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Moral justification for killing in war

This is my latest version of laying out the argument. Feedback is welcomed!

A moral justification for killing in war
By Pete Kilner, 2009

The Army performs many of the same functions as civilian organizations, yet there is one absolutely unique and defining characteristic of our profession—we are organized, equipped and trained to kill people. As company-level leaders, we recruit patriotic young Americans to kill; equip them to kill; train them to kill; develop and issue orders for them to kill; issue fire commands for them to kill; and commend them for killing enemies of our country. We perform our duties well, and the American people sleep safely at night. However, we as a profession generally do not provide our soldiers with an explanation for why it is morally right for them to kill in combat. Consequently, many of the soldiers entrusted to our care suffer needless guilt after killing in war.

The purpose of this article is to offer you a tool—an explanation for the morality of killing in war that you can adapt for use in your units. This is a presentation I have given to units in the 82nd, 101st, 25th, and the Marines, as well as at West Point and ROTC programs. This explanation may not be the answer, but it is an answer to this difficult and oft-overlooked issue. Perhaps the most important outcome of having this conversation with your unit is a command climate in which your soldiers feel comfortable talking about killing and about the thoughts and feelings that killing provokes.

My story
Leader note: I have found it helpful to open the conversation by sharing my personal journey of thinking about the morality of killing. Every soldier thinks about this subject sometime, but relatively few talk publicly about it. If we want to open a healthy professional dialogue on a topic that is still somewhat taboo, we ought to set the example. Your story may be more grounded in personal experience and less academic (after all, I have never killed anyone), and that is probably more effective.

My personal interest in the morality of killing in war was sparked one night years ago when I was a pre-command captain in the 82nd. Rigged for a combat jump, I was waiting to load into a plane that would unload me and thousands of other paratroopers 400 feet above the ground. (The jump was later cancelled.) Amid the nervous chatter, one young trooper’s sincere question to a chaplain caught my attention.

“Chaplain,” he asked. “We’re gonna kill a lot of people tonight. Is that alright?”

“Of course it’s the right thing to do,” responded the chaplain with confidence. “We’re soldiers. The President told us to do it. That makes it right.”

I remember feeling profoundly disappointed in that response. I knew there had to be a better answer than that.

Two years later, I had the opportunity to re-visit the question when the Army sent me to graduate school to study philosophy. To my surprise and dismay, I could not find the answer. No one—not the chaplaincy, the SJA, the Army, the DoD, academia, not even my religion—provided a satisfactory moral justification for looking down my sights and placing two rounds into the head of an insurgent. Having enlisted as an infantryman out of high school and subsequently becoming an infantry officer, I had always assumed that what I was training myself and others to do was a morally justified action. I realized that I needed either to discover the answer or to find another line of work.

What I discovered in my subsequent research was that those who justify killing in war and those who condemn it approach the topic from very different perspectives. The Just-War Tradition justifies the moral permissibility of war at the international, state-to-state level. Although the tradition includes principles for individual soldiers’ conduct in war, it does not provide a moral justification for the combatant-on-combatant killing that characterizes war. In contrast, the War-Pacifist Tradition focuses its lens down at the level of the individual soldier. It argues that killing another human being in the context of war is morally unjustified and therefore wars among states are morally unjustified. I found both approaches to be inadequate. While the top-down justification did not go far enough in explaining why killing in war can be a morally right choice for the individual soldier, the pacifists’ condemnation of wartime killing was based on fundamental misunderstandings about war and soldiers. In my thesis, I combined a war-pacifist framework for justifiable killing with my own understanding of the nature of war to produce a moral justification for killing in war.

While writing my thesis, I happened to read Dave Grossman’s On Killing, which contains numerous anecdotes of soldiers reflecting on killing. Grossman, who has a background in psychology, makes sense of soldiers’ post-killing psychological problems by examining what happened to them in the experience. As an ethicist, however, I read the anecdotes with a different lens—focusing on what the soldiers had done, not on what had happened to them. I realized then that there might be a link between soldiers being able to justify to themselves the morality of killing in war and their post-combat psychological welfare.

Others' stories
Not everyone who kills in war is troubled by the experience, but many are. Because I have written about this topic, I receive many emails from veterans who have killed in war and from their families (more so from the latter). Their pain is palpable; listen in to these excerpts from a few emails.

