Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Noncombatant Status and Convention Dependent Warfare

by Jamie McCall

When considering those who advocate moral distinctions in wars, that is, those who believe that it is morally justifiable to kill some types of people in war and morally unjustifiable to kill other types of people, a pattern seems to emerge. Among those philosophers who advocate this particular view of warfare, that there is a moral distinction stating who may be killed and who may not be, there seems to be a consistent agreement that those who are actively involved in war are justifiably targets and those who are not have immunity. They have termed these two groups of people combatants and noncombatants, and have given noncombatants immunity from murder during war. George Mavrodes establishes in his paper “Conventions and the Morality of War” a moral distinction problem when dealing with the combatant and noncombatant philosophy. After examining this problem Mavrodes concludes that the immunity system for noncombatants is based on a custom of warfare and should not always be followed. I support Mavrodes’ assertion that the problem with the combatant system ultimately means that nations should not act under the guide of a general moral law in warfare but instead should act in a manner that is most supportive for their goals.

Any attempt to assert that combatants are defined as guilty and that noncombatants are somehow innocent creates issues. The problem is that these terms and the rationale behind them are taken from the criminal justice system, a system which assumes that individuals act alone or in voluntary cooperation with larger units to achieve their goals. This type of system does not translate into warfare, where nations wage war not as individuals, but collectively (Mavrodes 124). People cannot wage war on an individual level - they act as members of nations. This group status means that it is often hard to delineate those who are acting “guilty” of their own accord and those who are forced to act “guilty” in order to avoid very deadly consequences. Beyond these problems, these notions of guilt and innocence are the result of moral judgments within the morality of our society – warfare provides no such morality.

It could be argued that combatants are allowed to be killed in warfare because they lose their right by attempting to kill someone else, but this severely limits combatant status in warfare. In this view, combatants can be killed not because they have a different moral distinction from noncombatants, but because they give up their right not to be killed when they attempt to kill someone else. The problem with this is that there are many things to be done in the waging of warfare that does not directly or even indirectly involve the attempt to kill the enemy. If we use this definition of combatant status, those who work in command centers, logistics, and support are all exempt from being killed. Using such a definition would thus prove to be highly problematic when waging conventional warfare.

Mavrodes conclusion is that those who support the noncombatant status really base their belief on a convention-dependent view of war that is different from what war really is. They view war as a battle between those who are innately wrong by virtue of their waging war, combatants. In other words, those who hold this convention-dependent view of war see the process of waging war as a battle between those who are wrong and deserving to be killed, combatants. Noncombatants, having done nothing “wrong”, cannot be killed in this view. Thus, the only moral way to act is to advocate for the murder of the guilty combatants, and forbid the murder of the innocent noncombatants.

The problem with using a convention-dependent view of warfare is that there is no incentive for nations to respect the laws of war. Warfare itself is a state of conflict that has moved beyond conventional understandings of morality and justice. When nations decide to go to war, they (theoretically) do so only as the end of a long result of diplomacy and other alternatives, because the cost of war is extremely high all around. When countries finally move toward warfare, they are mutually acknowledging that all other attempts to resolve the conflict within the normal realm of morality have failed. This is not to say that politics do not come into play. In the case of waging a war that one knows will result in a loss, there is definite political gain to proclaiming that the war being waged is wrong, illegal, etc. However, what is going on behind the political curtain is the silent acknowledgement that other ways of solving the issue at hand are not viable options.

In the realm of warfare, what is the incentive for following any laws or customs of war? What is it worth to a country to follow the “rules of war” and not blatantly slaughter “noncombatants”? There is no real incentive to follow a system of morality in a realm that does not include morality in its decision making. Once one country has broken a convention of warfare, everyone else immediately feels they are justified in doing the same (Mavrodes 129). Because it is always to your advantage to break a convention first (because you then hold the element of surprise), everyone at one point or another stretches the rules or breaks them. This is a rational move, but instead of playing to this delusion of the rules of war, it would be much more effective to simply ignore the customs of warfare all together.

