Arguments about the moral issues surrounding war have emerged and multiplied since 9/11. These elevated controversies pertain to modern military operations, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; potential interventions, such as an invasion of Iran or Syria; and even past wars, such as the ones in Vietnam and in Iraq the first time around.
Not much time will pass in an argument with a hawk before the inevitable question of "collateral damage" rears its troubling head. It usually comes down to this: According to the pro-war position, including that held by many self-described libertarians, bombing innocents is not murder, so long as they were not "targeted," or if the bombing can be seen as analogous to a "hostage situation," in which the U.S. bombing was an act of self-defense, or if the innocents killed were fewer in number than the number likely to be killed had the bombing not taken place.
I want to address these defenses of "collateral damage" killings, one by one.
First, the question of "targeting." As the argument goes, it is not murder to bomb innocents, or to kill them during an invasion, so long as the killing is incidental, and the primary target of the attack is a genuinely bad man or regime. If you are striking at an evil network of terrorists, and some innocents die in the process, it is justifiable, since it was not your intention to kill the innocents. And we should not hold the attacking State — especially if it’s the United States — responsible for the unfortunate, but excusable, deaths of innocents. After all, "collateral damage" is inevitable in war. Innocents die.
Here we see the contradiction imbedded in this argument that invalidates it entirely. When you bomb a city, innocents die. When you wage war on a country, innocents will die. Whether or not you wanted them to die does not enter into the consideration that laying waste to a neighborhood, a city, or a country will predictably result in dead innocents. If you know that doing something will kill innocents, and you do it, you cannot exempt yourself from responsibility. Just because the belligerent is a State, rather than a private individual or organization, does not absolve it from moral culpability. Actually, if anything, the nature of States compounds the problem, but I will touch more on this later.
The second argument for collateral killing employs the "hostage" analogy. If a brutal killer kidnapped some innocent people and held them hostage, and was aiming a machinegun at you and all you had yourself was a machinegun, and you had nowhere to escape, would it be morally permissible to fire back, knowing that you might very well hit or even kill an innocent in the process of self-defense? Is this innocent your victim, even though you had no choice other than death but to fire back? Is he not the victim of the original aggressor who put you in this dilemma? This argument is advanced often by liberventionists to explain how, in these "hostage situations," the U.S. government isn’t the aggressor in a war, and is therefore not violating the non-aggression principle.
There are multiple problems with this argument as it pertains to real-life questions of war and peace. The primary problem is that such a situation never comes up. Certainly, in looking at the U.S. interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea, and the World Wars, we cannot see anything nearly as clear-cut as the hostage situation to which war is supposedly analogous. There is no historical evidence indicating that had the U.S. not obliterated Dresden or Hiroshima, Nazi Germany or Japan could have obliterated America, or even come close to destroying any American cities or even threatened a feasible invasion. There is no reason to think that had the U.S. not killed hundreds of thousands in Vietnam and Cambodia, the Asian Reds would have killed Americans in America first. There is no proof that Saddam Hussein or the Taliban would have attacked Americans in America had it not been for the U.S. invasions and bombings in those countries, and, that, furthermore, there was no way of avoiding the killing of innocent Afghans and Iraqis without dooming innocent Americans to their deaths.
Indeed, if such a situation actually came to be — where killing many innocents in a foreign country was the only way to protect innocents in one’s own country — the pragmatic necessity of killing innocents would most likely have implications that most hawks would hate to confront. As an example, let’s say that we knew for a fact that China was about to launch nuclear weapons at America and devastate New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that this was an absolute certainly, as was the stipulated fact that the only way to stop it was for the U.S. to launch nuclear weapons at China first, which would destroy the Chinese nuclear-weapons facilities and also lead to millions of dead innocents — "collateral damage" that would be quite unfortunate, but not a crime for which the U.S. would be ethically responsible, since it was acting in defense of innocent Americans. The Chinese government had held Chinese people hostage, and it was a clear-cut case of either kill innocents or be killed.