From a soldier: “The last guy I killed was in a vehicle that came up to my checkpoint during an HVT raid. He tried to evade, I opened up as per ROE at the time, and shortly thereafter a couple soldiers with me began to shoot at the vehicle. I zeroed 28 rounds of a 30-round magazine into the passenger and driver. The driver was hit but not killed immediately, and he managed to back his car back into his driveway 300 meters away. What I’ll never forget about that engagement was listening to the family react when they saw the inside of the car and their loved one without a chest. I saw a counselor for about 6 months when I got back. I quit when I could start sleeping through the night without having to drink a six-pack beforehand.”

From a soldier’s mom: “My son is wrestling with what he did during his deployment. He was raised Catholic and was taught morality and values and we are big on the right to life. I am now trying to help him settle his conscience by explaining that killing in war is not the same as abortion. We, as a family, have been very active in pro-life activities and rhetoric. Now our son is really grappling with the fact that he took a human life, and I don't know exactly how to explain it, excuse it, or justify it. I want him to feel okay with what he did and about himself. I am avoiding the word forgiven, because I don't feel there is anything to forgive. We are supportive of his decision to join the military and are very proud of his accomplishments and ability to do his job effectively. I don't know how to impress upon him that killing in war is justified and not the same as murder and that he did what he was trained to do, and did a good job. Any words of wisdom would be appreciated.”

From a soldier’s wife: “My husband was in active combat in Somalia, Honduras, and Iraq. I think Somalia was the hardest for him. Yesterday I came into our room and saw him staring at the wall. He was pale, diaphoretic, and clenching his fists. I have never seen him like this. I asked if he was ok. This startled him and sort of "woke" him. He said he was fine and didn’t want to talk about it. Later he told me he has been starting to have dreams again and has had a few episodes of feeling charged/panicked, but he is able to regain composure and be fine. We talked at length for the first time about his dreams and his feelings about the people he killed while in combat. He carries so much guilt. He said at the time there was a moving target and he reacted. Now he remembers those same incidences and sees their faces. He is haunted by them. He didn’t want to talk to me or anyone else about it because he didn’t want to be looked at for what he had done instead of who he is. Is there anything you can recommend that I can do or he can do to help deal with his guilt? I love him dearly; he is amazing. I want him to be free. He has carried this for so long. He has been out of the service for 8 years now and it is still with him every day."

Stories like these are a call to arms to improve the way we train our soldiers. We teach our soldiers to kill effectively, so we should also teach them how to live with clear consciences after they have killed morally.

A moral justification for killing enemy combatants in war
Without further ado, here is a rights-based justification for killing. It does not rely on any particular religious belief, but it is consistent with Judeo-Christian assumptions about human rights as well as with principles of American civil law. I refer to it informally as the “bubble theory,” for reasons that will soon be obvious.

Our starting point in justifying wartime killing is the conviction that every person possesses the “right not to be killed.” Some would call this a “right to life,” but we really do not have such a right. If we are struck and killed by lightning or die of cancer, after all, our rights have not been violated. Why not? Because a rights claim is made vis-à-vis another person. No one has wronged us when we are stuck by lightning or develop cancer. Similarly, we do not have a right to speech; instead, we have a right that others not prevent us from speaking on certain topics. In this way, rights claims say something about what others should not do to us.

The ultimate source of our human rights is arguable. Some would say God, others cite human reason, still others refer to implicit social contracts or even man-made laws. But I hope we can agree that all persons do possess rights—whatever their source—and that the most fundamental and basic right is the right not to be killed, followed closely by the right not to be enslaved. Our system of government is premised on the belief that all people are endowed with the rights to life and liberty.

Rights are intangible, so it helps to use a concrete “visual” when we think about them. Imagine, if you will, the “right not to be killed” as a bubble that surrounds each person (see Figure 1). Each of us possesses the right that no one else “violate our bubble” and harm us. By virtue of being human, every person possesses a bubble. This is consistent with our moral intuitions. When we are walking down the street, for example, it would be morally wrong to physically assault a person walking past us. Why? In terms of this explanation, we would be violating that person’s bubble. He possessed the fundamental human right not to be physically harmed.

Yet we also know that someone can forfeit that right—can “burst his own bubble.” A right is a right as long as it does not violate the more fundamental right of another. Thus, we recognize that if a person intentionally violates (or threatens to violate) the bubble of another, he forfeits his own bubble (see Figure 2).

