Moral Character or Character of War? – Valentino

This week we are commenting on ‘Moral Character or Character of War? American Public Opinion on the Targeting of Civilians in Times of War‘ by Benjamin Valentino in Daedalus, Volume 145, Issue 4, Fall 2016, p.127-138.

It’s available here.

The paper is a meta-analysis of how Americans have viewed civilian deaths ni all of the foreign wars conducted by their military since Vietnam. The article is a fascinating insight into the way in which the views of the American public change over time, and how they conceptualise civilians in foreign lands.

Here’s what we thought:


In this paper the author examines what he considers to be the three primary explanations for changes in the conduct of American wars post-Vietnam. These are: shift in norms surrounding targeting of civilians; changing ideas about how to win wars; and the changing nature of wars since WW2, particularly since Vietnam (129). Here the author argues that the shift in American strategy is less down to changing norms surrounding the killing or civilians, but primarily down to the changing nature of the wars being fought, and reduced pressures to win quickly and successfully (133).

One of the most prominent statistics supporting the author’s case is that  ‘the United States has lost fewer soldiers in all its wars since Vietnam combined than it did in a single average month of World War II’ – and this is not to even take into account the increase in population size over that period (134). From my own reading of the paper, the implication here is that the changing nature of war, and the changing level of force exerted by the US is also linked to the perceived direct threat to the US and its allies in the immediate future. Were the US or its allies to be threatened directly and militarily by a clearly defined (non-nuclear) nation state, would the trend of declining attacks on civilians continue? The author here, suggests not, and I am inclined to agree.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University


Even though I might not 100% agree with it, I found the article interesting and thought-provoking. Particularly striking was how only 21% of the US population in 1999 believed there were rules to regulate attacking combatant in populated villages or towns. The contrast with Gregory’s article on how it views the practices of the US military were also interesting to note. If one includes Gregory’s war in the shadowlands, the amount of civilian casualties might actually change. Although I really enjoyed the article, there are several points to be made.

I find that a historical comparison with the targeting of civilians in WW2 or on the use of nuclear weapons is highly problematic. Nuclear weapons have proliferated (increasing the risk of a strike in return), have become more deadly, and there is much more knowledge available on the harm of their use. Furthermore, the scale of WW2 was unprecedented, as was what was at stake, and the engagement of the population. He acknowledges the special circumstances in the end of the article, but his premise that the US populations finds civilian targeting to be less permissible is based on these figures, undermining the whole point of his article.

As I personally have a focus on technology, I also miss an extended discussion of guided munitions, which the USA now uses heavily (in 2014 it was assessed that 97% of air strikes in Syria were with guided munitions). Laser-guided munitions were introduced in Vietnam, and their possibilities saw significant breakthroughs following the Gulf War and the increased launch of satellites. This makes it possible for the US military to have more precise bombings, arguably killing fewer civilians. For example, one needs fewer munitions and munitions with less payload, as one does not need to compensate for inaccuracy, significantly reducing the cost. Long-range standoff engagement becomes possible, decreasing the risk. One can hit mobile and disappearing targets like mobile ballistic missile launchers as well, which are only out in the open for a short period. There are differing views on how important the humanitarian argument is for the US military. Nonetheless there is a strong argument to be made that the reduction of civilian casualties is merely a side effect of the strategic benefits. That likely does not directly affect the public opinion of the US population though.

An interesting follow-on question, is whether the decreasing tolerance has affected transparency and accountability of the US government. Is the government expecting more criticism over civilian casualties, and might that actually affect the lack of transparency on the civilian casualties of drone strikes?

Maaike Verbruggen, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)


I quite liked Valentino piece here discussing changing American civilian attitudes to civilian casualties in warfare. But, throughout I wanted to know opinions of other people. I’m not sure if civilian opinion is even worth much. After all,  there are many real experts who spend their lives dedicated to improving their understanding of security issues – why are we always so bothered about the opinion of Joe the Plumber? In relation to killing of civilians,  I’d also be interested to hear opinion so from military personnel who could be asked to do this. None of the people I know in the military would want to give, or carry out, such orders. So it seems wrong to simply assume killing civilians is even a possibility.

