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Civilians and War

The news that seven Iraqi women and children were shot and killed by American troops at a checkpoint in Iraq Monday disturbed Americans and observers around the world.

  • Timothy D. Terrell
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The news that seven Iraqi women and children were shot and killed by American troops at a checkpoint in Iraq Monday disturbed Americans and observers around the world. This, and other incidents involving the loss of civilian lives, raise questions about the way modern wars are carried out.

Setting aside for a moment the problems with justifying war on Iraq, what should a military force’s position be with respect to civilians in the area of combat? Some have argued that civilians are actually a legitimate target, because even the most innocuous civilian activities contribute indirectly to the ability of the enemy to wage war. The cattle rancher sells beef that is purchased by the army to feed troops, and therefore the cattle rancher may be regarded as indistinguishable from the uniform-wearing soldier. Or, some argue that the civilian is covenantally bound to the civil government, and therefore is responsible for the errors of the civil magistrate. God caused the people of Israel to suffer, after all, when King David sinned in taking a census. Others have contended that there is in fact a useful distinction between the civilian and those actively fighting the war. Civilians cannot be assumed to support the actions of their own government which is waging the war. This implies that civilians who are not directly participating in the war should be treated as innocent. They should not be fired upon, and should even be actively protected when their homes are overrun by friendly forces.

War has always been hard on civilians, no matter which view the military takes of civilians. Yet war in the last one hundred fifty years has developed new horrors for civilian populations. Some have argued that General Sherman started Americans down this road with his March to the Sea during the War Between the States. Sherman’s campaign was not intended to engage Confederate military forces, but to disrupt Confederate sources of supply and reduce morale by taking the war to Southern civilians.

In World War II, technological advances made it possible for the military to directly engage civilian populations, and this was deliberately done by both sides in massive bombing raids. Hitler’s air raids on England targeted concentrated civilian populations as well as military targets. The British targeted German cities when it became possible for them to do so. The Americans were reluctant at first to go along with the British “area bombing” approach, preferring the supposed precision of daylight raids using sophisticated bomb sights. But later, the Americans targeted civilians as well, participating in raids such as the one on Dresden on February 13, 1945. Dresden was packed with refugees fleeing the Soviets, and the firestorm created by the bombing killed around 60,000. Dresden had no industry of military significance, except a small factory that made lenses for gunsights. The raids on Japan, particularly the firebombing of Tokyo and other major cities in March 1945, produced absolutely horrific civilian casualties. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were also indiscriminate in their destruction. At Nagasaki, the bomb destroyed the Mitsubishi plant that had made the torpedoes used at Pearl Harbor, along with a Roman Catholic cathedral. Counting later deaths from radiation poisoning, about 140,000 people died from the Nagasaki attack.

Sometimes it is difficult or impossible to effectively wage war without significant civilian casualties. The enemy may be intermingled with civilian populations, as it was in Hiroshima, where about 43,000 soldiers and 290,000 civilians resided. Much has been made of the precision of modern conventional weapons. Yet the enemy may take advantage of the admirable reluctance to kill noncombatants by disguising themselves as civilians, or intentionally surrounding military targets with civilians. Certainly this has been the case in the war in Iraq. It becomes impossible, in these circumstances, to wage war without the deaths of noncombatants. This does not mean, however, that we should not make reasonable attempts to avoid casualties among noncombatants.

The distinction between combatant and civilian is not always clear. Any armed population can act as a kind of reserve militia. Combatants may not have uniforms, they may not be paid by the government, and their base of operations might be their front yard. They may look just like noncombatants. Distinguishing perfectly between “friendlies” and “hostiles” may be virtually impossible until a gun appears or a hostile act is committed.

Inevitably, troops facing this informal opposition will face two possible kinds of errors. The first error is to maintain a trusting, friendly posture toward civilians until they show evidence of aggression. This will result in unacceptably high casualties among the military as hostile civilians take advantage of the opportunity to get close enough to inflict harm. The second error is to regard every civilian as an enemy and violate the Biblical principle that a person is to be treated as innocent of a crime until proven guilty. This will result in high casualties among noncombatants. War requires a tradeoff to be made between trusting civilians implicitly and treating them all as hostiles. When due precautions are taken to sort out the combatants from the noncombatants (e.g., telling an approaching non-uniformed individual to stop, firing a warning shot), mistakes will still be made. In the events recorded in Judges 12, there may have been a few Gileadites who could not pronounce the word “shibboleth” at the fords of the Jordan and were killed along with the Ephraimites. These errors are unhappy consequences of war but should not be held against the soldiers.

None of this means, incidentally, that an armed civilian population in the territory of the enemy is an unmitigated liability. Sometimes an armed population can assist in producing military success. As told in II Samuel 20, Joab besieged the city of Abel, threatening everyone in it with starvation because they were harboring a leader of a rebellion against King David. (A siege was an indiscriminate battle tactic, but Joab had no tactic more discriminating at his disposal.) Joab achieved his goal without ever entering the city. He negotiated with the people of the city to kill the traitor themselves, and upon that man’s execution Joab departed.

In some way, the approach our troops take toward civilian populations is going to be determined by the behavior of the enemy nation, civilians included. When confronted with a militarily superior force, the enemy is more likely to use “human shields,” basically using our moral convictions against us. Those (few) who are willing to be used as human shields are essentially acting as combatants, and may legitimately be treated as such. But of course it is impossible to discern the will of these people, so this distinction is of no practical use. We can reasonably assume that these individuals have been “drafted” into their role as hostages, are terrified, and want nothing more than to go home. Yet is this any different from the position of the typical enemy enlisted man? The draftee driving an ammunition truck to the front is not shooting at us, but is universally regarded as a legitimate target because of his proximate support of those who are in fact shooting at us. The individual evidently prefers to help in the defense against the enemy than to be shot by an officer as a deserter.

Such a choice is an unpleasant one for the person forced to serve, either actively as a soldier or passively as a human shield. Yet it is not the first choice that the individual has faced. At some point, the individual had to decide whether to stay under his regime or flee. Some had a viable option at some point of forcibly removing the tyrant. In many cases, it is a series of decisions to submit to a tyrannical regime that finally results in the individual being forced to stand in the line of fire between a soldier of his own nation and the enemy. The person forced to serve may not be guiltless, if he had the capacity to offer some resistance to his own government and refused to do so.

However, it is difficult to pin guilt on all civilians in this way. In Iraq, there was in fact armed resistance to Saddam Hussein in the wake of the first Gulf War. This failed, but one could argue that many Iraqis have carried out at least some part of their duty in attempting to remove Saddam Hussein. Others are physically incapable of fleeing or offering resistance. If the enemy’s civilians have behaved somewhat responsibly, an even more conservative approach with respect to civilians would seem to be in order.

It appears that American and British troops have been extremely careful in avoiding casualties among noncombatants. This shows an appropriate diligence in attempting to sort out the combatants and noncombatants. There are no easy solutions, particularly when in the “fog of war.” We can hold soldiers accountable only for how they acted with the information they had—and we cannot insist that they take unreasonable risks to gain perfect information before opening fire. We can only ask that they take reasonable precautions to avoid harming noncombatants.

This is part of what distinguishes ethical military behavior from terrorism. Terrorism deliberately attacks noncombatants in an effort to produce fear and uncertainty. Sherman’s path of destruction to the Atlantic fits this description, as do some of the World War II bombings by both sides. Maybe, just maybe, we have learned something since then.


  • Timothy D. Terrell

Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.

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