Why killing enemy combatants is morally justified
BLUF: 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 to not be killed.
Every person, by virtue of being a human being, possesses the right to not be killed by another person. This is commonly referred to as the “right to life,” but the term “right to not 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.
The term “right to not 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 to not 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 to life of those who possess it, he forfeits his own right to not be killed.
Enemy combatants are people who are engaged in violating and threatening the rights of others to not 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
BLUF: In war, the least among morally wrong options 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 to not 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 do 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 to not 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 assembly in her house forfeits much of her right to not be killed.
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 (rather extreme) examples to demonstrate how the Mission-Soldiers-Noncombatants framework can inform leaders’ decisions.
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 to not 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).
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 to not 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 field artillery and fixed-wing 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 all relevant factors in such situations—the mission, friendly soldiers, and noncombatants.