To get legal for a minute, specific targeting of civilians is completely unlawful, and all military personnel are under a duty to reject unlawful orders. So, anybody who actually committed such actions would be a straight-up war criminal. Although some military personnel who commit crimes end up with a lighter sentence than you would expect, there’s  no defending intentional targeting of Civilians. Hopefully, the expectation of a long prison sentence is a deterrent.

Whilst reading this, I couldn’t help think about strategic bombing and what it does to the people on the ground. London being famous for its ‘Blitz Spirit’, we assume that we in Britain are unique in our resolve and endurance to outlast all enemies. But, why do we expect other cultures to crumble when we expect ourselves to dig in? I don’t think strategic air power can really be a tool for changing people’s thoughts.  Opinions are changed by dialogue, and strategic bombing destroys lots of things. Perhaps in future conflicts, we should use the best tool for the task at hand.

Joshua Hughes,  Lancaster University


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4 thoughts on “Moral Character or Character of War? – Valentino

  1. @Josh — I’m interested here in that you say ‘specific’ targetting of civilians is criminal, and yet, as Maaike points out there is something of a lack of transparency in the civilian casualties of drone strikes. In these cases it’s not the civilian deaths that are the focus, but whether the ‘targets’ are themselves killed. This makes me wonder, is this focus on targets more for the international courts, or more for the benefit of public opinion? I tend to think a bit of both, but there’s a definite emphasis I think on trying to justify the action on a legal basis.

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  2. @Mike, I think you’re right, it is a bit of both as to who it is for. But, to clarify about targeting civilians. To do so would breach Art.48 of Additional Protocol 1 to the Geneva Conventions (and customary international law obligations): ‘In order to ensure respect for and protection of the civilian population and civilian objects, the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.’

    But, this does not stop the possibility that civilians will knowingly be killed as collateral damage. The law requires military forces to only target legitimate enemies and their objects, and to avoid incidental civilian casualties where practicable. But this does not mean that knowingly killing civilians as a side effect of an attack is unlawful. Hope the explanation helps!

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  3. @Josh. That’s interesting, but so ‘grey’ it almost renders the law absurd! If I understand you correctly that means the law here is only interested in *intent* and not in the consequences of that intent?

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  4. @Mike, sorry, I should have given more detail. When I said ‘But this does not mean that knowingly killing civilians as a side effect of an attack is unlawful.’, what I should have said is that it is not always unlawful.

    Some levels of collateral damage are acceptable when compared to the military advantage that is to be gained by an operation. This is the principle of proportionality. The two aspects, military advantage and collateral damage must be balanced so that a disproportionate amount of incidental civilian harm does not result from an attack. What is acceptable depend on a lot of factors, such as the current intensity of operations. Also relevant is the principle of precautions in attack, where parties to a conflict are bound the take all feasible measures to reduce civilian casualties.

    For example, imagine if an enemy defence HQ was in the middle of its capital city, surrounded by office buildings. Eliminating it would definitely bring an advantage during a high-intensity phase of opening hostilities. But, the presence of a large number of civilians surrounding it might make attacking it disproportionate. Attacking it at night when only the janitor is present would still require the same calculation, but perhaps a different result. Now, what if this HQ had been hidden, and its true purpose only appeared near the end of hostilities when the enemy is nearing defeat? If enemy forces are dispersed and HQ had very little communication with them, destroying it is unlikely to yield any significant military advantage, so knowingly killing the janitor as a side-effect may become disproportionate.

    So, the consequence of actions is very much relevant to the law. But, an individual launching an attack can only be judged upon what they knew (or should have known) at the time. Say a missile is launched at the defence HQ at night, killing the janitor is calculated to be proportionate. But, say a bus full of evacuee children is passing as the missile explodes. Although the result is disproportionate, if a commander had no reasonable way of knowing that would happen, the cannot be legally condemned for it.

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