Innocents in War?
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Innocents in War?

by Onkar Ghate | January 18, 2002

If President Bush makes the solemn decision to go to war with Iraq in self-defense, he must not shackle our nation — as he did in Afghanistan — with his own personal religious or altruistic notions. As president, he has no right to worry about civilian causalities in enemy territory. As president, his chosen obligation is to achieve U.S. victory while safeguarding the lives of each and every one of the courageous individuals who have volunteered to defend America.

The government of a free nation is simply the agent of its citizens, charged with one fundamental responsibility: to secure the individual rights — and very lives — of its citizens through the use of retaliatory force. An aspect of this responsibility is to uphold each citizen’s right to self-defense, a responsibility our government in part meets by eliminating terrorist states that threaten U.S. citizens.

If, however, in waging war our government considers the deaths of civilians in terrorist states as a cost that must be weighed against the deaths of our own soldiers (or civilians), or as a cost that must be weighed against achieving victory over the enemy, our government thereby violates its most basic function. It becomes not an agent for our self-defense, but theirs.

Morally, the U.S. government must destroy our aggressors by whatever means are necessary and minimize U.S. casualties in the process.

To be victorious in war, a free nation has to destroy enough of the aggressor to break his will to continue attacking (and, then, dismantle his war apparatus and, where necessary, replace his government). In modern warfare, this almost always necessitates “collateral damage,” i.e., the killing of civilians.

In fact, victory with a minimum of one’s own casualties sometimes requires a free nation to deliberately target the civilians of an aggressor nation in order to cripple its economic production and/or break its will. This is what the U.S. did in WWII when it dropped fire bombs on Dresden and Hamburg and atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These bombings were moral acts. The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for instance, precipitated Japan’s surrender and so achieved victory with no further U.S. casualties. In that context, to sacrifice the lives of hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers in a ground attack on Japan would have been morally monstrous.

But, it will be objected, is it not more monstrous to kill all those innocent civilians?

No. The moral principle is: the responsibility for all deaths in war lies with the aggressor who initiates force, not with those who defend themselves. (Similarly, if in self-defense you shoot a hit man about to kill you, and also strike the innocent bystander the hit man was deliberately using as a shield, moral responsibility for the bystander’s death lies with the hit man not you.)

Moreover, the objection contains a mistaken assumption: it is false that every civilian in enemy territory — whether we are speaking of Hitler’s Germany or Hirohito’s Japan or the Taliban’s Afghanistan or Hussein’s Iraq — is innocent.

Many civilians in the Middle East, for example, hate us and actively support, materially and/or spiritually, those plotting our deaths. Can one seriously maintain, for instance, that the individuals in the Middle East who celebrated by dancing in the streets on September 11 are innocent?

Other civilians in enemy states are passive, unthinking followers. Their work and economic production, however meager, supports their terrorist governments and so they are in part responsible for the continued power of our enemies. They too are not innocent-and their deaths may be unavoidable in order for America to defend itself. (Remember too that today’s civilian is tomorrow’s soldier.)

But what of those who truly are innocent?

The civilians in enemy territory who actually oppose their dictatorial, terrorist governments are usually their governments’ first innocent victims. All such individuals who remain alive and outside of prison camps should try to flee their country or fight with us (as some did in Afghanistan).

And the truly innocent who live in countries that initiate force against other nations will acknowledge the moral right of a free nation to bomb their countries and destroy their governments — even if this jeopardizes their own lives. No truly innocent civilian in Nazi Germany, for example, would have questioned the morality of the Allies razing Germany, even if he knew he may die in the attacks. No truly innocent individual wishes to become a tool of or a shield for his murderous government; he wishes to see his government toppled.

Thus it should be unsurprising that a European think tank reported last year that “a significant number of those Iraqis interviewed, with surprising candor, expressed their view that, if [regime change] required an American-led attack, they would support it.”

As a free nation our goal is our own defense, not civilian deaths, but we must not allow human shields, innocent or otherwise, to deter us from defending ourselves.

The U.S. government recognized the truth of this on September 11 when, in order to defend those citizens it could, it ordered the shooting down of any more airplanes-become-missiles, even though this meant killing not only the terrorists but also the innocent American civilians captive onboard.

The government must now recognize that the same principle applies to civilian captives in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East.

War is terrible but sometimes necessary. To win the war on terrorism, we must not let a mistaken concern with “innocents” deter us. As a free nation, we have the moral right to defend ourselves, even if this requires mass civilian casualties in terrorist countries.

About The Author

Onkar Ghate

Chief Philosophy Officer and Senior Fellow, Ayn Rand Institute