“What About the Innocents in War?”

If a war ever breaks out between North Korea and the United States, Americans will surely raise some serious questions about the morality of war. For example, do we have the right to bomb and kill innocent civilians? Even in a war of self-defense?

In 2002, before the Iraq war, my colleague Onkar Ghate wrote an op-ed in which he addressed this very question. Although the context is different, the principles are the same:

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?

To find out, read the full article here.