Is It Okay to Intentionally Kill Civilians?

Fredrik Norman points to this rant by Andrew Dalton about whether or not it is ever appropriate during a war to intentionally target civilians. The short version is that most libertarians say that it is never appropriate, while some Objectivists assert that it is:

Dalton writes,

LIBERTARIAN WATCH: The one thing that seems to unite all libertarians—other than their nominal support of “liberty”—is their disdain for Objectivism. For instance, Charles Oliver writes,

Most people accept that some civilian casualties are inevitable in war, and the fact that civilians might die isnÂ’t necessarily a good reason to forego any particular military action. Does this mean that we can, as the Ayn Rand Institute folks urge, deliberately target civilians?

He continues on with usual “No, that would make us terrorists too” arguments. But he leaves out two important contexts. The first is that deliberately targeting civilians (as opposed to killing civilians incidentally during an attack on a military or industrial target) is an extreme act that would not be justified in most military actions. It was justified during World War II, when our enemies had both the will and the means to destroy us utterly. Oliver takes issue with the mass destruction of Dresden and Hiroshima, but would he even be alive today to complain if the Allies had not destroyed those cities?

Note that what we are not talking about here is collateral damage. Everyone who accepts some sort of just war theory acknowledges that civilians are going to be killed inadvertently in war. But the issue before us is whether or not there is any situation in which it would be okay to say, “There are some noncombatant civilians over there — lets bomb them to get this war over with.”

Dalton cites to examples where civilians were intentionally bombed by Allied forces during World War II — Dresden and Hiroshima — and implies that some of us might not even be alive if it weren’t for these two bombings. Dalton needs to check his premises.

Both Dresden and Hiroshima were bombed when the ultimate outcome of the war was clear.

Dresden was firebombed on Feb. 13-14, 1945 and estimates put the number of dead civilians at 35,000-150,000. Ironically, many of those killed in Dresden were refugees who were fleeing the advance of the Soviet Army into Germany.

There have been a number of efforts to offer military purposes behind the bombing of Dresden, but the decision to bomb the city seems to have been heavily influenced by Bomber Command head Arthur Harris who was an advocate of the use area bombing of civilian areas to demoralize the population and hasten a surrender.

Hiroshima, of course, was nuked on August 6, 1945. U.S. President Harry Truman made the decision to bomb Hiroshima and then Nagasaki based largely on estimates that an invasion of Japan by Allied forces would result in enormous Allied casualties.

The issue at Hiroshima was not the survival of the free, democratic West, but rather how the occupation of Japan could be accomplished with a minimum number of casualties to Allied military forces.

The problem is that in most just war theories, combatant nations are not allowed to slaughter civilians in order to spare combatants. The claim that combatants should be allowed to target civilians is at the heart of the argument for terrorism.

Among those justifying Palestinian suicide bombers who target Israeli civilians, for example, a common refrain is that given the might of the Israeli military, the Palestinians have no choice but to target Israeli civilians.

For Dalton, on the other hand, if anything the U.S. government does not target civilians enough:

Now, with the way that the war had been fought up to that point, there was no good reason to believe that the Taliban would fall so easily. In simple terms, we got lucky. We didn’t get lucky in Vietnam. The fact is, our government was too concerned with civilian casualties (and the worthless opinions of our Arab “allies”) to fight the war in a manner that would ensure a certain victory. And the jury is still out on what kind of victory we got.

Of course the Vietnam example shows the flip side of the argument against targeting casualties. Civilian casualties — especially those inflicted by the series of corrupt South Vietnamese governments supported by the United States — seriously undermined support for the U.S. within Vietnam. In fact, if anything intentionally targeting civilians does not seem to demoralize a civilian population and hasten an end to a war as much as it seems to stiffen the resolve and support of civilians for even the most wretched of governments.

It is difficult to argue that civilians should never be targeted — in fact nuclear deterrence relies on just such a targeting and I think that can be defended on grounds of efficacy and proportionality. But I’ve never seen a convincing argument that the attacks on Dresden, Hiroshima or Nagasaki were morally just.


Libertarian Watch. Andrew Dalton, April 21, 2002.

Of Norwegian Nurses and Nobel Prizes

Recently a lot of weblogs have been outraged over comments made by Norwegian Hanna Kvanmo who sits on the Nobel Peace Prize committee. Kvanmo expressed regrets that the committee had awarded Israel’s Shimon Peres the award — but, of course, she apparently thinks Yasser Arafat has done a standup job of upholding the prize’s values.

Fredrik Norman fills in the rest. Ms. Kvanmo’s position is a bit easier to understand in light of her activities during World War II.

On April 9, 1940, Nazi Germany invaded Norway and conquered it in about two months. Kvanmo was one of about 1,000 young Norwegian women who joined the German Red Cross and went to work on the eastern front taking care of Nazi soldiers.

While the Nazis were rampaging across Europe, leaving death and destruction in their wake, Kvanmo chose to spend the war helping to treat war criminals (among other things, Kvanmo and others treated the wounds of members of the SS).

At the end of the war, many of these nurses were returned to Norway where they were sentenced to varying terms of prison for aiding the enemy.