For example, if we are walking down the street and someone confronts us with a gun, we are morally permitted to use violence against the man to protect ourselves. Why? Because by consciously choosing to violate the bubble of another, the man had forfeited his own bubble of rights. The concept of forfeiting rights also applies to situations of coming to the defense of another. For example, if we witness a man pull a woman into an alley and continue assaulting her, we are morally permitted to use violence against that man to protect the victim, just as the victim herself is morally right to fight back against her attacker. Why? Because the attacker, by virtue of violating the bubble of someone who possessed it, had forfeited his own bubble, so our use of violence against him violated no right (see Figure 3).

It’s important to note that a just defender does not forfeit his rights when he attacks an unjust aggressor, as in the scenario above. The following scenario helps to clarify the rights of a defender. An armed bank robber has taken a hostage at gunpoint. By threatening the life of the hostage, the robber has forfeited his right not to be killed. A police officer then arrives at the scene and aims her firearm at the robber. Has the officer done anything wrong? No. Not only has the robber already forfeited his right not to be killed, but also the police officer has an obligation to protect innocent people, including the hostage. Would we say that the police officer, by virtue of “threatening” the robber, forfeits her own right not to be killed? Would the robber be justified in shooting the officer in “self defense”? Of course not, on both counts. The officer cannot violate the rights of someone who has already forfeited them. The moral inequality between the robber and police officer makes it morally acceptable for the officer to kill the robber, but not vice versa.
When fighting in a just war, a soldier is a defender. Soldiers continue to possess their bubbles as long as they direct violence only at those who have already forfeited their right not to be killed. Enemy combatants are the ones who have “lost their bubbles” by threatening the rights of those who possess them—non-combatants and/or our soldiers. Even if they are not personally threatening anyone at the time we engage them, combatants for an unjust cause are still morally permissible targets because they are operating as part of a larger organism—the unjust threat. There is a good reason why military uniforms include both the individual’s name and the organization/state in whose name he acts; soldiers act as both individuals and as elements of a collective.

Consistent with the rules of war, an aggressor’s forfeiture of rights is not permanent. The default setting for a human being is to possess the right not to be killed, so when a person is no longer a threat, he regains his right, his bubble. What constitutes a “threat”? A threat is someone who possesses both the intent and the capability to violate someone’s right not to be killed (see Figure 4). As soon as a person no longer has the intent or the capability to violate the bubble of another, he regains his own bubble and should not be killed. This is why it is morally wrong to kill a detainee or an incapacitated insurgent.

That, in a nutshell, is the bubble theory of the morality of killing in war. I’ll be the first to acknowledge its shortcoming as a purely logical approach to an intensely emotional experience. Even soldiers who internalize this theory may still experience sadness, guilt, or shame after they kill in war. I doubt we would want it any other way; killing another human being is not something to be taken lightly or celebrated. Maybe the best we can hope for is that good soldiers’ bad feelings will be tempered by the knowledge that they did nothing morally wrong.
It’s also a fair criticism to say that the killing that takes place in war is often much more complicated than the situations described in this article. As one combat vet said to me, “It is almost never this simple. Very rarely is it a case of a white-hatted good guy shooting down the black-hatted villain who's been terrorizing the town. There are almost always shades of gray.” I agree, but we have to start somewhere. This article is intended to provide a “starter pack” of basic principles that you can utilize to initiate a deeper conversation in your units.

Perhaps the most tragic situations in war occur when well-intentioned soldiers mistakenly kill non-combatants. When unjust combatants refuse to wear uniforms, just soldiers bear the burden of identifying those who have forfeited their bubbles. Determining “hostile intent” is a big challenge for our soldiers, who often have to make split-second, life-or-death judgments with incomplete information. Good rules of engagement provide guidelines to assist that decision-making process. Nevertheless, given the complexity of combat, mistakes happen. The ROE will likely permit some immoral killing and condemn some morally justified killing, and soldiers will make well-intentioned, good-faith errors in distinguishing between non-combatants and combatants. It is critical that our soldiers understand that they are not morally blameworthy when they kill someone whom they thought had forfeited their bubble but in fact had not. Perhaps no argument will assuage their regret, but looking into their eyes and telling them, “You made the right moral decision with the information you had at hand” can only help. The vocabulary of rights and “bubbles” can help our soldiers make and justify their judgment calls, not only to 15-6 investigators but more importantly to their own consciences.

