A Philosopher's Blog

Killing Prisoners

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on November 19, 2009

Two years after the event, CNN is doing a major story on the killing of four Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers. Not surprisingly, the incident raises serious moral concerns.

On the face of it, the killing of prisoners is morally unacceptable. While this should be obvious, it can be argued for in the following manner. Killing an individual in time of war is generally justified in terms of the threat presented by the enemy combatant. To be a bit more specific, the killing of an enemy combatant in direct combat can be justified on a similar basis to that used to justify killing in self defense outside of war. When someone is a prisoner, he no longer presents the degree of threat needed to justify killing on these grounds. As such, the moral justification for killing in combat is lost and thus such a killing would be immoral.

If this argument succeeds, the soldiers who killed the prisoners acted wrongly. However, some attempts have been made to argue that the soldiers are not fully responsible for what they did. To be specific, it has been argued that the soldiers were pushed towards the killings by the rules placed upon them. Rather than go into details about these rules and policies, suffice it to say that the soldiers seemed to be required to act like police officers and provide evidence of the sort expected in criminal courts when turning in prisoners. Because of these rules, the soldiers believed that the prisoners they captured would simply be released in a short while.

Not surprisingly, this situation was rather frustrating. The soldiers lacked the training needed to conduct such police style procedures and the rules themselves seem to have been rather ill suited for the situation. Perhaps most importantly, the soldiers believed that they would soon be under attack again from the very same people they had recently captured, thus making them feel that their efforts were pointless and that they were being severely handicapped in their operations.

Of course, such frustration does not justify murder. Neither does the fact that the policies seemed to be unrealistic (something that seems to have marked the Bush administration‘s entire approach to Iraq). However, these relevant facts do seem to provide a small degree of moral mitigation. It seems likely that the soldiers would not have committed murder if they believed that their prisoners would have been properly processed and detained. As such, those responsible for the policies and rules must accept some small portion of the blame for the murders.

Interestingly, a case can be made as to why the killings were acceptable in the context of war. As noted above, killing in direct combat seems to be justified on grounds similar to self-defense: if I do not kill you, you will kill me. Killing someone who does not pose a direct threat would thus not be justified on these grounds.

However, we certainly seem to accept the killing of combatants even when they cannot fight back. For example, targeting troop transports and personnel carriers is a legitimate part of war, even though the soldiers being transported often cannot fight back. As another example, bombing targets without warning is also considered acceptable as is the sniping of unaware soldiers. As a final example, all the combatants in World War II eventually came to accept the bombing of civilian targets as legitimate-after all, hitting the enemy’s capacity to produce weapons and supplies certainly seems fair.  Such attacks are justified not on the basis of direct self defense, but indirect self defense: those people can be justly killed because they posses an indirect threat or will soon present a direct threat.

Going back to the murders, if those prisoners would have returned to try to kill Americans then they were a potential threat. Going back to the troop transport situation, soldiers are not expected to let the enemy get out of the transport and set up for battle before trying to kill them. They can be justly killed because they present an adequate potential threat-if they are not killed then, then they will kill. As such it could be argued that the soldiers were acting within the boundaries of what is morally acceptable in warfare.

Of course, it can be countered that the analogy breaks. After all, while attacking helpless soldiers is acceptable in some cases, there are established moral guides to the treatment of prisoners. In addition, while a prisoner is a potential threat, the threat presented is not the same as that as an active combatant who happens to be unable to fight at that time. This, it might be argued, is enough to break the analogy and thus re-establish that the killings were wrong.

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5 Responses

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  1. jonolan said, on November 19, 2009 at 7:38 am

    There is also the fact that the Iraqis who were summarily executed were not following those accepted rules of warfare and hence are not offered the same protections as proper combatants.

    There is certain moral justification in soldiers, bound by certain codes of warfare, killing people who willfully violate those boundaries. This is especially true when the civilian politicians refuse to abide by the enforcement part of those codes and place everyone at risk.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 20, 2009 at 11:46 am

      That is a classic problem in the ethics of war. One view was (prior to WWII) that civilians who took up arms in war had to indicate their combatant status with insignia or other means. The intent was so that soldiers would be able to distinguish civilians from partisans. Someone who attacked soldiers without such identification could be seen as simply engaging in attempted (or actual murder) because they are acting as an individual trying to kill other people, rather than acting within the legal and moral role of a soldier.

  2. T. J. Babson said, on November 19, 2009 at 9:48 am

    Tough call, especially if killing those prisoners can be shown to have saved the lives of American soldiers.

    This is not what these guys signed up for.

  3. magus71 said, on November 20, 2009 at 3:14 am

    Obviously this is an old story, on ethat I was very aware of as the trial of the Sergeant First class occured here in Germany. Actually, I wrote an article to Stars and Stripes over the event, and what appalled me even more–the comments of the NCOs involved after the event. One of the Sergeants is quoted as saying that to this day, he would follow the SFC who order the killings, anywhere. Good–follow him to prison.

    This shows the serious problems I’ve seen here in the Army. Someties the NCO Corp looks more like a gand than a group of mature, moral and strong leaders. They knew what they did was wrong, and we know this because they tried to hide the bodies.

    I’m glad to see people like these soldiers go to prison. They make all *real* US soldiers’ jobs more difficult.

  4. magus71 said, on November 20, 2009 at 3:15 am

    “Someties the NCO Corp looks more like a gand than a group of mature”

    Should read: looks more like a gang

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