The International Society for Military Ethics in Europe

Webinar: Killing Civilians: Just War & Complex Moral Conflict

The 1st EuroISME Webinar was held as a live panel discussion via zoom on 22 October 2020. The session comprised three short presentations and some time for Q&A with the public.

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About the Topic

Is it ever justified to deliberately kill civilians? While it is true that the just war tradition’s jus in bello criteria of proportionality and discrimination are well-known moral guides to military action, discussion of these principles does not always fully account for the ethical complexity found on the battlefield. By coupling—really re-coupling—proportionality and discrimination with potentially leavening principles such as military necessity and sovereign responsibility, this discussion seeks to reinvigorate the just war tradition’s ability to illuminate complex ethical dilemmas facing decisionmakers on the battlefield by bringing the lessons of history forward to the present.

Original: United States Department of Defense (either the U.S. Army or the U.S. Navy)Derivative work:  Victorrocha / Public domain
Original: United States Department of Defense (either the U.S. Army or the U.S. Navy)Derivative work: Victorrocha / Public domain

Panelists: Dr Eric Patterson, Dr Marc LiVecche, Dr Daniel Strand

Eric Patterson – Military Necessity, Proportionality, and Discrimination: The Case of Veracruz
The moral issues that leaders face when considering the use of contemporary weapons of mass destruction are not necessarily new and can be illuminated by looking at past coercive bombing strategies employed against civilian centers.  A case in point is the Battle of Veracruz in which the U.S. military bombed the seemingly-impregnable fortress in Mexico as part of the Mexican-American War. This presentation will look at the complicated political, moral, and strategic issues involved that led to the shelling of Veracruz, which was an example of leaders acting correctly from the primary jus ad bellum criteria in ways consonant with military necessity and other jus in bello criteria.

Marc LiVecche – Moral Horror: A Moral Argument for the Bombing of Hiroshima
The atomic attacks on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, without doubt, moral horrors. Nevertheless, they were also moral horrors—they were the morally appropriate thing to do—that’s to say: we ought to have done it and it would have been morally wrong to have done anything else. To argue for the dropping of the bomb, then, my options would seem to be limited. First, I can argue that despite intentionally dropping a nuclear device over a populated city, innocent civilians were not intentionally killed. Secondly, I can argue that the citizens of Hiroshima were not, in fact, innocent—or not entirely so. In this paper, I will do both, and add a third point of analysis. In arguing these points, and briefly addressing the primary arguments against the bombing, I will demonstrate the value of just war thinking in complex moral conflicts.

Daniel Strand – Operation Meetinghouse and the Ethics of Strategic Bombing
When it comes to the discussion of the moral issues in the combined bomber offensive in World War II, the dropping of the atomic bomb and area bombing of German cities garner the vast majority of attention.  The bombing of Hamburg and Dresden are the classic examples that are often addressed.  Less discussed was the far more consequential bombing of Tokyo on April 9-10, 1945, known as Operation Meetinghouse.  It was one of the first major uses of napalm by the Americans in WW II which resulted in massive destruction to Tokyo and death of an estimated 100,000 people, most of whom were citizens. I will argue that though we may still conclude the firebombing was, in the final conclusion, disproportionate and indiscriminate, the moral calculus is much more complex and ambiguous.  Rather than being a straightforward case of a moral wrong, I will argue our assessment should be much more nuanced and complex.  In reality, this particular incident is closer to a borderline case than a clear-cut case of egregious intentional moral violation. 

Panelists' Bionotes

Eric Patterson is Scholar-at-Large at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia.  Previously, Patterson served as Dean and Professor of the School of Government at Regent University and before that as associate director of Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, & World Affairs.  He has considerable government experience, including at the U.S. Department of State, as a White House Fellow working as aide to the Director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, and continuing service as an officer and commander in the Texas Air National Guard.  Patterson is the author or editor of fourteen books, including Responsibility and Restraint: The Just War Thinking of James Turner Johnson (co-edited with Marc Livecche and available November 2020),  Just American Wars, Ethics Beyond War’s End, Ending Wars Well, and Just War Thinking.  His academic work has been published in many journals such as International Studies Perspectives, International Politics, Journal of Military Ethics as well as in popular outlets like The Washington Post and Washington Times. .

Marc LiVecche is a research fellow at the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership at the US Naval Academy. He is also executive editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy. From 2018-2020, he was visiting scholar at the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life at the University of Oxford. With Eric Patterson, he is co-editor of the Responsibility & Restraint: James Turner Johnson and the Just War Tradition, forthcoming in late 2020. His first book, The Good Kill: Just War & Moral Injury, will be published in spring 2021 by Oxford University Press.

Daniel Strand is professor of ethics and leadership at the US Air War College. He was a postdoctoral fellow at Arizona State University (2015-19) in the History Department and the Program in Political History and Leadership. Strand’s research interests include the political and moral theology of Augustine of Hippo and the Augustinian tradition, ethics and foreign policy, the just war tradition, bioethics, and moral theory. He is the author of the forthcoming Gods of the Nations (Cambridge University Press), a historical study of Augustine’s political theology in The City of God. He has published articles and book chapters on Augustine of Hippo, Hannah Arendt, and the ethics of euthanasia. He is a contributing editor at Providence.

