YNATKC, part 3,798

You're not allowed to kill civilians.

That's not just a rule or a guideline or a rule of thumb, for God's sake, it's the law. It's U.S. law and it's international law and also, just for good measure, it's international law that has been signed and ratified and appended again onto U.S. law. You're not allowed to kill civilians.

But this is also more than a law. It gets at the matter of definition. The distinction between a soldier and a murderer comes down to just exactly this and only this. Rank and uniform and the giving and receiving of orders ultimately are of no consequence apart from this. You're not allowed to kill civilians.

This is how we distinguish, say, Sen. Daniel Inouye from Ted Bundy. This is why the former is rightly revered and the latter rightly reviled. Inouye was awarded the medal of honor and that word, "honor," is yet another term whose meaning hinges on this one thing. You're not allowed to kill civilians.

I gradually tired of restating this due to the hair-splitting pedants and apologists for the vicarious titillation of indiscriminate death who insisted that stating the principle this bluntly was recklessly irresponsible. "Harrumph, harrumph," they harrumphed, "double effect harrumph."*

And of course it's true that the real world complicates every simple principle and that any meaningful or lasting principle has to account for those complications. But when someone's first impulse is to cavil and dilute and disqualify by qualification, I'm not convinced that their objections are raised in good faith.

For those who are, in fact, harrumphing in good faith, I'm perfectly willing to calibrate the principle more precisely, something like: You're not allowed to target noncombatants primarily and intentionally.

What that means, of course, is neither more nor less than this: You're not allowed to kill civilians.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

* Double effect or double intention is … well, think of a SWAT team in a hostage standoff. (That's probably a better operating model for America's current wars than other notions that may spring to mind when hearing the word "war.") They can try to shoot the hostage-takers, but doing so raises the risk of accidentally hitting the hostages. Generally speaking, SWAT teams won't take that risk, but if the situation is judged to be one in which not shooting puts the hostages in even greater danger, then they'll risk the shot. In such a circumstance, the blame for any hostages unintentionally injured or even killed by the SWAT team is not attributed to the officers, but to the hostage-takers. The SWAT team isn't regarded as having killed civilians because that is not why they chose to shoot. Their actions are covered under the principle of "double effect." Killing the hostages was not the motive or intent for the SWAT team's actions.

The principle covers more than just such accidental, wholly unintentional casualties. Imagine a scenario in which a hostage-taker is about to kill several of his hostages and is also shielding himself by holding a hostage in front of him. The SWAT sharpshooter's only option for stopping him is to shoot him through that hostage. The sharpshooter takes that option, thus stopping the hostage-taker and saving several lives, but also killing one of the innocent hostages it was his mission to save. The killing of that hostage is not accidental or even unintentional — it was foreseeable and deliberate. But the principle of double effect still applies, because the consequence of killing that hostage was not the primary purpose or intent of the sharpshooter's actions.

But this important, nuanced ethical rule — one that exists just for such extreme, restricted-option, awful situations — is not infinitely elastic. It could never be used to justify, for example, a SWAT team opening a spray of indiscriminate automatic weapons fire or calling in an air strike to destroy the hostage-takers, the hostages and the surrounding neighborhood.

You're not allowed to kill civilians. Double effect exists only to help clarify what that means in particular hard-case dilemmas. Whenever you encounter someone using it otherwise — to replace or trump the prior principle — then you are dealing with someone arguing in bad faith, someone who, in Orwell's phrase, is using the language of ethics "to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

  • Elmo

    You’re not allowed to intentionally kill people you know are civilians.
    You’re supposed to defend yourself and your comrades against threats.
    When you allow your armed forces to engage in urban warfare, when you’re part of a Counter-Insurgency operation, there will always be conflicts between these two principles.
    The time to think about these problems is before you begin the war. Once the war starts, you need to be following the U.S.Grant rules and if you’re not prepared to do that, then don’t start a war.

  • Tonio

    This article is several months old, but the information is getting some play this week on blogs. I found this chilling, particularly since since the Defense Department used warlike verses from the Bible on the title slides of PowerPoint updates. It’s sounding more and more that Bush is a PMDer who invaded Iraq hoping to jump-start Revelation.

    former (French) president Jacques Chirac was utterly baffled by a 2003 telephone conversation in which Bush reportedly invoked fanatical Old Testament prophecy – including the Earth-ending battle with forces of evil, Gog and Magog – in his arguments to enlist France in the Coalition of the Willing.
    “This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a New Age begins,” Bush said to Chirac, according to Thomas Romer, a University of Lausanne theology professor who was later approached by French officials anxious to understand the biblical reference.

