War can be an Experience of both Heaven and Hell

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Killing in War: a Rights-based Justification

Killing in War: a Rights-based Justification

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.
Situation 1: a water-supply convoy that is moving through a built-up area in a town takes small-arms fire.

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).

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 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.


Anonymous said...

In your situation#2 what if the civilians were not able to leave the area after they had been warned because the enemy soldiers forced them to stay? Would you kill them then?

Pete Kilner said...

I wouldn't intentionally kill any noncombatants--ever. That's a given. It's hard to make progress in an argument if we're imprecise in our language, as I suspect the anonymous question is.

Would I direct tank cannon fire into an enemy strongpoint that is adjacent to a household of civilians who had been warned to leave but "forced" to stay by the enemy? Yes, if the mission and the lives of friendly combatants (i.e., those who still retain right to not be killed) constrain other options. Tank fire is relatively discriminating-- hopefully it would kill the bad guys without harming the civilians.

In this case, moral condemnation should fall squarely on the enemy combatants who are using civlians as human shields. We should do what we must to insure that those people don't win the battle and power. That would harm everyone's rights and likely lead to more suffering and death.


Anonymous said...

Given that the US methodology of Operations in Iraq will be a reduced presence of troops with increased airpower support to US and Iraqi forces in the near future, and given that airpower has resulted in most of the ‘collateral’ or civilian casualties so far, can the US be morally justified in using air dropped munitions as a replacement for a coherent policy that will attain positive results? I mean, the situation is deteriorating, and it’s obvious that the troops are no longer being asked to die in a diminished cause. So given this latest development, can the expected numerous civilian dead and wounded be justified?

Pete Kilner said...


Your "givens" are anything but.

US forces are not yet withdrawing and are in fact "in the mix" with Iraqi security forces more than they have ever been.

Military transition training teams (MiTTs) didn't exist two years ago, yet now are the US main effort. A case in point: today's New York Times reports that a new program to train Iraqi police will embed 2,000 US soldiers with Iraqi police forces. This is an example of how we're willing to increase risk to our (US) selves to reduce it for Iraqi civilians.

Also, where did you get the "given" that air power has caused most collateral damage in Iraq? From all I have seen and heard (first and second person reports, mostly), I don't think that is the case. I'd love to assess the credibility of your source material.

Warpig, why do you say that the situation in Iraq is "deteriorating"? Are elections and the establishment of an Iraqi government a step backward? Is the fact that half of Baghdad is now secured by Iraqi forces a step in the wrong direction?

To me, an enemy that has no options but to detonate bombs to kill innocent civilians, Iraqi security forces, and US forces is not in a position of increasing strength. Where are the enemy patrols with smiling children tagging along? I don't see any, yet this happens every day with US and Iraqi patrols. I don't mean to imply that all is well, but I do think that

nearly all objective measures (political legitimacy of Iraqi Govt, economic growth, basic freedoms of speech and association, etc) are improving, not deteriorating. Again, if you have sources for your claims, please produce them.

Finally, the claim that "it's obvious that American troops are no longer being asked to die in a diminished cause" is so absurd that it really crushes the writer's legitimacy. Maybe it's because I'll be going this Wednesday to the funeral of a friend of mine who was killed last week by an IED. Maybe it's because I hear almost daily from friends who are experiencing

IED blasts (not direct-fire engagements; the enemy's too weak for that) as they take supplies to public-works projects or patrol day and night to train Iraqi security forces and to protect Iraqi economic infrastructure from sabotage.

I understand that people, myself included, are prone to see what we want to see. But Warpig's "givens" are decidedly not given (I'm reminded of that line in the movie "The Princess Bride"--'I do not think you know what that word means'.) I'm willing to bet that Warpig has no idea of the rules of engagement for using air-ground or indirect fires in Iraq. I do, and I know they are restrictive in almost all situations, with only large-scale attacks like those into Fallujah and Tal Afar as

Actually, now that I look at it, this exchange with Warpig has brought out an interesting point--namely, how the overall war
does or doesn't impact the moral justification of actions within it. Warpig, relying on his dubious "givens" about the strategic and operational situations, says in effect: 'Since we're losing and no longer willing to accept risks to own forces, aren't we now unjustified in fighting and thus risking collateral damage to others?'

That points to an interesting question, and one worth thinking about. Does an army/nation that is "losing" a war, even if it is fighting a just war, have an obligation to quit so it limits the damage done on the road to the inevitable result?

I think that looking at 1942 should provide an insightful case in point. I also feel pretty confident that we are not losing
in Iraq, although we could still lose, if we quit.

Given that the insurgancy has vowed to kill all "Iraqi collaborators" after driving out the "crusaders," I believe that we
have a moral obligation to protect the well-intentioned majority-- those hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who are working and risking their lives in the hope for a free Iraq for them and their children--from the violent minority.

To wrap this up, an opinion is an opinion, a claim is a claim, and a given should be a given. To claim an opinion as a given is either rhetorically or intellectually dishonest.

-according to Hans said...