Whatever conventions we may observe in war, we are always ready to break them if we hear news that our enemy has done so. It becomes a pointless circle of copying what your enemy does, and it would be much more efficient to simply recognize the extra-moral state of warfare and proceed accordingly. War is to be observed as being situation dependent. That which is “correct action” in times of war is determined by the specific situation surrounding it and how you can best help your nations interest in that situation. What is intrinsically moral or immoral becomes irrelevant, because nations are acting outside the realm of morality. All of the laws of war are crafted around the idea of who we ought to kill and who we ought not to kill. Even on a most basic level, normative requirements on how we should treat prisoners basically boil down to not killing them. We shouldn’t torture them either, but why? Because we might end up killing them. From this premises, having established that we cannot distinguish from combatants and noncombatants, the most common custom of warfare, we have no way to define what is moral or immoral. Defining who can be killed and who cannot be killed is the most basic moral question of warfare, and our inability to define it means that warfare in general is beyond all morality.

In warfare there should be no designation of combatant or noncombatant status. All those who are of an enemy nation are subject to being targets. This view is commonly termed realism. However, it is important to note that realism does not necessarily advocate for the delightful slaughter of billions of what non-realists would claim to be “innocent” people. In a situation where “innocents” are involved, it is rational to assume that a nation doing only what is best in its national interest will leave the “innocents” alone unless they have some reason to believe they are helping the war effort. After all, missiles used to destroy residential neighborhoods would be much more effectively put to use on military targets. While realism does not forbid the killing of civilians, it does not condone it either. As previously stated, realists are acting in a realm that does not include morality, and those who are killed or injured during a war are those who pose the biggest threat to the warring state. Most of the time, this will not include a lot of civilians.

Mavrodes states later that it is important to consider abiding by convention-dependent views of war, if only because doing so might result in the betterment of each side. He notes, however, that cases of doing so are finite and very situation specific (130). By this point some would declare that Mavrodes entire paper has become circular because after establishing that combatant/noncombatant status is irrelevant and should not be taken seriously, we have then arrived at the conclusion that perhaps we should abide by it anyway. However, I think it is important to note that Mavrodes point is that we should not abide by conventions of warfare because they are morally correct or governed by some broad concept of justice, but instead because they sometimes provide instances where it is in our best interest to abide by the customs of war. This is termed nationalist egoism, that we should do what is for the greatest good in terms of our national self interest.

It is possible to argue here that if nations in warfare only did that which is the greatest good for their national interest, half of the planet would be bombed by now. Because of this problem, I argue that we must make a distinction between short-term national interests and long-term national interests. While there may be certain cases where completely annihilating a nation is in the best short- and long-term interest of a country, for the most part long-term interests would dictate that the loss of things such as trade benefits and resources mean that countries should not be annihilated.

To conclude, the immunity of noncombatants is based upon a custom of warfare that has no valid foundation in moral distinction. This moral distinction is a necessary requirement in order for the immunity system to be followed unconditionally by the nations. Because of the absence of this moral distinction, the immunity system is followed not because of any large concepts of justice or morality, but instead because it presents a general custom of warfare. While it is sometimes useful to follow this convention, nations should not be restrained by it and should recognize that in some instances this custom should be disregarded in the sake of pursuing the nation’s warfare goals. These instances are varied, but the most obvious instance when this custom can be disregarded is when the opponent chooses not to follow the immunity system. In instances where the opponent does, it can be said that the immunity system should be followed because it is often in the nations best interest to preserve noncombatants.


Anonymous wesley Frazier said...

It deserves pointing out that Mavrodes still is not entirely in favor on unlimited war. He still requires proprtionality and just cause.

This being said, he does seem to justify a war where you are allowed to be just as underhanded as your opponent. But possibly not more underhanded than your oponent. ( Assuming the fight is between two roughly equal in strength opponents. )

8:36 AM  
Blogger Wesley Gibbs said...