  • chris the cynic

    I think the point of those who are saying that the attack wasn’t justified is that there wasn’t a conflict between those two principles. They are claiming that the helicopter was out of range and, given the ground forces reported no allied ground forces were in the immediate area, the actions could not be said to be in defense of their comrades either.
    I, not knowing the effective range of the (imaginary) weapons in question or exactly what “we have no personnel east of our position” means in this context, am unsure if they are right about that.
    -
    For my part, unless I missed something there was no point at which the ground forces said, “If you don’t fire on that van we will be in danger,” or anything that could be taken to mean that, nor do I recall the helicopter being told that the van contained any extra special helicopter killing weapons that could be aimed and fired from within the van without warning, so I’m less inclined to dismiss this as a conflict between the need to defend one’s self/allies and the need to make sure you know who is an is not a civilian than I would otherwise be.
    (Unless I’m mistaken an RPG fired within a closed van would not be any threat to a helicopter. It would be a threat to the van.)
    I see no indication they had any reason to believe that there was even a possibility that the van posed an immediate threat to anyone. I have not, however, read the military’s report on the matter so I do not know how they justified firing on the van. Which is why I said “less inclined” rather than something stronger.

  • Lori

    @Sergeant O’Leary: No, what I was responding to was “I haven’t seen it but I know what happened and who is and is not telling the truth.” I call BS on that. If someone was here saying “I haven’t watched the video but I know that the attack was justified” I’d also call BS.
    And with that I think I’m going to step out of this conversation because it’s not helping me have clarity and I’m contributing anything that’s helping anyone else either.

  • Raka

    For what it matters, after a fair bit of research I do think the initial killings* were within the ROE. Shooting at the van definitely seems like a mistake– the helicopter crew were in “enemy” mindset, saw the van as reinforcements, and ground control signed off based on what they were told. But again, it fell (as far as my extremely limited knowledge can tell) within procedure. And while the banter is unsettling, it’s neither surprising nor even avoidable in combat troops.
    So I don’t think either the crew or ground HQ were criminally negligent. But that isn’t really what Fred was saying. To paraphrase: when civilians die, something has Gone Badly Wrong. Sometimes, as with his SWAT team examples, you look at the situation and acknowledge that the “Wrong” happened before your sniper took the shot, and they did what they could to minimize consequences.
    Civilians died. Something Went Badly Wrong. I think it went wrong the moment we occupied, and got worse as we tried to use military procedures (designed with troop safety as a primary goal) to build and control a nation. Civilians are still dying. Something is still Badly Wrong. I don’t know what we can do to minimize the damage now, but I know we aren’t doing it. I don’t think criminalizing the soldiers involved in this slaughter is part of the solution. But something does need to change.
    *I initially had “firing”, which seemed awkward grammatically– and once I was thinking about it, I realized there’s no excuse for trying to euphemize what this was, in both intent and effect

  • LMM

    So, having not watched the video you are nevertheless A) sure that it was murder and B) comfortable accusing people who have seen the video and don’t share your certainty of making excuses for war crimes?
    Yeah, there’s no bias at work there.

    Just to clarify my point: there are an awful lot of people whose arguments don’t dispute that this is a war crime. Saying “well, you have to understand that these people were under stress” or “just be grateful you weren’t in their shoes” or “we shouldn’t judge these people’s behavior, we should mourn it” — all of these things are ultimately *excuses* that can (regardless of whether in this case they are) be used to excuse war crimes.
    At the end of the day, if the situations were reversed, we wouldn’t care how much stress these people were under. If these were American civilians being shot at by foreign troops, no one would dream of making these sorts of claims. Yet because the soldiers are Americans, people are willing to appeal to psychology to justify actions, without disputing whether or not this is a war crime.

  • Fraser

    Lori: “So no organization with an investment in the outcome can make an accurate assessment of a problem or just the military? Or just when the issue is about a war crime? ”
    When someone investigates themselves and pronounces themselves innocent it is, frequently, unconvincing. Particularly when the military has, in other incidents, denied civilians were killed or that Pat Tillman died from friendly fire.

  • Tonio

    LMM’s point is about excuses is excellent. I don’t have an issue with appeals to psychology as long as the objective is to prevent war crimes.

  • http://www.yahoo.com Tricksterson

    Tonio: This just confirms my long held belief that, at least among some, maybe many, of the administration supporters of the Iraq war the motive wasn’t oil (because if it was, considering how long it took them to start producing and shipping enough to break even, much less make a profit they went about it in a piss poor way) but to jumpstart Armageddon.