Pete - Is the US not just in Iraq to spread democracy and gain hold/rights to the crude oil reserves and natural gas? Does this not make sense? America will eventally profit off this war. It is a certainty that eventually the cost to drill for oil will be more expensive than it would be to leave it in the ground and explore more sustainable options. The south and middle east, mainly afghanistan, iraq, and iran are the new el dorado's for western civilization. Do you really think we invaded Iraq to liberate the people? Why have we not sent a brigade to Sudan?! Bcause they have no geographical assets for us to obtain and control.

Pete Kilner said...


I'm not entirely sure of what you tried to communicate, but I will say that I think we invaded Iraq as part of the global war on Islamic fascism. We did it to make our country more secure in the long term, and a key component of that strategy is to eliminate regimes that support terrorism and to introduce democracy to the region.

I've never heard a good argument to the oft-made claim by liberals that the war was waged to seize oil reserves. It would have been a helluva lot cheaper to just buy the oil. Those who think we started a war for oil seem to forget that the price was lowest during the "peaceful" 90's.

Unknown said...

Another interesting point against the premise that the US in in Iraq for oil is that we had full control of the Iraqi oil fields in the first Gulf War... why didn't we keep them then? It would have been cheaper to everyone to keep them in the 90s if that was what we wanted.

viagra online said...

well kill is never justified is so bad cause is a live who is turn off you never know about the person you kill if he got family that is why u should never kill ,

Anonymous said...

Pete, I referenced your material in a report I wrote. Thank you.


Anonymous said...

Who has got time to read so many blogs and articles to read and answer the questions you have put I have fought a war,number of battles and a few skirmishes and here is an incident the enemy was standing with a revolver in his hand point blank I hit him with the butt of the rifle he fell down like a sack but i kept on kicking his head with my Amo boots but he did not die later he escaped from custody crossed the mine field and very soon there was mortar fire on us in which 3 soldiers died . A few minutes later i came across a beautiful young women I arranged to send her back to the refugee camp with some soldiers sometime later i saw the same soldiers filling a three men trench a portion of her scarf was visible.sometime later we captured an officer who claimed to be Rao Farman Ali's Grandson he touched our feet and pleaded for life we left him and next day ceasefire was declared when in the evening stand to Baluch Regiment soldiers and our soldiers were facing each other just a couple of feet apart and praying

RICARDO said...

I reckon you are doing a good job with your research as normally Governments (and this by default implies the people of that country) dessert their soldiers once they've been demobbed. My own father who fought for the British in the Mao Mao revolution/rebellion and killed for them was not even offered residency in the U.K. He eventually drank himself to death due to the stuff that he had been ordered to do whilst serving. This was a man with extremely high ethics who just could not live with his own mind. I only wish there was someone who could have explained things better or prepared him for what was to come later in life.. God bless and good luck- Ricardo J D Souza. Goa. India.

Johnoxford said...

Your arguments are a very complex (deliberately so) justification of war in general and killing in particular.
The young men that volunteer do so mainly through lack of opportunities elsewhere and as a sideline the desire to kill and maim. Soldiers know why they are there, they dont kill for idealogical reasons they just kill, sometimes who they are told to sometimes not.
I have heard young soldiers bragging in the bar, in the street loudly and with a passion. This is not an accident or outlet it is their very real feelings. The only just war, if it can be called that, is Class war to throw off oppression and the only way that young soldiers could possibly redeem themselves would be turn the guns on their commanders.

Not in my name! I have never asked my government to kill for me, never asked a police officer to beat a striking worker to death, but it happens all the time. I have no need to site examples you know them well enough. This blog is a true and shining example of the worst of psychology it's a bunch of excuses masquerading as reasons!

Anonymous said...

What are your views on fighting against conscripted soldiers?

Pete Kilner said...

@Johnoxford: Your uninformed comments don't deserve a reply, but for the benefit of readers, I'll respond to some of your misinformation.

The "bubble theory" for justifying killing is anything but "complicated"; it's power is in its simplicity and applicability. Improve your reading skills.

I'm not sure what country you're from, but the US Army is not filled with people who had few "opportunities elsewhere: in fact, the typical American infantryman is a middle-class white male who joined the Army to serve his country and earn the GI Bill to pay for college without taking out loans. Do your research.

I would agree that US infantrymen want to kill the enemies of the US and human rights. Don't we want them to? That's why the country invests in training and equipping them. In war, the innocent are protected from the aggressors by the defending forces killing the aggressors.

It's good to see that recognize that lethal force is sometimes appropriate and moral. Good luck with your Class revolution . Gosh, the workers sure had it swell in the Soviet Union and Maoist China .

Pete Kilner said...

@Anon: re: conscripted soldiers. Every human being makes their own choices. A conscripted soldiers doesn't HAVE to go to war; there are always options.

When you think about it, few of our big decisions in life are free of any coercion. Our decisions are influenced by financial considerations, time, prior commitments, etc. While it's true that an enemy conscripted soldier had to choose between fighting in an unjust war and punishment from his gov't (usually jail, sometimes worse), it's still his decision to make, accepting its consequences.

If someone broke into your house, tied up your family, and then explained that he "had" to kill you all because the mafia had threatened to kill his family unless he killed yours, would you be any less justified in defending your family against him? No.