deaths.

Andrew: They were the deliberate result of the decision to attack

Hank;The commander makes every reasonable effort to conduct the attack without civilian casualties, minimize the ones that can’t be avoided, and ensure medical attention. He did not deliberately kill these people.
If he is negligent in the planning and conduct he is responsible for these deaths in the sense that he committed manslaughter. He killed these people thru negligence not deliberately.
If he says “what the heck!!” and blasts away, he deliberately caused deaths in the sense of murder.

The court of inquiry reviews the action. The long-standing definition of murder is killing someone deliberately.

On Andrews’s definition the he deliberately killed these people and therefore should be found guilty of murder.

In Hank’s definition the one did what he could to prevent civilian is not prosecuted, the negligent gets tried for manslaughter and the one deliberately killed gets tried and punished for murder.

What would be the practical effect of commanders operating under Andrews and Hanks definitions?

Under Andrew’s. I’m guilty in any case, why bother; let’s shoot the witnesses. The “human sacrifice” total goes UP!

Under Hank’s. If I act responsibly I won’t be tried, if I don’t I’m in trouble. I will deliberately act to avoid civilian deaths.. Civilian deaths are kept to minimum.

It is not that I don’t see your point. Sitting in my office it has an atheistic appeal. But if it is put into practice the result will be the opposite of what we both want.
You're conflating moral statements about what should be with statements about what the law currently is.

If AB's conception were the generally accepted one, then either the military would need to be disbanded, or definitions of the crime of murder would need to be amended. This would be a simple and easy process, so it doesn't make sense to cite it as a serious objection to changing one's moral views.

NB the gas chambers are neither here nor there in the context of side-effects of military action: it's clear from the historical record that committing acts of genocide *reduces* your ability to win wars against an external enemy.
John B

it's clear from the historical record that committing acts of genocide *reduces* your ability to win wars against an external enemy. A pragmatic concept.
There is a third possibility if AB's proposal were accepted. And attempt to limit the effects of war on civilians would be ignored.

My thoughts were of a pragmatic not legal basis. If someone choose to ignore the constraints of morality and law, they will if there is not some other incentive. Under AB's idea, if someone (who by defination is armed and dangerous) chooses to ignore morality and law the only way to to enforce it is by going to war. Under mine there is anincentive to avoid the problem.

Nothing is perfect but I think in the pratical results, my idea will produce less civialian casualties.
part of the reason for the laws of war is surely a mutual attempt by legitimate warring parties to limit the kind of viciousness that they are themselves subject to. the other part of it is that after certain types of acts, there can be no peace. once a certain line is crossed, only genocide can end the fighting. i invite you to imagine making peace with the people that, in a hypothetical war with you, occupied and set about systematically raping and torturing (real torture, not forcing you to wear panties on your head) the general population. could you ever peacefully cooexist with these people? please also remember that the Geneva Protocols are a deal struck between warring parties, not a guarantee by one party to follow while the other does not. those who do not follow the restrictions of the Geneva Protocols are not subject to the benefits. they are not a suicide pact.
Please understand that I am not advocating the 'decriminalisation' of killing civilians. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, I am all for building the social machinery, a term some here seem to so dispise, and international institutions, that prevent the deaths of civilians and, indeed, bury the legitimacy of force beneath treaties, international law (and courts) and other transnational institutions. Sean is the only person who has come to this blog and made arguments of 'might-make-right', in his rejection of the UN and other checks on American power, and indeed the power of all nations.

What I am pointing out in this post, is that the civilian deaths that accompany actions carried out by a modern army cannot be, by sleight-of-vocabulary, dismissed as 'collateral'. These civilian deaths are calculated and accepted costs of military action in pursuit of a political goal. And we should always ask 'is it worth it?'

The attitude of the American military in Iraq is 'we don't do bodycounts'. Which suggest that they neither ask the question nor even entertain the legitimacy of the question.
i believe the "we don't do bodycounts" line has more to do with the rejection of the Vietnam era method of defining progress. our military has had it drummed into their heads that actual killing is secondary to mission accomplishment. worrying that you have only killed 10 terrorists today instead of 20 like yesterday is no way to run a war. it breeds an attitude that encourages slaughter rather than warfare. don't conflate that with some sort of indifference to the number of dead civilians. the lack of score keeping by body count makes the civilian population safer rather than not.

About the US Military’s “we don’t do body counts.

As the US military see’s it, many years ago at the beginning of the Viet Nam war the US would make an estimate of enemy casualties for a given action. Some reporter who did not want to leave the air-conditioned comfort of Saigon would ask a staff officer “off the record” for his estimate, and another reporter would do the same, and there would be a weeks worth of stories on “who is lying?” Reporting on enemy casualties went down hill from there, the military quickly developed the policy of only counting bodies it buried, hence the emphasis on body counts in the Viet Nam war. The press tells the story a little differently.

The US Military's policy ever since that experience is “been there, done that ‘We don’t do body counts’ no way no how!” When not talking to the press I’m sure they have asked the question, and consider it quite legitimate.

International Law is mostly Contract Law, so you have a point, when one party breaks an agreement, the other party may abrogate it. But this does not create a requirement to be stupid.

Much of what is in the Geneva conventions is sound practice whether they existed or not. Abrogating those provisions is stupid. There is nothing in the Geneva conventions that would constitute a suicide pact.

Even in your rather extreme example, following the lead of the enemy would not be a good idea.

1) Why would we want to drop to their level? Would we really have won?
2) An undisciplined military force is a danger to every one including it’s sponsors but excluding the enemy. Military forces engaged in atrocities and genocide rapidly become undisciplined. By not following their example all things equal, we have a better force than the enemy.

Yes, Al Quaida is a problem to be dealt with. (And of course they would hate Andrew’s politics worse than yours or mine, but since he is less likely to shoot back they can wait on him.) But really it is a matter for good old-fashioned (in the positive sense) soldering. By it’s nature a long haul, but nothing that is really new.
the US Military has the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) to provide for good discipline and order. i was not advocating that when fighting a non Geneva group that we should return to some sort of Red Army in WWII sort of barbarism. i was saying that giving the benefit of all the Geneva protocols to unlawful combatants was wrong. we can shoot them with hollowpoint bullets, imprison them without trial, cooerce them into talking, and execute those who we don't like. we should make the decision as to who is bad enough to warrant this sort of treatment and visit it upon them. the sort of person who would join a group dedicated to sawing the heads off captives, especially civilian captives, does not deserve Red Cross visits.

those who meet their Geneva protocol requirements should be treated as POWs, not because we feel like it, but becuase we have to. we need to make the distinction clear, so that future enemies see that fighting a clean war is just as futile as fighting a dirty one, but less painful afterwards. they need to see that being a lawful combatant will get you treated like an honorable enemy, while being a terrorist thug will get you a hung by the neck until dead. preferably after strong questioning so you die knowing that your fellows will soon join you in hell.

it is a false dichotomy to claim that the alternative to granting everyone the protections of the Geneva protocals is wholesale barbarism. we can, snd should, differentiate on the basis of how each prisoner deserves to be treated.
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