Forum discussion

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Jovan Babić replied the topic: #2 2 years 5 months ago
Justifying is a delicate issue...
I have three remarks, two to Patterson, and one to LiVecche:
First, Patterson says that American soldiers, 1857, and again 1945, were “somebody’s husbands, sons, fathers, brothers…” – does this imply that Mexican or Japanese soldiers were not?
Second, he says that the size of American army heavily multiplied between 1941 and 1945 [leaving most of workload in civil and military economy to women]; on the other side he reproaches Japanese for “conscripting” women for (military, and other) production in Tokio. Does this imply, again, employing double standards? What kind of an argument is this?

If we treat our enemies like criminals or irresponsible lunatics, we should not be surprised if they treat us the same way.
This view leads to the goal of aiming (normative, and perhaps also factual) annihilation of our enemies, or to its surrogate - the unconditional surrender of the other side. However, it is questionable whether such surrender is a legitimate form of capitulation, which should be the end of the war and the establishment of a new peace (or the restoration of the old one).
It seems more likely that this kind of ending will be a truce, however long it can last (possibly indefinitely). Without mutual respect talking about ius in bello (where the matter of defining "legitimate targets" belongs) becomes empty. And war ceases to be a form of conflict (becoming something more like a chase or a hunt).

On the other side I liked (without prejudice to Hiroshima and Nagasaki) the line of Marc’s argumentatio in his saying that Japanese “couldn’t win”: he bases this claim on empirical evidence, which entails much more complex and very different (and much stronger) kind of (political) responsibility and need for justification (for Japanese leadership in pursuing impossible goals). This line of argumentation is emancipated of eschatological ballast that makes it so easy to jump to “conclusions”. (After all, respecting facts is the ultimate responsibility of all, not only of commanders.)
Marc LiVecche replied the topic: #3 2 years 5 months ago
Thanks for these remarks. While only one was directed to me, I'd also like to add my own thoughts to the two posed to Eric. You write:

1) "Patterson says that American soldiers, 1857, and again 1945, were “somebody’s husbands, sons, fathers, brothers…” – does this imply that Mexican or Japanese soldiers were not?" and
2) Eric "says that the size of American army heavily multiplied between 1941 and 1945 [leaving most of workload in civil and military economy to women]; on the other side he reproaches Japanese for “conscripting” women for (military, and other) production in Tokio. Does this imply, again, employing double standards?"

From my perspective, Patterson's line of thinking doesn't require double standards. On the first point, the focus is simply on clouding what is sometimes seen as an easy distinction between combatants and non-combatants. The lack of easy distinctions is especially (though not exhaustively) true when we are considering conscripts. In the case of the WW2, the only reason most of those American boys were fighting in the Pacific Theatre in US military uniforms was because an unlawful and immoral war of Japanese aggression required a US military response. Couple this with the facts that in Hiroshima there were military personnel in garrison, there were civilians working in war essential industries, and there were civilians willing (if not eager) to answer the call to universal conscription. Taken all together, the point is simply to say that we can't make easy binaries between combatants on the one side who are liable to attack and, on the other side, non-combatants who are simply not liable to attack. But, it's true that Japanese conscripts existed too and that they, too, were husbands and fathers and brothers and sons--and, preparing for that invasion--daughters and wives and mothers. The fact that this is true only underlines the point: the dropping of those bombs saved an extraordinary number of civilian--in both our simple and more complex understanding--lives: American, Japanese, Chinese, etc.

Lastly, I'm not sure I'm clear on just what you're asking regarding the unconditional surrender. I will say that our demand for "unconditional surrender" was, as I suggested in my own remarks, entirely justified. I'll go a step further here. I wonder if a line can't be drawn between Versailles Treaty and the way we forced the ending of the Second World War. I follow Pershing in his worry that the Germans surrendered without ever really being "licked." Germany's armies were never destroyed in the field. Indeed, German generals telling their men to stand down noted to them that they were stopping hostilities while occupying enemy territory. Most German civilians--to whom rationing, absent men, and funerals would have made plain that they were at war--nevertheless saw no indication that they were losing the fight. Yet, suddenly, they are the defeated nation suffering punitive peace terms. I think the rise of Hitler proved Pershing's point. Reading the minutes of the Japanese war cabinet makes plain that Japanese militarism would not accept defeat. They did not accept that they had been licked. Hiroshima made that plain. Indeed, they could now stand down knowing they had done everything they could do. For a society with strong beliefs about honor, the bombs were even a face-saving mechanism. The proposal--which you might not be making--that the demand for unconditional surrender could not lead to a durable peace is proved wrong simply by the history. In fact, I believe it is largely because of the unconditional nature of the surrender, followed by the magnanimous occupation, feeding, and rebuilding of Japan, that allowed for the friendship we enjoy today.

I'm not sure I answered the question you were asking here, but I hope I managed to say something useful. Thanks again for taking the time to respond.


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