  • Orion

    @Sergeant O’Leary,
    I applaud your comment, but can’t resist the urge to quibble, as it lets me plug my personal philosophy:
    A criminal code doesn’t strictly require a moral judgment or even the concept of “justice”. I’m a strict utilitarian; for me, that means that I have no interest in people “getting what they deserve” because I don’t believe anyone can *deserve* anything. My ethic demands that I further safety, health, and prosperity, not that I enact justice, a concern which I tend to find distracting from the actual good.
    I would send murderers and robbers to prison, not because they are evil, but because they are dangerous, and the government entrusted with the security of the people has determined that imprisoning them is a net benefit to the whole (including the imprisoned). That determination, of what punitive actions will produce the best outcome, is technically a kind of “judgment,” but fundamentally different from the kind that people seem to be talking about.
    Apologies to all for the threadjack, but this is a hobby-horse of mine.

  • PIus Thicknesse

    I have a rather… unique… interpretation of the Hobbesian Social Contract because (I believe, anyway) it can be used to defend the construction of a democratic state. :P
    Since the social contract requires that you give up your right to exert your might against others, having given that right to the Leviathan (the state) which protects you from invaders without and harm within, murder and robbery most explicitly do violate the social contract because people who commit those crimes have gone against their social contract. They have broken the agreement that would otherwise protect them, and so the Leviathan has the right to levy whatever penalties deemed fit for the violation of the contract.
    And there is my hobby horse. ;) (not much of one, mind, since I don’t propound this very often)

  • Spearmint

    If these were American civilians being shot at by foreign troops, no one would dream of making these sorts of claims
    I daresay their own government and war hawks would.
    Actually, I expect I would be more upset about the occupation itself and the thousands of other civilian deaths it entailed than the specific ones the Canadian (or whoever) troops happened to catch on camera.
    If you occupy a country, eventually some of your troops are going to commit war crimes. The video is awful, but at the end of the day we’re eight years too late in being outraged about this, because these murders or other murders like them were inevitable the moment our troops set foot in Iraq.

  • http://j.com/ Tonio

    I agree with Orion for the most part. Laws aren’t about moral judgments but about balancing the individual’s wants and needs with the interests of the society or community. It’s not the place of government to decide whether some people are more worthy than others.

    we’re eight years too late in being outraged about this, because these murders or other murders like them were inevitable the moment our troops set foot in Iraq.

    For clarification, why were they inevitable? I have some ideas as to why – the flawed and dangerous motives behind the mission, and the fact that America was acting as a conqueror despite Bush’s liberation rhetoric.

  • malpollyon

    I agree wholeheartedly* with Orion. I’ve always suspected I’m some sort of mutant as I’ve never understood the attraction of retributive justice, whereas the vast majority of humanity throughout human history seems to view it as *really important* that the wicked suffer though no other good be achieved by it.
    *Well mostly anyway, I’m an indirect utilitarian, and I think that utility should be defined by rational preference fulfilment rather than pleasure.

  • Ing

    “I have a rather… unique… interpretation of the Hobbesian Social Contract because (I believe, anyway) it can be used to defend the construction of a democratic state. :P”
    The American founders actually agreed with you :-p.

  • Ing

    “For clarification, why were they inevitable? I have some ideas as to why – the flawed and dangerous motives behind the mission, and the fact that America was acting as a conqueror despite Bush’s liberation rhetoric.”
    Going back to what I said, it’s inevitable because soldiers now have the power unto GODS yet are still human. We have the fire power to demolish entire villages in seconds and it can be easily done by accident. when you put people in situations with that much power, while they’re under stress, duress and have comforts with held, things like this and worse are inevitable.

  • Fraser

    Ing: “Going back to what I said, it’s inevitable because soldiers now have the power unto GODS yet are still human. We have the fire power to demolish entire villages in seconds and it can be easily done by accident. when you put people in situations with that much power, while they’re under stress, duress and have comforts with held, things like this and worse are inevitable. ”
    Which, of course, is a good reason to question whether we should be at war at all. The consequences are high and even if the soldiers acted exactly as they should, we still end up with a lot of dead civilians.

  • Orion

    Pius,
    Leviathan actually says explicitly that the social contract can, theoretically, create a democracy or a republic just as easily as a monarchy. He just goes on to say that he considers democracy a bad idea, but not an illegitimate one.

  • Spalanzani

    LMM: At the end of the day, if the situations were reversed, we wouldn’t care how much stress these people were under. If these were American civilians being shot at by foreign troops, no one would dream of making these sorts of claims. Yet because the soldiers are Americans, people are willing to appeal to psychology to justify actions, without disputing whether or not this is a war crime.

