I'm back

From January through May, I was consumed doing my dissertation work, and thus didn't have the mental space and physical time to keep this blog up to date. My PhD is in Instructional Systems, and my reseach was on online communities, not ethics, so there was no carryover of ideas.

Recent events, such as reports on the alleged incident at Haditha and the conscientious objection claim of an Army LT about to deploy to Iraq have gotten my juices going again.


Anonymous said...

Welcome Back!

I read your article in the Washington Post (June 11th, B 7) with interest. I expect you to be a talking head soon!

For what it is worth, I thought your piece was even-handed and well thought out.

Anonymous said...

Major Kilner:

Congratulations on finishing your dissertation.

I read with interest your well written piece “Morals in a Combat Zone” which appeared in the Washington Post on June 11, 2006. Your defense of ethical principles for the use of lethal force as remaining applicable during warfare is consonant with the just war tradition, international law, and the U.S. military's own law of land warfare.

However, I disagree with your differentiation between war-fighting and policing operations which you assert require “different principles for the use of force.” While decision-making is extremely difficult under murky and stressful combat conditions, police officers also must make split-second decisions when they employ lethal force. Sometimes it is difficult for them to determine who's the perpetrator and who's the victim. Sometimes a toy gun is mistaken for a real gun. In either context, war or policing, for the use of deadly force to be morally and legally justified it should be proportionate (use no more force than necessary to subdue the enemy or perpetrator), a last resort (if possible first employ nonviolent or less-violent methods), discriminating (do not intentionally target noncombatants or civilians), and have a just cause (use in defense of self or others from grave or lethal harm). I could say the same for other criteria such as legitimate authority, probability of success, and right intent.

The principles for the legitimate use of force are essentially the same whether we are morally assessing the alleged incident at Haditha, the 1985 bombing of MOVE by the Philadelphia police, or any deadly force incident by local police.

The point that the mode of moral reasoning and the framework of criteria associated with it, which justify and govern the use of lethal force, are basically the same was made by a number of just war theorists, including Paul Ramsey, Ralph Potter, Edward Malloy, and some others. Admittedly, the application of these moral principles may be easier most of the time in policing than in combat, but again the principles are essentially the same.

Best wishes,
Tobias Winright, Ph.D.

Pete Kilner said...


Thanks for your comments, but I respectfully disagree. In warfighting, soldiers don't use force as a last resort. Instead, when we see an enemy soldier, we kill him. Lethal force is the first resort.

There is a difference in the principles for the use of force in policing and warfighting. When policing, a person is innocent until there is sufficient cause to determine him to be enemy. Even then, the goal is to bring him in alive.

In warfighting, the presumption is that those we face are enemy, and we kill them unless they surrender.

Of course, in both situations noncombatants should be protected, but in warfighting collateral damage (IAW principle of double effect) is acceptable, whereas in policing it is not.

Do I make sense? Do you disagree?


Anonymous said...


I understand the distinction you have made. However, I stand by my basic point that the moral principles governing the use of force are essentially the same. A clarification needs to be made, given what you have noted.

The jus in bello criteria of noncombatant immunity (discrimination) and proportionality certainly apply to both military combat and police use of force, though the doctrine of double effect may permit unintended and indirect civilian casualties (i.e., collateral damage) in warfare. However, theoretically I suspect this would be permitted in some law enforcement scenarios.

As for soldiers using force as a first resort, well, police officers may do so also if the suspect is already firing at the officer or at innocent bystanders, or if the officer believes that there is an imminent and grave threat to his/her and/or innocent bystanders' life and limb. If shots are not already being fired (or imminently threatened), then the officer should first exhaust other nonlethal measures to subdue the suspect. When you note that soldiers kill the enemy "unless they surrender" you are in a way acknowledging my point. If an enemy soldier indicates that he/she does not pose a threat by surrendering, then killing that enemy soldier is set aside (unless it is a ruse and he/she again poses a threat, then that soldier could be killed, which would thus be a last resort).

Still, I should qualify my earlier point by noting that last resort is a principle under the jus ad bellum category, and these principles are primarily for the decision-makers when they are deciding whether or not a nation is justified in going to war. Here, in a way that is analogous to a police officer, the nation's decision makers must have just cause (defense against an attack that has happened, is happening, or imminently about to happen; even here other nations should be considered innocent until proven or demonstrably guilty), probability of success, legitimate authority, last resort, etc. The soldier on the ground does not have to sort through all of these criteria during combat. But he or she is supposed to abide by the rules governing the conduct of war (jus in bello). Moreover, if he or she believes in good conscience that his or her nation's decision-makers have embarked upon an unjust war (here he or she would consider also the jus ad bellum criteria), then he or she should follow their conscience and refuse to fight in an unjust war like he or she is supposed to refuse carrying out an unjust order (such as to kill civilians as at My Lai).

Again, both spheres (war and policing) are human endeavors involving human actions and therefore human morality (or immorality). Again, the basic principles justifying and governing the use of force crop up in either context, though their application does differ to some extent.

Maybe, though, we should work toward making just war more like just policing? Maybe the supposed differences you have suggested about combat should be addressed so that the rules of engagement (and the training in adhering to these rules) should approximate the rules for policing?


Pete Kilner said...

I think we agree that there are objective principles that apply to the use of lethal force. When information is unconstrained and perfect for a moral agent in a situation, he/she should use lethal force the same, whether policing or warfighting.

However, moral decisions are always made in constrained situations with imperfect information. As such, we always have to make assumptions about the other person's (e.g., attacker's) intentions and capabilities.

In most cases, the police can assume that people they encounter are not intent on killing them, and the police can assume that they have more firepower and training than their potential adversaries. Those assumptions allow for a more judicious use of force.

In war, however, a soldier cannot make those assumptions. In fact, it's more likely that the adversary IS intent on killing him and does have a support network of others helping him to do so. For this reason, it's judicious to assume the worst.

This is why police do not fire unless there is an immiment threat, yet soldiers do fire immediately unless the enemy demonstrates he is not a threat by surrendering or being incapacitated. It's the same principle of force, applied differently based on the situations.

For this reason, it seems to me that the principles for justified killing can be objectively the same, but principles for justified killing in policing and warfighting are different.

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