One of my more useful sources of things to blog about is Ethics Alarms, where professional ethicist Jack Marshall regularly blogs about a variety of current events from sports to politics to economics. This alarms some of the lawyers who read my blog, because they say that contrary to what he’d have you believe, Marshall knows nothing about legal ethics.
My own opinion has been mixed. Sometimes I think Marshall has a good point, other times I think his reasoning is a bit muddled, and every once in a while, he says something that strikes me as downright hateful or xenophobic. A couple of days ago, however, he posted something that is, well, just horrifying.
The post is about killing civilians in a war, and it’s called Are Citizens of Warring Nations “Innocent”?
“Innocent” and “civilians” apparently go together like a horse and carriage, if one is to believe the cliché used with increasing regularity by journalists, bloggers and even elected officials[…] The exoneration of civilian citizens for the acts of their governments is a relatively new phenomenon, one happily endorsed by the habitually politically correct. It is untrue, and it is time to blow the whistle. Ethics foul.
Uh Oh. I’m sure there are people who start out by explaining that they’re not politically correct who don’t go on to say something truly awful, but that’s not the way to bet. Marshall continues,
Governments are the agents of their populace, and when they attack other nations and kill human beings, the citizens of those governments share in the responsibility.
“Governments are the agents of their populace”? On what planet? Not on this one. Not for most of recorded history. The tribes, city-states, and nation-states of our history have for the most part been ruled by a fairly small fraction of their population, often just an authoritarian ruler and his loyal security forces. That’s still true in a lot of places today.
Innocence, used in the sense of an innocent bystander to an event that in no way involves him, cannot fairly be used to describe the adult citizen of a country engaged in violent or destructive acts unless these act are completely unknown and unknowable to the citizen and the rest of the public as well.
I don’t understand how mere knowledge of a government’s actions makes one responsible for them. Many U.S. citizens disagree with the actions of our government, and it’s absurd to hold them responsible for everything the government does. Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to say that people are responsible for the act they control or encourage? It doesn’t make sense to hold people responsible for things that are beyond their control.
Responsible governments fight wars on behalf of their obligations to a nation’s populace–for security, safety, to protect resources and important allies, or for important cultural principles and goals.
That maybe be true for responsible governments, but how many of those are there in the world? More to the point, however, no matter how legitimate and responsible a government is, the people it’s protecting can have a wide variety of values. Lots of people in the U.S. have opposed our war in Iraq since even before it started, and it makes no sense to hold them responsible for the war.
As the intended beneficiaries of a war’s objectives, citizens cannot responsibly assume bystander status. Moreover, citizens support their battling nations in many ways, including, in most cases, financially, but politically and spiritually as well. They also contribute their sons and daughters to the battlefields, however reluctantly.
Of course civilians who voluntarily contribute materially to a war cannot claim to be innocent, but that still leaves most of the rest of the populace. And it hardly makes sense to hold taxpayers responsible for what is done with money taken from them by force.
Civilian citizens are also accountable for the governments they allow to use their nation’s name, honor, reputation and resources on their behalf, as well as the acts of those governments, domestically and abroad.
Surely the key word in that last sentence was “allow.” Millions of people voted against Barack Obama, just as millions voted against George Bush before him. It makes no sense to hold a president’s opponents responsible for his actions. It makes even less sense to hold a tyrant’s subjects responsible for the outrageous acts of the tyrant. Oddly, Marshall disagrees even with that:
This is obvious in the case of a democracy, but it is true of autocratic governments as well. The German people were culpable for supporting the government of Adolf Hitler; to its credit, Germany has acknowledged this.
German people who did not support Hitler’s German government bear no moral responsibility for Hitler’s crimes. That doesn’t change just because the German government says otherwise. If surviving Germans from that time wish to accept responsibility for their own actions, they are welcome to, but Hitler didn’t speak for everybody then, and the German government doesn’t speak for everybody now.