As you likely realized while reading the bubble theory, its approach to justifying killing in war requires that the soldier be fighting for a war that is just. This is a stumbling block for many military professionals. The bubble theory rejects the long-held tenet of the Just-War Tradition that soldiers on both sides of a war are “moral equals”—equally innocent of responsibility for the war but equally guilty of threatening each other. This claim of moral equality between unjust aggressor and just defender treats all soldiers as “innocent aggressors,” and thus reduces the “justification” of killing in war to the moral equivalent of gang warfare—no one is wrong because all are wrong, i.e., all soldiers have lost their bubbles. This waiver on soldiers’ responsibility for fighting may have had merit when feudal lords rounded up their serfs and led them into battle, but it does not reflect the educated, informed, morally autonomous citizen-soldiers of today.
We and our Soldiers cannot simply abdicate our responsibility to respect others’ human rights simply because we took an oath. Granted, given the huge responsibility we bear to protect the innocent, I do think that American Soldiers are morally obligated to fight unless they are convinced that a war is unjust. But I also think that an option should exist for selective conscientious objection. I doubt this would undermine good order and discipline. The patriots who volunteer to defend freedom will not abandon their fellow Soldiers without good cause. I have found most conscientious objectors to be woefully misinformed about morality in war. A healthy, ongoing conversation on the subject might actually enhance not only our Soldiers’ well being, but also recruiting and retention.

If the argument presented here makes sense, then we ought to do something about it. In addition to opening the conversation in our units, we can embed the ideas in our training. In AARs, we routinely ask questions like, “Why did you flank left?” and “Why did you decide to detain that person?” We can also ask, “Why was it morally right to kill that person?” As with anything else, our soldiers will become proficient through training. Killing is central to our profession, and it is a huge moral issue. We already train our soldiers to kill effectively; let’s train them to live effectively after they kill.

Take-aways for our soldiers
· Professionals of arms are entrusted to defend the innocent by using force.
· Every act of killing is a very serious, permanent action that requires moral justification.
· We kill only those who, by their own rights-threatening actions, have temporarily forfeited their own right not to be killed.
· Killing someone, even justifiably, is upsetting at some level. That’s normal and healthy. If the killing is morally unjustified, the psychological impact will likely be much greater.

Opening the conversation about the morality of killing in your unit
A lot more could be said, but this article covers the basics for launching a conversation in our units around the moral justification for killing in war and the natural feelings that killing stirs. A commander-initiated conversation will make your soldiers comfortable with the topic and provide them a shared vocabulary for talking about it. As Grossman says, “We are only as sick as our secrets.” A professional dialogue among you and your soldiers will be a lot healthier than the tortured internal monologues that so many soldiers are currently experiencing.

If you would like a copy of the full presentation, email me at pgkilner@gmail.com. I may be overseas for a few weeks in February with limited connectivity, so please be patient.
A final thought: It’s helpful to think of killing in war as akin to a doctor amputating the infected limb of a wounded warrior—it’s sad and painful, and it takes training and courage to do right, but is the morally right choice among lousy alternatives and therefore ought to be done.


greg cryns said...

Killing an "enemy combatant" is one thing.

Murdering an innocent family is another.

I don't buy your argument in today's modern warfare. Using modern tools, it is most likely that civilians will be murdered.

It's easy to justify killing another soldier. It's like a gang war then. More like the Mafia. It is a way of cleansing a very heinous crime.

I guess soldiers need to rationalize crimes.

Pete Kilner said...


This essay is about killing enemy combatants. It sounds like you recognize the moral permissibility of that, which is good.

I agree with you 100% that "killing an 'enemy combatant'" is very different than "murdering an innocent family."

Yet your statement that killing an enemy combatant is "like gang war" indicates that you misunderstand my argument at a fundamental level. My argument relies on the moral inequality of soldiers on the just and unjust sides, whereas in gang warfare both sides are wrong. I recommend that you re-read the post, "The justice of the war matters!"

What do you mean by "modern tools" that in your view cause civilians (do you mean to say noncombatants?) to be "murdered"? I've been to Iraq twice and head off to AFG again next week, and I find our targeting and weapons systems to be impressively precise.