Your point on killing only those that attempt to kill you and how it would limit warfare is a very good one. Playing by such rules would make a war extremely difficult to fight and win. I also agree that there is really no incentive to follow any kind of conventions. The only one that I can think of is if you think your nation will lose.

11:41 AM  
Anonymous Jamie McCall said...

Yes, Mavrdoes does _not_ explicitedly favor the mindless slaughter of everyone in warfare, however, if we take his views to their conclusion - he wouldnt mind it if it did happen.

2:00 PM  
Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

"What is intrinsically moral or immoral becomes irrelevant, because nations are acting outside the realm of morality" What? Call me naive, but isn't there some sort of incoherence here?

Is this some sort of way of saying: "I know it's wrong, but I don't care, because I might die?" Now, don't get me wrong, life has its advantages... but I don't know that bothering to have a moral system that is supposed to insure your life insures the death of others makes much sense. Essentially, I'm asking you why this doesn't always equate to MAD.

Keep in mind, when you die... you're dead, so it most likely won't bother you much if you've followed a system of ethics that allows you to be killed in the name of continuing humanity as a whole.

3:07 PM  
Anonymous Kim Morrison said...

I find it very interesting that even with these so called conventions of war in place, it's still a matter of interpreting those conventions to get what you want out of them. And the definition of a combatant versus a noncombatant seems to be rather ambiguous. As we know, the definition changes with time. Dropping nuclear bombs on Japanese cities during WWII was deemed appropriate while various civilian casualties caused by U.S. troops in Vietnam raised red flags back in the United States. The attacks on civilians on 9/11 were deemed as cruel and appalling, our declaration of war necessary and yet we did not drop bombs on cities in the Middle East. Could it be because our knowledge of the civilian population in the Middle East is more generalized than that of Japan? Or have we just become so politically correct that we apply the noncombatant status to everyone except those who we know for sure are not combatants? As Jamie pointed out, there is a definite flaw in the whole combatant-noncombatant argument. If it's ever to be followed properly it will have to be clarified.

1:00 PM  
Blogger Drew said...

it is a sketchy subject when we refer to non combatants and combatants, u do a good job of make the distinction but sometimes its not always black and white and people need to understand that sometimes one has know choice in teh matter of going to war especially if its with in an absolute monarchy

2:26 PM  
Anonymous Steven Grueshaber said...

I'm a bit uncomfortable with the idea that it's justifiable to kill noncombatants because there are some instances in which it is difficult to distinguish them from combatants. In fact, some cases seem amazingly simple to decide. How about a family spending an afternoon at the park? Or is that somehow too sinister? How about an infant?

I'm willing to concede that there are some cases in which it could be difficult to decide whether a person is a combatant or a noncombatant. A doctor that works on soldiers in order to get them back into combat, for example, is a pretty big contribution to the war. In these cases, certain judgement calls must be made. However, to decide that the wanton slaughter of civilians is justified doesn't appeal to me, even if it could be argued that it would somehow contribute to the other nation's position in the ar.

2:41 PM  
Blogger Adam Johnson said...

I think the combatant/noncombatant split is inadaquate even independent of any pragmatic failures of unassured conventions. It is certainly hard to swallow slaying an economically coerced soldier who may hate the war and what it stands for whilst leaving the war hawk politico unscathed as moral (at least for me it is). It is of course extremely difficult to define the exact parameters of who ought not be killed in a war. Perhaps even more difficult is the problem of getting people to actually follow these conventions. Thus, the temptation to just cash out at realism and total war. However, I do not feel this is necessarily the moral choice. I'll likely get harassed for echoing Rawls, but I truly do have a hard time supporting a stance that would create situations that I would personally hate to be in.

3:08 PM  
Anonymous Jeremy Page said...

I agree with your idea about short term vs long term national interest. It is something floating around in my head that I didn't commit to paper. I don't think that warfare is outside the realm of morality, I would just say that morality is not the most practical thing to take into account when attempting to when a war.

4:13 PM  
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1:33 AM  

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