And what about the Jews? By Marshall’s argument, since the German people were culpable for Hitler’s actions, then the 160,000 or so German Jews murdered in the Nazi holocaust must have had it coming, since they were part of the German people, at least until they died.
The argument of the “innocent citizens” advocates that a totalitarian regime can operate without the acquiescence of its people is demonstrably false: when a regime becomes truly intolerable, citizens rise up and end it.
Actually, that a totalitarian regime can “operate without the acquiescence of its people” is the definition of a totalitarian regime.
The citizens of Libya were not sufficient outraged by their government blowing a passenger airliner out of the sky to throw out their government, but they are trying to end it now.
There has probably never been a time during his reign when some of the citizens of Libya didn’t wish to end the rule of Muammar al-Gaddafi, but they’ve always lacked the power to do so. And in point of fact, they still lack the power to do so, which is why they need our help.
The Soviet Union perpetrated horrible offenses against human rights for decades, and the Soviet public acquiesced. (When I was in Russia after the Soviet bloc’s fall, I was amazed at how many Stalin admirers there were there still.) If a nation’s public will overthrow a government it concludes is intolerable, how can they be “innocent” of the conduct of a government they tolerate?
They are not. They are accountable.
By Marshall’s argument, not only were the murdered German Jews responsible for Hitler’s actions in World War II, but the 3000 people who died in the terrorist attacks of 9/11 had it coming because they didn’t stop the U.S. government from engaging in whatever foreign policy activities so enraged Osama bin Laden. For that matter, by Marshall’s argument, Afghan women are responsible for the crimes of the Taliban because they did not overthrow it.
Marshall addressed the 9/11 issue after someone challenged him in the comments:
But an attack on civilians outside the boundaries of war becomes murder, so 9/11 isn’t really on topic, rationale or not. An attack on civilian targets during war, or civilians who are killed in the course of attacks on military targets, are not murder.
Let’s untangle the logic here: Because the people who attacked us on 9/11 weren’t involved in a war, the people they killed were innocent. However, if the the exact same attacks had killed the exact same people, but it had come from a recognized nation in a declared act of war, then the people who were killed were not innocent.
In Marshall’s world, apparently, whether or not you are an innocent victim of violence depends on whether or not the State Department recognizes the legitimacy of the government that sent the people who killed you. Somehow, your culpability or innocence depends entirely on the actions of other people. Or else Marshall just tried to squirm out of admitting a glaring error in his argument.
Getting back to Marshall’s main post:
The convenient myth that the citizens of warring countries are innocent bystanders has an unstated agenda behind it, of course. Requiring the U.S. military to calibrate its activities to place as few civilians at risk as possible is part of the effort to make warfare itself impossible…at least by governments that care about civilian casualties. The fact that following the imposed subsidiary objective of treating citizens as innocents often has the effect of prolonging a costly and bloody conflict and costing more American lives in the process is, intentionally I think, ignored.
In other words, according to Marshall, the idea that wars kill innocent people is just a myth that has been spread as part of a dastardly propaganda campaign by anti-war activists. That may be one of the most fucked-up things I’ve ever read on the Internet.
(Which is saying a lot.)
One of the tests I use to judge whether someone is morally serious is whether or not they are willing to accept the bad consequences of their proposed course of action. To pick an unrelated example, consider that many proponents of the Democratic cap-and-trade carbon rationing program denied that it would hurt the American coal-mining industry. Yet the whole purpose of the cap-and-trade program was to reduce consumption of carbon-emitting fuels, which would certainly include coal. These proponents of the cap-and-trade plan were just posturing, and had no intention of discussing the issue in a morally serious manner.
Marshall is doing the same thing here. By refusing to admit that wars kill innocent people or that citizens in a totalitarian government have no control over that government, Marshall is refusing the confront the bad consequences of war. This is morally unserious and intellectually dishonest.
If Marshall wants to argue against protecting foreign civilians from the hazards of an American attack, he should honestly accept the consequences of this attack, and make his argument that the death of civilians is a necessary trade-off.
