Mars and Venus, Sitting in a Tree

January 6, 2009 § 9 Comments

In wartime there will definitely be accidental deaths, as there are accidental deaths on the highway every day. We cannot have a modern transportation system without expecting accidental deaths; we can even determine how many we expect to occur. The concept ‘accidental’ seems very clear to everyone when we speak about the highways, though, and becomes muddled when it comes to war.

I think there is a perverse alliance between hawks and doves when it comes to distinguishing between accidental deaths and on-purpose deaths. Both hawks and doves would prefer to keep the distinction unclear, for different reasons. Doves want to be able to call all deaths in wartime murder; conversely, hawks want to be able to take what is really deliberate murder and categorize it as morally licit collateral damage.

The moral reality is more difficult than either would like to concede. If I use a modern weapon to indiscriminately blow up a whole group of people, some of whom I know are innocent and some of whom are terrorists, the deaths of the innocents are not an accident. I killed them on purpose, precisely because they got in the way, and the technical capabilities of my weapon did not allow me to kill the terrorists without killing the civilians. On the other hand it is not merely permissible but noble and valiant for me to risk death and kill the terrorist himself, to defend the innocent from him. If I drop a smart bomb on his safe house, to the best of my knowledge clear of innocents, that is, clear of individuals who are not engaged in attacking behaviors, then I have done a good and noble deed. If my smart bomb misfires and kills some civilians, it is indeed an accident: the attack did not go according to my plans, and innocents were killed. There is such a thing as morally licit collateral damage.

If my plans for this specific attack entail killing some specific identifiable civilians, even if I wish I could make different plans which did not entail killing those particular civilians, then what I am planning is murder.

So the moral situation is I think tactically far more difficult and perilous than ‘realists’ would like it to be. ‘Realists’ would like to move forward unconstrained by the fairly clear moral difference between accidental and deliberate killing, because doing so would in fact make for a more effective war with fewer casualties. These ‘realists’ want to blame our deliberate murder of civilians on the other guy, because the other guy created and forced the circumstances which made us view it as necessary to murder civilians. Circumstances which make murder a very tempting option do not excuse it though; and it is better for a thousand to die by accident than it is to commit one murder.

Pacifists on the other hand want to be able to condemn violence tout court: to the pacifist every act of killing is murder, and especially even genuinely accidental civilians deaths in wartime are murder.

This results in a perverse obscurantist alliance between the hawks and the doves; which is to say, the obscurity of the term ‘accidental’ in wartime, compared to in peacetime activities like driving on the freeway, is no accident.



§ 9 Responses to Mars and Venus, Sitting in a Tree

  • Rodak says:

    I don’t think you can push the analogy between traffic deaths and “accidental” deaths in war very far. The “normal” firing of a weapon in war is always meant to kill human beings. The normal use of a motor vehicle never is. Dropping a bomb on a terrorist safe house and <>hoping<> that no non-combatants will be hurt in the process is more like reckless speeding, or drunk driving, which is a culpable act, than it is like taking the family out for a Sunday drive. (Ouch. I’m dating myself with that one!)

  • Marion (Mael Muire) says:

    Zippy, what in your view would be a suitable military response to attacks coming from terrorists who are using “human shields”?

  • Marion (Mael Muire) says:

    Perhaps I just partly answered my own question: “‘U.S. soldiers in Iraq have new gear for dispersing hostile crowds and warding off potential enemy combatants,’ the Associated Press reports. ‘It blasts earsplitting noise in a directed beam.’“The equipment, called a Long Range Acoustic Device, or LRAD, is a so-called ‘non-lethal weapon’ developed after the 2000 attack on the USS Cole off Yemen as a way to keep operators of small boats from approaching U.S. warships.The devices have been used on some U.S. ships since last summer as part of a suite of protection measures.” — means of temporarily putting an entire population out of commission, while ground troops go in and search for weapons. Weapons are confiscated, bad guys wake up and are arrested; civilians wake up with a headache, but are otherwise OK within 48 hours?

  • zippy says:

    Rodak:<>The “normal” firing of a weapon in war is always meant to kill human beings.<>Well, yes: the ones we are trying to kill, that is, combatants, and whom it is morally licit for us to kill.The highway isn’t an analogy, it is an example of a place where many foreseen but accidental deaths occur. It is true that no licit <>intentional<> deaths occur on the highways, unless a policeman is forced at some point to use his car as a weapon, but so what? The point is that we do understand the difference between accidental killing and deliberate killing; but both hawks and doves have as a common interest the obscuration of our understanding.Marion:There is I think great promise, though also great danger, in some non-lethal technologies. For example swarms of robot bugs can discriminate very finely between bad guys and bystanders; but the implications of such technology is scary.

  • Rodak says:

    <>The highway isn’t an analogy<>If it isn’t an analogy, then it’s a non sequitur. The end of which weapons of war are the means is always homicide. It is only sometimes possible to limit that homicide to the “bad guys” alone.Marion–I have to wonder what a “non-lethal” LRAD powerful enough to completely disable an adult population would do to infants, to children, to the aged, perhaps to the unborn…

  • zippy says:

    And I’m a donut. But you make a good example, Rodak, of one side of the strange bedfellows the post is about.

  • Rodak says:

    <>But you make a good example, Rodak, of one side of the strange bedfellows the post is about.<>Yes. And that’s no accident, either.

  • Marion:Good point. However if you go to this web site: will find a Brit security company that provides three man protection teams equipped with the LRAD for vessels traveling in the sea lanes threatened by Somali/Yemini pirates. Sadly it does not work against a determined opponent (See: problem with these and similar devices is that they cannot stop an enraged fit young man but if used improperly can easily kill an unhealthy young male or an infant or senior citizen.There are no easy answers other than love of neighbor.God blessRichard W Comerford

  • JohnMcG says:

    I’m not sure what is more true, or what leads to the better outcomes — an expansive definition of murder that includes morally certain collateral damage, or a sliding scale of killing in which the morally certain death of civilians from an attack is not murder, but is not a justifiable homicide either.I am afraid that by just having the line between murder and justified homicide, we will convince ourselves that of course our homicides are justified. Surely, we’re not murderers! And we won’t attach moral weight to collateral damage, since it doesn’t fall in the “murder” bin.

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