Chris said...

Wow, this is indeed a very important discussion! We do need to instill a sense of morality, even chivalry, in our soldiers. Sometimes it seems the modern view is that "all war is horrible for all involved, but it's a grim necessity at times." This modern view ironically allows easier justification for killing civilians while doing nothing to help morale for the soldiers. Here is an interesting article on the subject: The Problem of War

I think that one thing that ought to be instilled in a soldier (and those who send the soldier) is a respect for one's enemy. After all, at some point, don't you expect the war to end in peace? Does America have closer allies than Britain and Japan, both once bitter enemies of the United States?

We ought to be willing to fight in a just war, willing even to use deadly force against our enemy. For, if our cause is just, it implies that we are working to stop a great evil. And shouldn't we wish that we were stopped even by deadly force, should we be engaged in great evil?

But the great conundrum ought to be innocent deaths. Of course, from a purely logical standpoint, every innocent life that is taken increases the number of the enemy by ten or more, hence should be avoided at all costs. But in every war, just like in every large human endeavor, innocent people will die. What do we do with this? That's the real issue, not killing the enemy in a just war. I suggest that the soldier (or person responsible) personally apologize to the family, reparations be paid, and perhaps even be charged with involuntary manslaughter, if appropriate. It should be viewed as a question of honor, and only through personal contact can any rift be healed. Otherwise, resentment in the innocent person's family will build the enemy's army. Honestly, though, there are not easy answers.

Pete Kilner said...

Chris: Thanks for sharing the link to The Problem of War. It's a very good essay. I agree with almost everything Cole has to say.

I object only--but strongly--to his implication that contemporary soldiers directly target innocent civilians and execute prisoners. So, while I think he does a great job of conveying C.S. Lewis' ideas in 98% of the essay, Cole himself falls prey to the lies of the anti-war activists near its conclusion.

Josh said...

Thank you for this however it still leaves an untouched issue that no doubt many soldiers and ex soldiers such as myself have floating around in our heads. After my Iraq experience in the early nineties I visited over 10 different heads of various churches and asked them all the same question "If we believe in God and the commandments he bestowed upon human kind, then does the fact that I violated 'thou shalt not kill' condemn me to hell?". No one had an answer. Again I see your argument however by this logic are we to assume that God, for those that believe, will bend his rules on a case by case basis? I believe in God and what the bible says and so according to the what we are taught, the only way I can prevent going to hell is to ask God to forgive me for my sins and hope he sees the murder (this is what it was, even though I was defending myself) as justified? I guess there is only one way to find out...and pray that God bends the rules. It's hard to go through life waiting to see what will happen.

Its a tough one that I have been wrestling with for years.

Pete Kilner said...

Josh: I encourage you to investigate Catholic teaching. The accurate translation of the 5th Commandment is "Thou shall not murder." A morally justified killing is not murder.

Josh said...

Thank you. Agreed. My dilemma that extends from this though stems from looking at the big picture. Even though it is a justified killing, it is done so for our government. War, to my understanding, roughly equates to greed and power struggles by those that are in power. Now say President X wants oil or land from Iraq. Despite what ruse he might cover it with, the bottom line is that I was sent to Iraq under the general guise to "fight for my country's freedom". Is killing for anyone else or indirectly through the hands of another dictating power ever justified?

I can kind of understand the logic of justified killing in the "kill or be killed" sense of things, but I have a difficult time justifying this since my killing, even in sefl defense, would not have taken place if not for a controlling authority's greed. I can kind of see killing justified in self defense if a terrorist came into my house and tried to harm my family, but I cant see justification in killing someone from another country I invaded at the orders of President X. Bubble breaking or not, it gives me a small sense of peace to think that President X will one day be held accountable by God for not only causing death but also for putting us soldiers in a position where we have to cause death.

If a soldier gets deployed and says "I'm not going to kill for my country in this particular instance as I see it being morally unjust"....what happens to the guy? Chances are pretty damn high that he is prosecuted and punished...whether or not he volunteered or was drafted, correct?

So this shows that , even when we are acting under the orders of others to kill, and even though we are responding to our burst bubble, we still have the ability, logic and reason to choose not to kill. Since we still have these abilities, how is this not murder? If you take someones life, regardless of whether or not it in defense of your own, how is that not murder?