(If we were in a movie in which one character wanted to go ahead with an attack despite the fact that innocent people could be killed, he might coldly utter the phrase, “You can’t make an omlet without breaking some eggs.” That’s a harsh thing to say when real human lives are at stake, but Marshall’s going one step further by refusing to admit that any eggs are involved.)
Marshall even seems to understand this when someone asks him in the comments about the practice of using children as human shields. Here’s his answer:
You may not like my answer: non-combatants, innocents, and 100% the responsibility of the regime that uses them in that way. It is the most depraved of all war tactics…I assume it is a war crime; if it isn’t, it should be. But it’s a tactic that can’t be allowed to succeed, or it will just encourage more.
I am almost certain that Marshall is right about this. As painful as it is to think about, in some situations it could turn out that attacking the target and killing the children is the lesser of evils since not attacking the target will encourage our enemy to march ever more children into the war zone. Of course, the other consequence of that unpleasant logic is that when we are initially contemplating the decision to go to war, we should realize that once we are committed, we may find ourselves forced into a situation where we end up killing children.
Anyway, for some reason, although Marshall understands the logic of innocence when it comes to children, he seems unwilling to believe that it can ever apply to adults. The position Marshall is advocating is the same sort of moral unseriousness that leads people to say we should throw someone in jail “for their own good.” We don’t throw criminals in jail for their own good. We throw them in jail for our own good, because we want them to stop harming us. Jail still sucks for the criminals who have to be there.
Getting back to the main post:
Citizens of every nation have an obligation to make ongoing efforts to learn what their government is doing in their name, on their behalf, with the results of their labor and resources. If their government engages in evil, they cannot shrug their shoulders, go about their daily lives as if nothing is amiss, and claim innocence when accountability comes due. This is especially true of democracies, but it is true of all citizens of all nations.
Again, by this argument, Nazi-era German Jews and Afghan women were responsible for the crimes of Hitler and the Taliban. Here in the real world, however, both groups were among the first victims.
Look, paying attention to what your government is doing is probably a smart idea. As much as we’d all prefer to work at our jobs, take care of our families, and socialize with our friends, we should probably expend some effort to keep track of what our government is up to, and to prevent them from following dangerous and evil paths which might lead to our becoming some other country’s innocent foreign civilian casualties. In that sense, we do have some responsibilities. But it doesn’t mean we’re culpable for everything our government does in our name.
Perpetrating the myth of the innocent civilian aides and abets all varieties of bad governments–the incompetent, the corrupt, the profligate, the repressive, the brutal and the violent. It is a dishonest and unethical concept that does real, extensive harm. We need to stop pretending it is true, and to protest any time we hear or read someone claiming that it is.
It is dishonest, unethical, and morally bankrupt to pretend that war does not kill innocent people.
Unlike Marshall, the U.S. military has a pretty good understanding of this reality of war. The Marines in particular have done a lot of hard thinking about this problem, since they are often tasked with jobs such as feeding hungry children while simultaneously fighting guerilla soldiers trying to infiltrate their position.
One of the biggest problems they expect to face in the future is what they sometimes call the “strategic corporal,” which refers to the kinds of things that can go wrong when modern fast-tempo warfare takes place in the modern information age. Because there isn’t much time for soldiers in the field to pass decisions up the chain of command, the military is going to have to depend more and more often on low-ranking officers to make decisions that used to be made higher up. With modern weapons systems, this means that a corporal in charge of a squad could easily end up accidentally committing a monstrous atrocity.
In the modern world of Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, word of that atrocity could be all over the planet in hours, changing public opinion, weakening the support of our allies, rallying our enemies against us, and triggering terrorist attacks. So although taking steps to avoid civilian casualties could endanger U.S. soldiers, not taking steps to avoid civilian casualties could also endanger American lives.
And sticking our heads in the sand by denying the reality of innocent casualties won’t do anything to help the situation.