Now, let’s explore this situation a little further. A Chinese official, who actually had nothing to do with the original plans to attack America but nevertheless has the authority and power to launch a nuclear missile, discovers that the U.S. is about to launch a nuclear weapon his way to preempt a Chinese nuclear attack on America, and he knows for certain that he and many innocent Chinese will die. This surely is not his fault. Indeed, he and his neighbors have circumstantially become potential victims of the U.S., through no fault of their own. Would it be moral for him to launch a nuclear weapon at America, if it would be necessary and sufficient to preempt and stop the nuclear attack on China? Would he be able to justify the innocent deaths that result, claiming that the innocent Americans were hostages of their own government?
In this bizarre scenario that actually conforms to the hostage analogy, we see that if it is defensible for one nation to nuke another in defense of its innocents, it would be equally moral for the latter to nuke the former in kind. In a nuclear standoff, there are innocent individuals in both countries. Once you take it as a given that innocents will necessarily die, you divorce yourself from the realm of pure ethics and into a realm of amoral pragmatism and survival instincts.
To make a similar analogy without the burden of explicit reference to real countries, let us imagine Nation A, Nation B, and Nation C. Pretend that Nation A is adjacent to B, and both are distant from C. If Nation A’s evil government decides to nuke Nation C, and Nation C’s government only has one option to stop it — destroying Nation A and its neighbor B along with it — does Nation B, up to this point a neutral, have a right to nuke Nation C to stop it from defending itself? Do potential victims of "collateral damage" have a right to preemptively attack their would-be killers, and kill innocents in the process, even if the would-be killers are only posed to cause the "collateral damage" as an incidental but necessary element of their self-defense? Following the logic of the "hostage" analogy, the closer we get to a "hostage" situation in war between nations, the more innocent people have an equal right to kill other innocent people.
As we see, the "hostage" crisis reveals a problem outside the realm of simple morality and ethics. If killing innocent hostages is moral to stop an aggressor, then those innocent hostages likewise have a right to kill you first to protect themselves. After all, hostages have rights to self-defense, too. Do they not?
This touches on the non-aggression principle and when it supposedly does not apply to real-life situations. It is possible to come up with anomalous hypotheticals in which nearly any rational, generally ethical human individual would violate the non-aggression principle. Perhaps there would be a case where almost any of us would steal bread if we were starving to death, steal a car to escape a madman, trespass onto private property to evade an axe-murderer, or forcefully push a man off a train track to save his life. Almost anyone I know, hard-core libertarian or not, would steal someone’s bottle of water to put out a baby on fire. In all of these cases, the non-aggression principle has been violated, the person stuck in the moral dilemma is indeed responsible for the violation, but nearly any humane person would pardon the offender, given the extreme circumstances. Just because taking an action violates rights doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not pardonable. And, in a real-life, clear-cut hostage situation, perhaps most of us would pardon someone who hurt innocent hostages as his only option in self-defense.
But extending these ethical dilemmas to the State is highly problematic. The State is not accountable for its actions. It can’t be trusted to violate rights conscientiously, even in supposed emergency situations, since no one is held responsible for making a mistake. If I push you out of the way of a moving train, I am prepared to face the consequences if I break your leg. The State never has to deal with the consequences of its actions, and, perhaps as a result, it breaks many more legs than it saves lives.
It is a good thing that the "hostage situation" is indeed not comparable to actual wars between States. After all, in this real world of States fighting each other, all innocents are hostages of their own governments, and often of other governments as well. Any time the "hostage" analogy is invoked, there is a flaw in applying it to the specific war in question.
The third argument about "collateral damage" — that a smaller number of innocent deaths sometimes results when aggressive military action is taken than when it is avoided — is an essentially collectivist defense of mass murder, and has no libertarian element whatever. Indeed, it is perhaps the worst argument of them all.
It is often argued by hawks that the enemy regime embodies pure evil, and overthrowing it, whatever the cost in blood and treasure, is thus a noble act. We are told of the genocidal atrocities of the enemy State, and even shunned for opposing war given this stark and horrific reality.
The common contemporary manifestation of this argument concerns Saddam Hussein. I’ve seen many pro-war libertarians insist that, as bad as it is that the U.S. government has killed tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis, Saddam Hussein would have killed more if allowed to continue his reign.
