Monday, October 14, 2002

Dead Enemy Innocents

Hiroshima, Afghanistan, Germany, Vietnam, etc. Tomorrow Iraq. In almost any war we fight enemy innocents are killed: civilians who live in the country that wrongfully starts or provokes a war against us or against our non-aggressive friends. We’re talking about five-year-olds and adults who disapprove of their governments and their aggression. Enemy innocents are people who are seemingly not part of the problem. They die as collateral damage or as targets. It is not wrong for us to kill them in self-defense. But why?

Obviously, the prospect of dead enemy innocents does not morally require us to lie down and take an enemy military’s punishment. But why is this so? It would certainly be wrong to fend off a knife-wielding mugger by grabbing an innocent bystander and shoving him in between yourself and the mugger. Yet, when it’s a case of innocents in another society, the society of the aggressor, things are different.

There are two reasons for this. One is that letting an aggressive state’s military roam the globe with impunity, or at least continue indefinitely to inflict heavy casualties on surrounding states, will sometimes be unavoidable if killing its civilian innocents is ruled out. In the case of the mugger, in a well-policed society there will inevitably be an opportunity to apprehend the guy without harming innocent bystanders. He might kill a few first, but the number will not be unlimited, as in the case of the rogue state we try gingerly to contain. So, killing enemy innocents in war may often be simply a way to limit the innocents killed in the long term. This is a reason for killing innocents as a drastic measure to ward off catastrophe.

But that’s not the more important reason. The more important reason holds even when the rogue state will not be likely to continue to inflict unlimited casualties on us (as, for instance, in a case in which its ammunition will eventually run out without opportunity for resupply). The more important reason is “better them than us”. It’s better that enemy innocents die than that our own die. However, this doesn’t apply in the case of the mugger. You can’t turn to a five-year-old stranger on the street and say, “Son, better you than me,” and place him in the way of the oncoming knife. Yet, it applies in the case of enemy innocents. Why?

Enemy innocents are by definition members of a society with a very serious moral failing: a culture unable to maintain a non-aggressive governmental regime. These innocents may have a choice to rebel in effort to stop their government from pursuing its aggressive designs. If they choose not to rebel, they are no longer innocents but, as contributors to the aggressive society, are collaborators in its aggression. If they do endeavor to rebel, their deaths are no longer those of enemy innocents, but those of our allies: victims of our friendly fire, which is a different story. On the other hand, if they cannot rebel because they are mere children, physically incapacitated, or certain to be immediately suppressed in their efforts, then we have a problem: the prospect of genuine dead enemy innocents. Yet, the deaths of these innocents are still justified, merely by the fact that their culture is not innocent but morally flawed. How?

It’s not merely that they are foreigners. “Better them than us” won’t work if you are dying of organ failure and decide to kill someone in a non-aggressive foreign country, in order to harvest his liver. No, it’s the fact that they are enemy innocents that counts. “Better them than us” applies in this case because, innocent as they are, they are members of societies of lower moral status that force the choice on us. The prospect that they will remain innocent over the course of their lives is lower than the prospect that our own country’s innocents will remain innocent. For their culture is likely to have a corrupting effect, as evidenced by it’s inability to maintain a peaceful governmental regime. And their own countrymen are more likely to kill, injure, or otherwise prevent them from leading good lives, than our countrymen are likely to do to our innocents. Our innocents are no more innocent than theirs. But better them than us, because our culture is better, and it is better that it survive. In a sense, enemy innocents are part of the problem, though not the cause of it. Innocent as they are, they are sociologically inextricable from the problem.

Obviously none of this justifies killing innocents of a non-aggressive society merely on the grounds that it is somewhat morally corrupt. In such a case, we have the better options of doing nothing or of endeavoring to improve them with reasoned dialogue about values and ways of life. But when a state threatens or attacks us, its corruption becomes extreme and it eliminates these options for us. It is this combination of this extreme moral corruption and the force of choice that makes killing enemy innocents in self defense justifiable.

The final test: If you lived in a country with a wicked, aggressive government, say 1942 Germany, and had to choose either to be killed by its innocent opponents in a necessary step toward stopping its aggressions, or to be spared as it went on an indefinite rampage of terror and destruction of good countries around the globe, which would you choose? Would you object to the bombs’ being dropped on your house in Dresden? If you would not object, if you would in good conscience choose to lay down your life, then you are in possession of not only a sound case for the killing of enemy innocents, but a consistent one.

(You will notice that I haven't distinguished between dead enemy innocents as collateral damage and enemy innocents killed when we make them the actual target, as in the salient cases of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It makes no moral difference. In either case, we find it necessary to kill enemy innocents in self defense, either as collateral damage in our effort to devastate the enemy military, or as a means of undermining the enemy's will to go on. If we must make enemy innocents the actual target in order to defend ourselves, this is a drastic measure, but it is no less justified than countenancing the collateral damage deaths.)