Attacking Civilians in War
by Pierre Lemieux
The more democratic the state is, the smaller the difference between its rulers, combatants, and civilians, and the more justifiable should be a deliberate attack on the latter, ceteris paribus.
A recent article by Scott D. Sagan of Stanford University and Benjamin A. Valentino of Dartmouth College in International Security (Sumer 2017) in conjunction with Bertrand de Jouvenel’s 1945 book Du Pouvoir (On Power for the English translation) help us think about nuclear weapons. One characteristic of these weapons is that they are designed to be used against civilian populations (although there also exist “tactical,” nuclear weapons, besides “strategic” ones, capable of use against advancing armies or military installations). “If you kill my people,” Leviathan seems to proclaim, “I will kill yours too.”
Bertrand de Jouvenel, a French political philosopher, wrote On Power from his refuge in Switzerland during World War II. He observed how both the German government and the Allies had resorted to bombing civilians. The book was written before the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which provided even more terrible illustrations. While aristocratic governments generally kept ordinary people out of their conflicts, Jouvenel claimed, “totalitarian democracy” has regimented ordinary citizens into the states’ wars; they have become implicit combatants. He wrote:
In the time of Louis XIV … conscription was unknown, and the private person lived outside the battle … For the first time in [American] history, a President of the United States [Franklin D. Roosevelt] looked on the mass of his fellow-citizens as ‘human potential,’ to be used as might best serve the prosecution of the war! … Whereas the feudal monarchs could nourish hostilities only with the resources of their own domains, their successors have at their disposal the entire national income.
Sagan and Valentino vindicate Jouvenel by arguing that American public opinion favors the use of nuclear weapons. According to pollsters in August 1945, 85% of Americans approved of the bombs just dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Today, in retrospect, less than 50% think it was a good idea. But Sagan and Valentino’s 2015 opinion survey indicates that, in a similar scenario with Iran instead of Japan, 59% of Americans would support a US government decision to nuke 2 million civilians in order to prevent the deaths of 20,000 American soldiers in an alternative ground invasion. (The scenario presented to respondents was that of a war started by the Iranian government.) And most of these hawkish respondents would not change their minds even if a diplomatic solution were possible.
Of the American respondents who favored either a nuclear or conventional strike on civilians to save American soldiers, 68% agreed with the statement: “Because the Iranian civilians described in the story did not rise up and overthrow the government of Iran, they must bear some responsibility for the civilian fatalities caused by the U.S. strike.” Sagan and Valentino express surprise at the number of respondents who “suggested that Iranian civilians were somehow culpable or were less than human.”
This reading of American opinion contradicts Thomas Schelling who, in his 2005 Nobel lecture, argued that a strong convention had developed against the use of nuclear weapons. It also contradicts the principle of “noncombatant immunity”: as Sagan and Valentino write,
Both just war doctrine and the laws of armed conflict require leaders and soldiers to make active efforts and accept risks in war to avoid the deaths of foreign civilians.
We cannot discount an explanation in terms of nationalism as a modern version of tribalism. But a related and perhaps deeper issue is the idea that the state and the citizens form an undivided whole. And here, we meet what may seem like a paradox. The more democratic the state is, the smaller the difference between its rulers, combatants, and civilians, and the more justifiable should be a deliberate attack on the latter, ceteris paribus. This is especially true if democracy refers not to majoritarian democracy but is based on a sort of unanimous (implicit) social contract where the state is, at some level, identical to its citizens. The more dictatorial the state, on the contrary, the larger is the distance between rulers, combatants, and civilians, and the less justifiable should be a deliberate attack on the latter, even in a just, defensive war.
The first lesson of these reflections seems to be that, under any reasonable moral standard, using nuclear weapons against the civilian populations of dictatorial regimes – like Iranians or North Koreans – must be morally unjustifiable, even in a just war against their Leviathan. Disagreeing with this, as many Americans appear to, is like legitimizing the state as a mass killer. (We don’t have comparative data on public opinion elsewhere in the world.) This suggests that de Jouvenel’s concern remains very relevant.
These moral considerations seem far removed from the positive economics of war. But welfare economics has taught us that any public policy recommendation ultimately depends on moral judgements because it harms some individuals while it favors others.
In a war between two democratic countries, it would be inconsistent to advocate both the civilian immunity principle and the idea (or the fiction) that the democratic state represents all its citizens. But perhaps democratic states are less likely to engage in wars? The case of Switzerland springs to mind, but it seems contradicted by the American example. Of course, a sample of two does not have much explanatory power.
The second lesson is that we should ponder the question of whether the state should not be conceived as a Nozickian, arms-length protection agency, instead of an association of all its citizens – even a constitutional association à la Buchanan.
None of what I have said argues against a defensive war (or preemptive attack) against a foreign tyrant, but it does impose tight limits on the means used and on the cost imposed on foreign civilians. General Paul Selva recently put it in neat terms before a Senate committee: “We take our values to war” – assuming of course that these values are independently defendable, as I believe classical-liberal or libertarian values are. This brings us back to a simple but forceful idea, close to de Jouvenel’s thesis: if “we” use liberticidal means to defend liberty, there will ultimately be no liberty left to defend.
Pierre Lemieux is an economist affiliated with the Department of Management Sciences of the Université du Québec en Outaouais. His forthcoming book, to be published by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, will aim at answering common objections to free trade. Email: PL@pierrelemieux.com.
Oct 20 2017 at 8:21pm
You correctly raise the important fact that civillians in a despotic regime aren’t very culpable. However, I’m puzzled as to why you don’t follow out that line of reasoning all the way and apply the same considerations to foreign soldiers.