The practical counterargument has to do with distrust of the government, the information it gives us, and its ability at central planning. If the U.S. government cannot be trusted to save us money by investing in schools, save lives through its criminal-justice policies, and ensure national well-being by investing in healthcare — if the information it gathers and puts to use is blurred by the famous calculation problem and it has public-choice incentives to distort the truth regarding the costs and benefits of its domestic programs — we should view its foreign policy with similar skepticism. How do we know how many people Saddam Hussein would have murdered, and if it is really a greater number than how many the U.S. has killed? We don’t. In this particular case, the U.S. government even admits it doesn’t do body counts.
The ethical counterargument is just as important, if not more so. If we take this collectivist argument for "collateral damage" at face value, set aside the calculation problem with foreign central planning, and assume the U.S. government is honest in its intentions and able in its deeds, we would presumably agree that the U.S. government has a right to kill innocent people, so long as it is ousting a human monster that would kill more innocent people. In other words, the U.S. government, in overthrowing a foreign regime, can justifiably slaughter any number of innocents up to the number that regime would slaughter if left in place. Ousting Hitler in 1939 would have therefore justified the killing of millions of Jews, homosexuals, dissidents, Gypsies, and disabled people by the one doing the ousting — so long as the number killed was fewer than the number Hitler would have ultimately killed. Ousting Stalin, Pol Pot, or any other mega-murderer would justify committing any crime less serious than the crimes committed by the enemy. The statistical utilitarian argument for mass slaughter is no more than a defense of mass murder on a grand scale, so long as it is known that the enemy would murder even more. This is not an individualist, libertarian, or even humane argument. It looks upon innocent human lives as mere numbers. And, as was pointed out earlier, there is no way to gather accurate information on the costs and benefits even in sheer numbers of lives lost, in order to act upon the information with a feasible and successfully centrally-managed implementation of slaughter-minimizing coercive action. Furthermore, there is no reason to trust the U.S. government’s numbers, even if it bothered to present any, on how many it has killed and how many it has saved. This argument for "collateral damage" is effectively no less than a blank check to the State to go to oppressed countries and murder large numbers of their populations, claiming all the while that it is saving lives.
There are other arguments for "collateral damage" that usually break down to nothing more than nationalist and collectivist justifications for mass murder. To say, as the head of the Ayn Rand Institute said, that innocent civilians are part of their State’s "war machine," and therefore "directly targeting civilians is perfectly legitimate" and they "should be killed without any moral hesitation," is to make an argument that should have no resonance whatsoever with the individualist. Arguments that America, by its nature as a "free country," is tautologically permitted to slaughter individuals to spread its civilizing warfare and move the backwards world toward the sensibilities of Western Civilization, should likewise fall on deaf ears — at least if those ears belong to individualists who believe that all human beings, and not only Americans and Westerners who have read Aristotle, have individual rights.
"Collateral damage" is a euphemism for mass murder. It is perfectly moral to protect innocents against aggressors. It is not moral, nor has it ever been necessary, to blow up cities filled with innocent people. When a State drops bombs on another country and predictably kills innocents, it cannot be exempted from ethical culpability simply because it didn’t want to kill innocents. It cannot be compared to a desperate man firing at an attacker holding hostages, for the analogy breaks down when the actual reality of any given war is examined. It cannot be compared to an individual actor breaking some rules to save his life, for States do not have rights or face the consequences of their actions the way individuals do. And it cannot be free of guilt simply due to collectivist notions of nationalism, civilization, or inaccurate bean counting of individual men, women, and children as if they were statistics and not individuals. Just like most euphemisms surrounding war — "sphere of influence," "nation-building," and "liberation" — "collateral damage" is a rhetorical trick to cover up the most serious of political crimes. The phrase should not be in our vocabularies, except as vulgarity to be avoided.
Yes, it is true that innocents die when war is waged upon them. Yes, it is true that innocents dying is inevitable when cities are bombed. All the more reason that people, and especially libertarians, should oppose the State’s wars and its killing of innocents as much as we oppose anything else the State does.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research assistant at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.