    Maybe people wouldn’t, but that hardly proves that response would be right. Maybe Americans should consider the psychology of foreign soldiers if/when the shoe is on the other foot, even if they’d be unlikely to.

  • Ms. Anon E. Mouse, Esq.

    For clarification, why were they inevitable? I have some ideas as to why – the flawed and dangerous motives behind the mission, and the fact that America was acting as a conqueror despite Bush’s liberation rhetoric.

    I agree with everything that Ing said about such power being dangerous in the hands of fallible people, and I’d add that the tactics of choosing people with warrior training to essentially act as police in a place where they understand neither the language nor the culture increases the probability of lethal accidents and misunderstandings. Police training and peacekeeper training are qualitatively different from traditional military training, and if your country is going to use their military to do “nation building,” then they need to provide your soldiers with the tools and training.

  • Ing

    “I agree with everything that Ing said about such power being dangerous in the hands of fallible people, and I’d add that the tactics of choosing people with warrior training to essentially act as police in a place where they understand neither the language nor the culture increases the probability of lethal accidents and misunderstandings. Police training and peacekeeper training are qualitatively different from traditional military training, and if your country is going to use their military to do “nation building,” then they need to provide your soldiers with the tools and training. ”
    There was a great interview i listened to (can’t remember where) that addressed the whole inherent problems with human error in such situations. The interviewee was into AI and robotics and hypothesized the ideal police force/nation building would be a human shaped police robot with the mannerisms and culture of the people in it to act as the face of the ‘occupation’. The advantage to the robot is that as a (from a human POV) egoless entity it will react politely to the people according to their customs and is unable to get emotionally riled at yelling, spitting, stone throwing, or even low caliber attacks to it. It is unable to escalate any confrontation. It will always respond to any opposition in an appropriate way, never tainted by anger or insult. The idea they had was a force of these machines would be walking down the streets of Iraq, keeping the peace as well as winning the hearts and minds by say giving candy and toys to children or doing small menial labor upon request if they can. I think until we have such robotics, a whole nation rebuilding colonial all out occupation are is going to be iffy and probably unjust.

  • Fraser

    Ing: “The interviewee was into AI and robotics and hypothesized the ideal police force/nation building would be a human shaped police robot with the mannerisms and culture of the people in it to act as the face of the ‘occupation’. The advantage to the robot is that as a (from a human POV) egoless entity it will react politely to the people according to their customs and is unable to get emotionally riled at yelling, spitting, stone throwing, or even low caliber attacks to it. It is unable to escalate any confrontation.”
    And fortunately computer programs never crash, or do something you don’t expect so we can trust these robots completely to act effectively.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    Incidentally, iRobot advertises military robots on DC Metro Area radio stations. Just heard one the other day.
    It always brings a smile to my face that there is a company whose products include Bomb-disposal robots, Cylons, and self-propelled vacuum cleaners.

  • Ing

    “And fortunately computer programs never crash, or do something you don’t expect so we can trust these robots completely to act effectively.”
    You’re seriously attacking me for repeating a far future response to the issue? You do realize that AI robots don’t exist right now so arguing over how good they work is inane.
    From what I gathered from the AI workers that an AI working on programs would be like saying humans work on synapses. Right, but insanely simplistic. The hypothetical AI would not be a computer running a program on top of Windows or DOS, it would be a machine that is effectively working on an artificial brain. The appeal of such a machine/creature is that the creators could choose it’s preferences from the top down, ie an AI would like doing its designed task the same way humans like to eat or breath.) Such a unit that CAN’T get upset or panic or act out of fear or racism or anger etc would be a better police force than a human that can be confused by such.

  • Tonio

    Such a unit that CAN’T get upset or panic or act out of fear or racism or anger etc would be a better police force than a human that can be confused by such.

    True, but it’s a huge assumption that the robots would be sent as a police force and not as a colonial occupying force.

  • Ms. Anon E. Mouse, Esq.

    True, but it’s a huge assumption that the robots would be sent as a police force and not as a colonial occupying force.

    There lies the problem. Anyone willing and able to train an AI to understand a culture’s belief system, language, rules, etc. probably doesn’t think we should go in there and overthrow their ruler, even if he is an unstable dictator.