Soldiers, especially outside the first world, are often draftees (or at best coerced into joining as a result of the huge economic burdens the despot imposed to fund their rule) and generally too young to have exercisced substantial political power or have a cogent opinion about causes they will die for.
Indeed, during WWII the German and Japanese civillian factory workers who were choosing to contribute to the economic activity funding the war and old enough to bear some political blame were surely more morally appropriate targets than some clueless 19 year old who was threatened with death if he didn’t obey the draft. Even if they were making shoes not guns the men making guns could only do so because someone else made shoes for them. I’ve never understood this attitude that being randomly selected and forced to the front lines made you a more morally acceptable target.
Practically, the rule against killing civillians served an important practical function in the past: limiting overall death/suffering. But now the primary limiting factor in most country’s ability to fight is their economic strength (can they buy/build enough weapons) and the populations resolve and I think that means that in many cases we are morally obliged to attack civillians when that minimizes the overall cost in lives.
That too is what should govern our engagements with countries like NK and Iran.
Oct 21 2017 at 2:17am
(i) the threat posed by NK is expected to ultimately be serious enough that a preemptive strike actually makes more sense than just ignoring it, and
(ii) NK’s leadership possesses the ability to kill most of their own civilians if they direct their efforts toward that end,
then killing of most of their civilians as collateral damage to stop the threat is morally admissible, since it’s isomorphic to NK’s leadership doing so directly. Those civilians are already effectively hostages. There are only potential moral problems with killing more civilians than NK’s own government can. Though it’s of course better to save as many of them as we can, and I would be surprised if we are unable to do that.
Oct 21 2017 at 3:01am
“Because the Iranian civilians described in the story did not rise up and overthrow the government of Iran, they must bear some responsibility for the civilian fatalities caused by the U.S. strike.”
I find this sort of reasoning particularly troubling; it seems like the kind of thing someone could only believe who has never lived in a truly authoritarian society.
If we’re honest with ourselves, how many of us would’ve stood up against the Nazis, and put ourselves – and our families – at serious risk of torture and death, in order to possibly save some strangers? Very few I think; and understandably so. There is no moral obligation to sacrifice oneself and one’s family to save others; the willingness to risk or sacrifice oneself for strangers is extraordinarily noble, but the failure to do so does not make one immoral or blameworthy.
Oct 21 2017 at 10:27pm
A brief follow-up on the interesting comments thus far:
@Peter Gerdes raises important and difficult issues that I have glided over in my post. One of those is the problem of “innocent threats” (which Robert Nozick alluded to in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, pp. 34-35). I would argue that “innocent threatening” is matter of degree, that foreign soldiers are clearly innocent threats that it is legitimate to destroy (if necessary), and that non-combatant civilians, although they are also innocent threats (“innocent” and “threats” to the very extent that the regime under which they live is totalitarian) but to a lesser degree, may not be destroyed. Finally, if it were illegitimate to defend against a foreign thug’s praetorians, no defensive war would ever be possible, and the most totalitarian tyrant(s) would rule the world.
The problem of “innocent shields” is perhaps even more difficult but, following Nozick, “I tiptoe around” it.
I would disagree with the idea that minimizing the number of deaths is the (unconstrained) objective. But even if it were, it should have lead the Sagan-Valentino respondents to choose to sacrifice the 20,000 American lives.
I also beg to disagree with what @Christopher Chang seems to suggest, i.e., if T can inflict harm on A, it is, for this very reason, legitimate for B, who is fighting T (or perhaps for some altogether different reason), to inflict the same damage on A. How could we say that killing the slaves would have solved the slavery problem? I suggest that killing hostages in order to get at their kidnapper — who could kill them anyway, as he threatens to — brings us back to the sort of barbarity that Jouvenel was arguing against.
I agree with @Mark.
Oct 21 2017 at 10:50pm
Doesn’t this justify the terrorist acts on the US (and Europe)? Except for those guys who occupied a national park, no one has risen against its government due to current war against/bombing of [pick a country].
I would like to see the answers for this question if it considered different countries (not in the axis of evil) and specially attacks against the US itself. I guess it is more a reflex of American exceptionalism than ignoring the symmetrical problem.
Oct 22 2017 at 2:20am
Pierre, I explicitly stated that it’s better to save as many civilians as possible. “Admissible” does not mean “optimal”. I’m just noting that it’s our position of power that affords us the luxury of prioritizing the avoidance of barbaric solutions to KJU’s behavior. In the unlikely event it actually comes down to a choice between barbaric survival and acceding to KJU’s every whim, I expect the military to choose the former. (Note that no other nuclear power’s behavior has been in the same universe as NK’s.) But in the far more likely event that the military still judges KJU to be deterrable indefinitely, I’ll trust the professionals’ judgment.
Peter Mac isaac
Oct 22 2017 at 7:19am
The nuclear attacks on Japan the aggressor in WW2 saved the lives of an estimated one million or more allied foot soldiers.
David R. Henderson
Oct 22 2017 at 11:02am
@Peter Mac Isaac,
The nuclear attacks on Japan the aggressor in WW2 saved the lives of an estimated one million or more allied foot soldiers.
There is no basis for this view.
Read my piece here, especially the last section, titled “Rewriting History.” By the way, I have since learned that I leaned too heavily on Gar Alperovitz’s work in my piece and some of it is suspect. But my critics who later pointed that out found nothing wrong with the section that I’m recommending that you read.
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