Leave it to a woman who aided the Nazi war effort to lecture the rest of the world about peace.

Pacifism is (Usually) Stupid

MSNBC has an article by National Journal writer Michael Kelly ripping on pacifism. Kelly essentially recycles George Orwell’s excellent debunking of the British pacifist movement during World War II. As Kelly notes, since Nazi Germany wanted to conquer Great Britain, pacifists were helping that effort even if it was not their intent.

Doc Searls seems to think he can refute this with the line, “Hey, it failed for Christ, Ghandi and Martin Luther King, right?” Unfortunately, his examples only illustrate why pacifism only works under a set of very circumscribed conditions.

The inclusion of Jesus Christ is a bit odd, since I believe Christ was eventually crucified. I think that’s a fate most of us would prefer to avoid.

But Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. are the obvious exceptions to the rule. Why did their nonviolent policies actually succeed? The answer is that both were opposing liberal democracies who claimed to uphold certain values in theory, but, in fact, did not uphold those values in practice.

Ghandi and King put British and American hypocrisy on full display for the world to see. Ultimately each leader succeeded because their respective societies found the reflection in the mirror to be revolting.

Nonviolent movements, however, have a very poor track record in societies that are not liberal democracies. A group of brave students in Nazi Germany, calling themselves the White Rose, secretly distributed anti-Nazi leaflets in 1942 and 1943.

When they were finally caught, the Nazis didn’t let them sit in jail to write inspiring letters as King was allowed to do. Only four days after their arrest, the three students at the core of the White Rose movement were put on trial. After a trial that lasted only four hours, they were convicted and sentenced to death. All three were beheaded later that afternoon.

Another student, who evaded arrest for a short time, was also tried, convicted, and executed just as swiftly, while others who played less important roles in the organization were sent off to forced labor camps.

I am not arguing that the White Rose was a failure because they stuck to leafletting rather than taking up arms against the German state. What I am arguing is that it is sheer delusion to think that nonviolence and pacifism will bring down states like Nazi Germany.

Japanese Textbooks and American Media Hypocrisy

I almost forgot about an event a few nights ago that infuriated me while watching the nightly news (I am one of those people with the extremely annoying habit of talking back to the TV which causes my wife to eject me from the living room on occasion).

I can’t remember which network I was watching, but they ran a short piece about a controversial Japanese history textbook. The textbook is controversial because it whitewashes Japanese war crimes during World War II. Because of the controversy, the publisher has decided to sell the textbook in general bookstores where, according to the BBC it has become a bestseller.

No, that’s not what infuriated me. In fact I’m not certain why this particular book is generating so much controversy since the sort of revisionism it embraces is pretty standard fare in Japanese accounts of World War II.

What infuriated me was the hypocrisy of the network I was watching. In the brief segment about the book, the reporter opens up talking about how many people in Asia believe the book distorts the truth. So what do our intrepid news producers do when they finally give us a full-screen shot of the book’s cover? They used a special lens filter on the camera to bathe the entire screen in red, which had the effect of making the book appear to be covered in blood.

You would think that a news story highlighting how easily truth and history can be distorted would be the last place a news show would want to use such cheap gimmicks, but apparently not. I used to think such predictions were way off the mark, but I have come to agree with people who speculate that we won’t have to be too long before news reports like this begin using music and other techniques to further dramatize (and, yes, inevitably further fictionalize) their stories.

A World War II Urban Legend?

The other day I was surfing the web and came across any essay about whether video games, etc., cause violence. The essay repeated a claim I’d read before. Supposedly the Pentagon commissioned a study which found that only 25 percent of soldiers actually fired their guns at the enemy. As a result, this little anecdote claims, the military actively work on ways to train recruits to overcome their reticence at killing the enemy — a program which bore fruit in Vietnam.

I’ve never seen this so-called study sourced and I am extremely skeptical of its claims. That only 25 percent of those serving in the military actually discharged a weapon during WWII wouldn’t necessarily surprise me, but that it’s implication is that upon encountering the enemy large numbers of American soldiers simply refused to fire back seems to be geared at misconceptions about combat that are exacerbated by media portrayals of war, specifically the war movie.

I’m made even more skeptical by what little I can drum up on the number of rounds fired per enemy casualty in both wars. I couldn’t find any sourced statistics on this either, but the general consensus seems to be that far more rounds were fired per enemy casualty in Vietnam than in World War II — with some folks estimating up to 1 million rounds per dead foe in Vietnam (which, if true, is likely a total of all ordinance rather than total small arms fire). Even for WWII the best estimates I could find were about 50,000 rounds of small arms fire per dead enemy.

One of the major differences between the two wars was the improvement in small arms which made it possible to more accurately aim automatic weapons fire, but even given that based on the information I’ve been able to find, even if soldiers serving in Vietnam were more trigger happy than those serving in World War II, the only net effect seems to have been that they used up ammunition at a greater rate.

I would be extremely gratified if anybody who knows of any solid, sourced information on this topic would pass said information along via e-mail to [email protected] or by posting it on this site.