If you get to kill people in war, why don’t you get to torture them too?

If you get to kill people in war, why don’t you get to torture them too? December 17, 2013

Over at the Register, a reader asks a common question:

I’m confused about something. Assuming we have a just war (and I know there are doubts about whether Iraq/Afghanistan fall into this category but that is a discussion for another day), the Church says it is OK to use force i.e. to kill soldiers on the other side, but we are saying certain kinds of interrogation to gain intelligence and hopefully prevent lives from being lost is immoral? But it would have been OK to shoot the person we are about to interrogate (not in cold blood of course but in a “fair” fight). Seems to be a disconnect here.

You can’t torture prisoners for the same reason you can’t murder them: because they are prisoners. Shooting the enemy is the best way we have for stopping an aggressor in the heat of combat. Unfortunately, that commonly results in death, but death is not the optimal result of battle: surrender is. If it were possible to fight with phasers and not guns, the Church would insist on setting them to “stun” not kill, because the goal of war is not death, but surrender and peace, and the purpose of the gospel is life and peace. So in war, the proper view of combat is not that you get to kill, but that you have to kill sometimes. Why “have to” and not “get to”? Because the Church insists that the human person is so beloved to God that killing him is, at best, a huge tragedy and never something to desire.

Because of this, the moment a combatant becomes a prisoner, you absolutely lose the right to kill him and you become bound to respect his human dignity. He is not yours for the killing–or the torturing. He is to be treated humanely and not reduced to a means to an end–that is, a thing.

"Thank you for this article. Can you explain why He is referred to as the ..."

Some Reflections on the Crucifixion for ..."
"It is great website, thanks for pointing it out."

Ignatius: A Brief Introduction to the ..."
"Ok, I misunderstood you. I apologise. You said that Catholics did not worship a God ..."

Where Peter Is has a nice ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Stu

    ‘Because of this, the moment a combatant becomes a prisoner, you absolutely lose the right to kill him and you become bound to respect his human dignity”

    Close…but not exactly.

    Even as POW, you are still a combatant and charged with attempting to escape and cause as much trouble for your captors as to use up their resources. So while we don’t just unilaterally shoot prisoners, they can become aggressors in an instant which might require lethal force.

    • Kevin Nowell

      I know it is the current US military code that one has an obligation to continue to resist; but, does any one know the history of this doctrine? Was it always the case that POWs had an obligation to continue to resist or is this a recent development?
      In my opinion this is a very unsporting and ungentlemanly doctrine. If I surrender I should be morally obligated to cease all resisting else my surrender has little meaning.

      • JohnE_o

        From my reading of Horatio Hornblower, I’m informed that there was a practice of a prisoner being released upon giving his ‘parole’


        US soldiers cannot accept those terms…


        “The Geneva Conventions authorize the release of POWs on parole only to the extent authorized by the POWs’ country and prohibit compelling a POW to accept parole. Parole agreements are promises a POW gives the captor to fulfill stated conditions, such as not to bear arms or not to escape, in consideration of special privileges, such as release from captivity or lessened restraint. The United States does not authorize any Military Service member to sign or enter into any such parole agreement.”

        • CJ

          I’m hoping the links provide some context, because I’m very curious as to why our armed forces don’t allow this. The Civil War could’ve ended as a protracted and bloody “partisan war” (“insurgency” in today’s parlance) if Grant hadn’t allowed the CSA soldiers to go free upon giving their parole at Appomattox. This policy seems to be fraught with perverse incentives. With the size and mechanization of our armed forces, it’s not like we’re at risk of running out of fighers.

          • JohnE_o

            Second link provides some context.

            Never been in the military myself, but I have to assume that at the most elementary level, the reason why this is not allowed is because the US military doesn’t want its soldiers making special individual deals with the opposing forces.

            • Stu


              Even in a POW camp, there remains a Senior Ranking Officer (SRO) and a chain-of-command. The SRO makes effort to establish a network for communication for command and control purposes and begins to organize the men to resist their captors through various means and coordinate attempts for escape if possible. Absence of a unified approach makes success in these areas near impossible and at potentially at odds with each other.

              The captors attempt to undermine this through isolation and finding those captives who are susceptible to special favors such as parole. Therefore, no individual US serviceman is eligible to take parole on his own.

              However, he can be ordered to take parole from a superior officer.

              The best example of that and quite an interesting story is that of Doug Hegdahl.


      • Stu

        That assumes that all prisoners surrendered.

  • That’s part of why I prefer Augustinian’s Just War theory to the modern one- the insistence on showing love for one’s enemies by proportional fighting even on the battlefield. Heck of a lot easier with swords than with drones though.

  • Good answer.

  • jroberts548

    It’s such a bizarre question. You don’t “get to” kill enemy soldiers. If you must kill them while fighting a just war, then you do. It’s not like getting to eat a slice of cake. That’s like asking “if I get to undergo chemotherapy when I have cancer, why can’t I also get to be sterilized?” If you’re so eager to torture that you’re asking when do you get to torture someone, your error isn’t failure to understand just war theory. Your error is that you’re a depraved psychopath.

  • Ye Olde Statistician

    During the Middle Ages, a knight returning from the wars was required to do penance for his sins, even if the war was just.

    • chezami

      Yes, but 9/11 Changed Everything. Get with the program.


    The Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses respect for the human person under the subheading “Thou Shalt Not Kill” #’s 2258-2330:
    The right to self defense, torture and other issues are addressed. Here is a sampling:
    2297 addresses torture. 2298 acknowledges the Church’s complicity with States that used torture exonerating themselves because it was legal under Roman Law. (don’t we hear that a lot these days?) Such practices are now repudiated.
    2287 addresses the guilt of individuals and nations which lead others to do evil
    2264 discusses our obligation to love ourselves and the responsibility to defend oneself. 2289 addresses excessive self-love.

    • chezami

      Yep. It’s all super clear and obvious. Only the Catholic sophists absolutely bent on creating confusion and finding excuses to justify torture could twist their minds into the necessary pretzyl to be “confused” about the meaning of it all.


        How did you come to the assumption that I, or the Church’s 1.2 billion black, brown, white and yellow members, could justify torture? I mentioned, after # 2297, that torture is repudiated. That means there has been a definitive statement. “Pretzel” does not have a “Y”.