  • LMM

    Maybe people wouldn’t, but that hardly proves that response would be right. Maybe Americans should consider the psychology of foreign soldiers if/when the shoe is on the other foot, even if they’d be unlikely to.
    I don’t think they should, and it’s because considering psychology is a serious (and common) intellectual flaw: personal behavior is attributed to extrinsic factors, while others’ behavior is attributed to intrinsic motivations. (I am having a bad day. He is an asshole.) What I think is happening here is that people who make these arguments are identifying with the soldiers enough that they are willing to cut them slack from their (hypothetical) experiences. [1]
    And those experiences are just that — hypothetical. Some of these people could have been born killers. Some could have been itching to kill Iraqis from the day they got there. And saying that their experiences justify their behavior does an injustice to every soldier in Iraq who *hasn’t* killed or tortured anyone.
    I don’t think the world would be a better place if we started excusing crimes without further investigation. I *do* think the world would be a better place if war crimes — and all other crimes — were investigated in public.
    And the frequency of war crimes doesn’t mean that this one shouldn’t be exposed and prosecuted. Rape is *highly* unlikely to be successfully prosecuted. That doesn’t mean that any should be excused without investigation — or punished any less severely when there’s overwhelming evidence.

  • Ing

    @Anon E Mouse.
    Actually, I could easily see this becoming a friendly, nice looking face of oppression/occupying force. True the AI would be inherently nice and orderly, but the people sending it it may not be…
    …Like Robocop.

  • Spearmint

    For clarification, why were they inevitable?
    What Ing and Anon said.
    I’m not sure that a robot occupation force is a brilliant idea. One of the main reasons democracies with powerful militaries don’t regularly indulge in unprovoked wars of aggression is that people don’t like it when their country’s soldiers are killed. If no soldiers are at risk, there’s less incentive not to invade other places, and you could actually wind up with higher civilian death counts. For instance, there’s much less U.S. resistance about Obama’s drone campaign than there is about the ground troops.

  • Mark Z.

    I’m not sure that a robot occupation force is a brilliant idea. One of the main reasons democracies with powerful militaries don’t regularly indulge in unprovoked wars of aggression is that people don’t like it when their country’s soldiers are killed.
    Robots also don’t tell stories to the press.

  • Ing

    “I’m not sure that a robot occupation force is a brilliant idea. One of the main reasons democracies with powerful militaries don’t regularly indulge in unprovoked wars of aggression is that people don’t like it when their country’s soldiers are killed. If no soldiers are at risk, there’s less incentive not to invade other places, and you could actually wind up with higher civilian death counts. For instance, there’s much less U.S. resistance about Obama’s drone campaign than there is about the ground troops.”
    The point was realizing that Occupation=/=invasion. Though I’d argue an AI invasion force might potentially lead to less civilian fatalities as well due to AI soldiers being unable to be bored, angry etc. The fact that they wouldn’t make stupid mistakes by deviating form the mission or have judgment clouded by psychological factors means that unless they were intentionally made to be racist Daleks they should minimize hurting civilians.

  • Fraser

    Ing: “The fact that they wouldn’t make stupid mistakes by deviating form the mission or have judgment clouded by psychological factors means that unless they were intentionally made to be racist Daleks they should minimize hurting civilians. ”
    If they’ve got intelligence, even artificial, then they’re going to have some sort of psychology. And assuming that the people programming them can set them up to make the correct decision in every situation seems wildly optimistic to me. Either they’re “programmed” enough that we have to rely on the programmers getting everything right, or they’re going to have enough intelligence to screw up on their own.

  • Fraser

    To take an obvious example, some sort of priorities will still have to be set for when collateral damage to civilians is acceptable. So we could still end up with “bunch of kids in the house, but there’s a high-profile target, fire missile” incidents that we get now.

  • Bugmaster

    I think that by the time we make it to the point where fully autonomous AI police actually becomes feasible — assuming we ever do — all of our societies will become so radically different from what we know today, that speculating about this matter today is kind of pointless.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    To take an obvious example, some sort of priorities will still have to be set for when collateral damage to civilians is acceptable. So we could still end up with “bunch of kids in the house, but there’s a high-profile target, fire missile” incidents that we get now.

    But, and I don’t know whether this is a net positive or a net negative, *it’ll do the same thing every time*. What it _won’t_ do that we have now is decide whether the children in the house are acceptable collateral damage based on how much sleep it’s had last night and whether or not it just found out that it’s wife has left it.

  • KJK::Hyperion

    Wikileaks is political. They openly admit it. They only publish politically-relevant information. They edit it to political ends. The political end, in this case, is ending the war in Iraq, or at least getting the funding cut. They had previously leaked field manuals and lists of equipment, and used them to estimate part of the cost of the war (huge, and a lot of it economically unsound and clearly the result of corporate lobbying), which got them the attention of the CIA
    It’s hard to argue that the Iraq war is a good war, even without leaks like these


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