Civilian Casualties and Moral Principles

Iraqi War Puts Focus on a Heart-rending Dilemma

WASHINGTON, D.C., MARCH 29, 2003 ( The outbreak of the Iraqi war has rekindled the moral debate over civilian deaths and the selection of military targets. The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives a synthesis of the traditional ethical principles governing the conduct of war, in Nos. 2312-4. They can be summarized in the following points:

— The Church affirms the permanent validity of moral laws during armed conflict. The outbreak of war does not mean that everything becomes licit.

— Noncombatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely.

— Blind obedience on the part of those fighting is not an excuse for carrying out actions contrary to laws and universal principles.

— Acts of war that involve indiscriminate destruction of entire cities, or vast inhabited areas, is a crime against God and man.

In a 1993 document, the Catholic bishops of the United States also dealt with the norms regarding the use of force. “The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace” spelled out these principles on conduct in war:

— Noncombatant immunity: civilians may not be the object of direct attack, and military personnel must take due care to avoid and minimize indirect harm to civilians.

— Proportionality: in the conduct of hostilities, efforts must be made to attain military objectives with no more force than is militarily necessary and to avoid disproportionate collateral damage to civilian life and property.

— Right intention: even in the midst of conflict, the aim of political and military leaders must be peace with justice. Acts of vengeance and indiscriminate violence, whether by individuals, military units or governments, are forbidden.

The document also makes an important observation concerning the application of these criteria to a given situation. The bishops recognize “that the application of these principles requires the exercise of the virtue of prudence.” Due to this factor, “people of good will may differ on specific conclusions.”

The bishops also warned that “the just-war tradition is not a weapon to be used to justify a political conclusion or a set of mechanical criteria that automatically yields a simple answer, but a way of moral reasoning to discern the ethical limits of action.” Therefore, both those in charge of policy and commentators on opposite sides of an argument regarding the use of military force “need to be careful not to apply the tradition selectively, simply to justify their own positions.”

Moreover, the bishops continued, “any application of just-war principles depends on the availability of accurate information not easily obtained in the pressured political context in which such choices must be made.”

The document, written with the experience of the 1991 Gulf War in mind, makes specific reference to the use of air power. The bishops ask for further reflection on how traditional ethical norms can be applied to this sector of military action.

Targeting civilian infrastructure, they noted, “afflicts ordinary citizens long after hostilities have ceased.” They warned that this “can amount to making war on noncombatants rather than against opposing armies.”

Proportionality of means

James Turner Johnson’s 1999 study “Morality and Contemporary Warfare” also addresses the subject of noncombatants and war. Johnson, a professor of religion at Rutgers University and author of numerous publications on morality and warfare, comments that the moral and legal tradition developed in Western thought assumes that, as a practical matter, complete avoidance of harm to noncombatants is impossible outside of exceptional circumstances, such as naval battles or land warfare in unpopulated zones.

He notes that some maintain that any harm to noncombatants necessarily renders war unjust. But that view would amount to pacifism, Johnson observes, given that modern warfare normally results in such harm to noncombatants. Such a position, he notes, is not in accord with just-war traditions, nor even with U.S. bishops’ documents.

Johnson explains that in judging the morality of such harm it is important to distinguish between damage caused by undesired incidents, and those actions that directly and intentionally target noncombatants. This does not mean, however, that there are no limits to the amount of unintentional damage to civilians. A proportionality of means must be respected, in which acts of war should not cause damage disproportionate to the ends that justify them.

Johnson also mentions a further limiting principle: the need to avoid a Carthaginian peace, that is, a degree of devastation that would leave a land uninhabitable after the war is over. This notion comes into play when considering such weapons as chemical agents, nuclear radiation or the indiscriminate sowing of land mines.

U.S. military doctrine

The U.S. military has made a serious effort to come to terms with the need to limit civilian casualties, according to Michael Knights in the April issue of the British magazine The World Today. Knights, defense editor of the Gulf States Newsletter, recently finished research in London on air targeting strategies.

“There was an unprecedented effort to reduce the suffering and deaths of noncombatants” in the 1991 Gulf War, affirmed Knights. Nevertheless, civilians suffered due to the destruction of power, transport and communications. A large number of civilians died after the war due to the lack of power and safe water supplies. In part, he observed, the excessive damage was due to the persistence of “Cold War thinking.”<br>
In following years a much more sophisticated strategy was adopted, Knights said. As evidence he cited the reduction in civilian casualties during U.S. military action in Kosovo and Afghanistan.

A recent issue of the Journal of Military Ethics, cited by the New York Times on March 8, affirmed that point about the Afghan war. Military policy now requires legal advisers to approve combat targets in advance. This led to clearance delays and denials that allowed key Taliban and al-Qaida members to escape unscathed, say U.S. Air Force officials. But that’s OK, retort scholars. They insist that the ethical advantages of the policy outweighed its tactical costs.

On the ground in Iraq

The Iraqi war has already seen civilian deaths. On March 27, the Iraqi Health Minister alleged that more than 350 Iraqi civilians had been killed, Reuters reported. He also claimed that many more had been injured. The accusation came after explosions in a Baghdad residential area killed about 15 people.

Friday saw another explosion in a market area, causing numerous deaths, the New York Times reported today. In both cases Iraqis contended that a U.S. missile or bomb caused the damage.

In the first case an American official, Brigadier General Vincent Brooks, argued that it could also have been an Iraqi missile falling back to ground after being fired at an aircraft, the Associated Press reported March 27. And regarding Friday’s incident the New York Times quoted a U.S. military spokesman as saying that the explosion might have been caused by an errant Iraqi missile or even bombs that were planted by Iraqi authorities.

Any judgment would also need to take into account the strategy adopted by Iraqi authorities; they have deliberately provoked civilian casualties, in a bid to woo public opinion. During the recent battle in Nasiriya, for example, Iraqi fighters pushed women and children into the streets to serve as human shields in order to drive up the civilian toll, the New York Times reported March 24. Numerous other reports also explain how the Iraqis have deliberately located military sites next to schools and hospitals.

Making a moral judgment on these individual events is highly problematic. As the 1993 statement by U.S. bishops noted, applying the ethical principles to specific cases is not easy. That is doubly so now, with the conflicting reports from the battlefield.

As arguments continue over the question of civilian deaths, the number of military casualties should not be ignored. Soldiers too have families who would feel their loss. All the more reason to follow the Pope’s example of incessant prayers for an end to the conflict.

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