I just dont, despite your very valid argument and reasoning, see how in the end, the bottom line, what I did was not murder and that God will let me scoot in to Heaven on a loop hole.

I'm just trying to make sense of this. I really appreciate you helping me decipher this.

Anonymous said...

To Josh:

In the case of war, I firmly believe that God will forgive those who have fought in war. Obviously you are concerned about your morality which means the most to God. Most likely, you didn't go into war with the thought "I want to kill as many people as I can." You acted in self defense, the protection of your comrades, and your country. Serving our country is an honorable act. Heroes have so many people praying for them and there is no doubt He hears our calls. You did no wrong.
God Bless

Unknown said...

Pete, I certainly agree with the crux of your argument, but I find the biggest problem with defining just and defense. There needs to be an objective justness or semi-objective justness, on which to build a just cause for killing. If that exists, than an agent of justice is certainly morally justified in exterminating an agent of evil. But what is and is not a just cause, and what constitutes a defense?

For example, in recent Middle Eastern conflicts, America has been more of a just attacker, than a just defender. Those who would kill Americans without provocation, are certainly unjust, but what of those who have been coaxed into killing by American occupation and a perceived attempt by the U.S. to eliminate traditional ideologies? Almost like an entrapment into bubble forfeiting. In the time prior to 9/11 the number of people actively engaging in the killing of Americans and allied citizens was small (maybe a few 100 or 1000). Mostly isolated terrorists attacks. Since the start of the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts, tens of thousands of new "unjust" attackers have been created. Under what definition are they attackers, and U.S. forces defenders? I would contend that within the idea of bubble forfeit, the people who have become violent possessed only a diluted will to violence. By invading, we gave them the means to act and strengthened their will to commit violence and forfeit their bubbles.

Also important to the bubble method is the idea of a true just cause, and what adequately amounts to sacrificing ones bubble. I think most would agree that murder, rape, and mass humanitarian atrocities are bubble breakers. But what about things like suspending the freedoms of another, indoctrination, or threatening someone. Are these cause for bubble suspension to the point of justifying killing of the perpetrator? I would say that they are not, simply by the classic eye for eye justice. If we kill those for reasons other than an imminent threat of harm, we run the risk of fighting holy wars or ideological wars, which are not the conflicts of a just nation. I think Americans share a basic interest in preserving the lives of themselves and those of their fellow man, but I fear that if we extend the use of lethal force beyond what is necessary for this goal, then we begin to distort justice. America is the worlds most powerful country, and as part if that responsibility, we must attempt to preserve life, freedom, and justice above all else.

I should mention that I am nonmilitary, and I have a great amount of respect for our armed forces. I think the ideas in this essay are sound, and I think they have excellent practical applications in helping soldiers cope with killing. I hope, as you seem to, that the military puts as much time into teaching people why to kill as it does into teaching them how. I worry about soldiers of these more morally nebulous times and conflicts being able to compartmentalize and figure out right and wrong, and I think work like yours and education are the only ways to make that happen. Best of luck

Andrew said...

I think this is an excellent discussion but some of the theories are far from convincing.

I have little to quibble with in your introduction but your "rights suspension" theory has me puzzled because it leaves questions unanswered.

You assert "we recognize that if a person intentionally violates (or threatens to violate) the bubble of another, he forfeits his own bubble"

You are correct that when someone threatens the life of another they can be legitimately killed but the reasoning you employ is flawed as the following example will illustrate.

If a person in a state of automatism (sleep walking for example) is threatening someone's life then the law permits the threatened person or a bystander to intervene notwithstanding a lack of intent.

Clearly a sleep walking person is morally "innocent" and by your own standard has not violated another person's "bubble" because there is a total lack of intent. Yet, in the same way that we can defend ourselves from animals who have no intent to violate our right not to be killed we may likewise defend ourselves from sleepwalkers or a person having an epileptic fit. Why is that if they have not intended to violate our right not to be killed?

It is based on the principle that culpability is to be judged by the state of mind of the "attacker" or "offender" NOT the moral status of the "target" or "victim". It is not a question of deciding who possesses rights when, it is a question of deciding whether there was a justifiable infringement of another person's rights in the circumstances.

