The Problem of Unnecessary Suffering in War


(Photo, Afghanistan, ITN News.)

Several people have asked me what I think of the issue of civilian casualties in war. (How long do you have? PS Go take my Experience of War or Military Ethics class!) On a fairly regular basis, there are stories about civilians being killed airstrikes or other military actions. The location may vary (Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen are the most popular,) but the narrative is pretty much the same: pictures and reports appear, condemnation, surprise and horror, justifications, caveats and questions followed sometimes by investigations and rare follow up. Until the next one happens. Then rise and repeat.

I do, as a military ethicist, have some thoughts. First, the reactions to these events reveal two important moral insights/commitments. One is that the suffering of civilians in war is wrong and should not happen. Another is a frustration that ‘precision weapons’ are not as precise as we (the public) might think and how is this possible? Surely we have the technological ability to target and destroy with precision so that we can avoid the problem of civilian casualties in war?

Second, both of these ideas are highly problematic. Let me say before beginning that technology is a tool in the hands of those who use it and must engage in judgements (often with imperfect information, a difficulty in anticipating with 100% accuracy what will happen and sometimes with clouded, wrong or incomplete moral judgement)  Let me also say that I think that the US (and many other nations as well) is committed to the Principle of Discrimination and Principle of Proportionality and their relatives in International Humanitarian Law as means to wage war as justly as possible, with as little unnecessary suffering as possible.

Please notice the phrase: Unnecessary Suffering. This is the phrasing in much international law, in Just War Thinking and in various military discussions. Please notice that the phrase is NOT: No Suffering.  This reflects a long history of the idea that there will be suffering – both combatant and non-combatant (commonly ‘civilian’) – in war and furthermore that some suffering is morally and legally justified.  Wait? What? How can any suffering in war be moral?

Well, it depends what you mean by moral. If you mean intrinsically good and we should all strive for it, then neither war, not any suffering in war can be moral in this sense.  But generally when discussing the ethics of war, we are using moral in another sense, in the sense that war and some of the suffering in war is morally justified or permitted. This means that we are allowing or saying things normally prohibited (killing) have a moral justification or reason in certain limited kinds of cases. We say that the resort to war is morally justified under the conditions of Just War Thinking or that killing another human is morally justified when done by the State as punishment for certain crimes after the requisite legal process.

In this case, necessary suffering (whether of combatants or non-combatants) is morally justified insofar as it militarily necessary, which generally means is necessary to the military aims of the war. Note this is, NOT, anything the military decides is necessary (like my 9 year old deems more Legos as necessary,) but rather those things deemed militarily necessary to the (justified) war aims. In our system, the military certainly has input into this judgement, but so does the civilian leadership (especially at the strategic level.)  So this means that ANY suffering which is not necessary to the military aims (that is above and beyond that is required to achieve these military aims) is morally unjustified.

Third, the military is tasked with avoiding the infliction of intentional and unnecessary suffering (and with intentionally targeting non-combatants while we are on the topic.)  This is also related to the idea that proportionality considerations ought to be observed, much like police officers ought not use ‘excessive force.’ It is unavoidable that there will unintentional unnecessary suffering in war. It sucks in every possible way that one can imagine. But humans, epistemological uncertainty, fog of war, difficult moral judgements under pressure and changing circumstances and things that blow up are a challenging and messy combination. (Which is, of course, why we ought only to engage in war as a Last Resort. )

Last, technology changes none of this. It makes it tempting to think we can be precise and only target and harm the ‘enemy’ and spare anyone who does not deserve to be treated as an object of war (as Michael Walzer phrases it), but that is not the reality. This in no way lessens the morality and legal obligation not to inflict (intentional) unnecessary suffering, but that obligation isn’t just related to non-combatants as it applies to combatants as well. As we reflect upon the carnage of war, we need serious attention to what is truly necessary and unnecessary to the achievement of the military aims (which are presumably morally justified if it is a Just War.)  It may be tempting to think in terms of convenience and therefore, misjudge what is ‘necessary.’ That is a moral temptation that must be resisted and requires good, critical strategic, tactical and moral judgment.


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