There is no doubt that a sleepwalker has a moral and legal right not to be killed. However, we are justified in killing the morally innocent sleepwalker if and when we honestly believe they are an imminent threat to our lives or the lives of others. Our state of mind is key, not whether they are intending to violate our rights. We do not need to inquire into whether the sleepwalker could help himself or not, it is totally unnecessary.

I would be surprised if there would be significant disagreement so far but now I will move on to more controversial examples.

In case (1)person A pulls out a gun and is about to shoot person B who manages to dodge a shot, pull out their own gun and returns fire killing person A. According to your theory this is justified and in law it is also justified since they honestly believed their life was in imminent danger and used proportional force to neutralize that threat.

In case (2) person A kills person B and walks off. Person C draws a gun and shoots person A killing them. According to your theory this may be justified since person A arguably forfeited his right not to be killed by killing person B. However, the situation in law (quite rightly in my opinion) is that person C is culpable unless they had an honest belief of an imminent threat to someone's life. Since person B is dead and person A is walking away there is no imminent threat which would satisfy the test for self-defense.

In case (3) person A discovers that person B has murdered a relative of theirs and kills person B. According to your theory it is still conceivable that person A can be legitimately killed since they forfeited their right not to be killed by violating another person's right not to be killed. As you can see your theory could conceivably justify reprisal killings which as you are no doubt aware is a violation of laws of war.

I have proposed an alternative theory in line with the law and would appreciate some feedback if you disagree with my analysis or you feel I have not correctly interpreted your theory.

Pete Kilner said...

@ Chris: Your ideas about how soldiers should reconcile acts of killing are interesting. Know that in Iraq and Afghanistan for the past five years or so, the US has paid salatia (reparations) to the families of any civilians we mistakenly kill, and the soldier's commander also often gives a personal apology. Both those acts are greatly appreciated by the families.

Any killing of a noncombatant also automatically leads to an investigation. If the killing is found to be intentional, the soldier is prosectured for murder; if the soldier is found to have acted negligently, there are other sanctions; if the soldier is found to have been trying to do the right thing in the "fog of war," then the soldier is rightfully not punished. Trust me, most soldiers who unintentionally kill civilians are heartsick and full of guilt.


Pete Kilner said...

@ Quinn: great points! As a Soldier, I sure wish that the American People demanded that our leaders commit our military to war only when it is necesary to stop a great evil.

Regarding the decision to go to war, the attitude of the electorate should be, "Hell no, we aren't going to war unless it's absolutely necessary to defend human life and liberty!" In fact, though, the electorate has been willing to send our troops off to war based on jingoistic assertions.

The attitude of our military should be (as it is), "Hell yea! If you commit us to war we will win with honor!" Soldiers should fight in a war unless they are absolutely sure that the war is unjust. That level of confidence requires of them, as a minimum, a solid understanding of Just War Theory AND access to good information.

I support selective conscientious objection for military personnel. 99% of troops will have no problem deploying and fighting for a just cause. When the people have demanded the war be just, then that will increase soldiers' confidence. There will always be a small cadre of cowards who join the military for wrong reasons, but they'll be who they are regardless of policy.

Mark T. said...

Well, let me start with a introduction to my situation. I am a newly enlisted Poolee to the USMC. My grandfather, a retired Marine turned minister, charged me to justify wartime killing.

My observations, from this article and the previous comments, are that killing in war is justified.

To support this arguement, I ask you to take into account both logical and holy contexts. Logically, you enlisted to serve, whether the government is corrupt or otherwise. If you think along the lines of the individual (and face it; does the government matter when you are in a battle?), then you need to think of your people and yourself before any corrupt politician. If you fail to defend them, their lives are possibly lost. Whether its a just war or unjust war, in the heat of the moment, only the unit matters. You defend not only yourself, but your comrades.

Now, in God's eyes, murder is wrong. But keep in mind that self defense is justified killing, not murder. God understands if you kill to defend your unit. If you kill a non-combatant in a honest mistake, God will understand that you believed them a threat and dealt with the believed threat accordingly.

In conclusion, you need not fear for your soul for a killing in the name of defense of your unit, whether a mistaken identity or a serious threat. Yes, mourn the loss, but be not halted by it. Just know, you did not start this war. You just signed up to defend freedom. If any souls are at risk, its those that abuse your dedicated service.

This is the answer I have arrived at through prayer and study. It is my answer. I don't know if it is your's, but it is an answer that may be your's as well

Anti Money Laundering said...

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Anonymous said...

If someone kills some one to protect someone else they're still guilty and nothing happens completely by accident accidents happen because of carelessness and they're are no excuses for mudder it's never right, nothing can keep you from being guilty unless you had nothing to do with it, everything is a combined effort from every thing else in the world

Anonymous said...

Who declares a war as just? Governments, politicians? Was the Iraq war a just war?

robert said...

One of the highest prices we have to pay for freedom even having to kill for it and bering that the rest of anyones life god bless keep sending down rang

Unknown said...

Read Smedley Butler's "War Is A Racket". That book certainly puts to test all the "moral justification" for U.S. military killing.

Anonymous said...

Greetings everyone.

Let me first start off with the fact that I appreciate the diversity of opinions in these responses, and respect the careful thought that obviously went into many of them.

What I find troubling however is the missing piece... the victims or would-be victims of non-war that no one seems to have remembered (although perhaps I missed it in a speed read)...

In summary: my theory is that moral killing in war and in the past two wars (Iraq and Afghanistan) can be at least morally justified by the following concept (flowing from Pete's post):

It is morally praiseworthy, and perhaps morally obligatory, to kill evil men in defense of the innocent... even of those innocents are citizens of another country.

The moral justification for defense of another person is extended to the helpless and downtrodden of another country in the face of grave human rights violations, up to and including summary execution at the hands of a tyrant or tyrants.

I'm speaking specifically of the Taliban's human rights violations and execution of Coalition-collaborators (civilians), Saddam Husein's gassing of entire Kurdish villages and torturing of political dissidents, as well as the summary beheading and mass shootings of Christians and religious minorities at the hands of ISIS happening as we speak.

Our system, and the system endorsed by the U.N, is based on the assumption that all human beings are entitled to basic human rights that are not abrogated by national law nor border lines on a map. These rights are universal and eternal, at least in theory. This includes Pete's well-articulated right not to be killed by another human being, nor to be arbitrarily enslaved. (The Bubble Theory of Rights).

To transcend theory to fact, sometimes requires people that are willing to take the fight to the enemy, and kill. The ugly truth of humanity is that half of the time, some of our species violate this right of others because they stand to profit from it, and believe in their black hearts that the virtuous are too restrained and tepid to offer enough resistance to stop them.

Consider for a minute our own lives as civilians (if you are one) in America. When someone breaks into my house and tries to murder me, rape my wife, or slaughter our children, we possess two protections: the right to kill in our own defense, and the right to call upon other noble killers to do so on our behalf. The same applies to our citizens if they are attacked by an international enemy (national self defense).

The reason committing just aggression against another country in war, killing enemy combatants in war, can at least sometimes be considered morally praiseworthy or obligatory comes from the concept that some people deserve the right not to be killed... but have no way to enforce it themselves without our intervention.

I posit to you that every woman in Afghanistan that has been beaten for having a loose strand of hair fall from her burkha, every Iraqi Christian who has been beheaded for praying to his god, and every child of a non-Baathist father that watches his parent be carried off to a secret prison never to be seen again... ALL of these human beings deserve the same right to self-defense (by their own hands or by the hands of a professional warrior)... but don't have it anyway.

There is NO 911 for them to call. There is no beat cop to radio for backup. There is no DEVGRU to send on a rescue mission.

There is only mercy at the hands of men who have none to give. The only hope they have is that their deaths will be clean and with perhaps a sliver of dignity.

They deserve more, just like we do.

That is not the only moral justification for just aggression in war (invasion or limited direct action), but it's certainly enough on its own to morally justify kill the enemy on his own turf and coming home with a clean conscience.

Let me know what you think of this theory ("International Bubble Theory"?) in your replies. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes the bottom line is------Nuke em all!

Jonathan hoesley said...

Who the fuck are you? Have ever served? Have you ever had to make a life or death decision in an instant? One that will stick with you forever? Have you ever pulled the trigger and taken a life to save another? It doesn't sound like you have! It doesn't sound like you have done shit to defend our country or anyone else. You just sit there and preach you bullshit, while we make it safe for you to put your bullshit spilling fat head to sleep at night.

Jonathan hoesley said...

Sorry, I got a little hot headed. My previous post was directed at Greg Cryns' post.