In the grisly science fiction movie Road Warrior, there is a scene in which road gangs attack a settlement. Strapped to the front of their attack vehicles are human beings, presumably captured settlers. The defenders face a moral dilemma: to fire on the attackers, thereby killing their helpless comrades, or to refrain, allowing the attack to succeed.
Bizarre as this example may sound, exactly this moral dilemma is at the heart of some of today's most important issues of war and peace. When the Palestine Liberation Organization places antiaircraft guns beside a Lebanese school and the school itself then gets hit by Israeli jets seeking to take out the guns, the human shield issue is central. When John Cardinal Krol, the Catholic bishop of Philadelphia, proclaims that "nuclear war surpasses the limits of legitimate self-defense" and "the use of such weapons is immoral," the issue that he's raising is that of harm to innocent bystanders.
What kind of moral theory allows us to resolve such cases? A morality grounded in the sanctity of the individual recognizes the right to self-defense. And a coherent working out of the ramifications of that right implies that defensive force may be used against aggressors even if this force also inflicts losses on innocent shields or bystanders.
These principles were first articulated many centuries ago by Catholic theologians and have come to be known as Just War theory. They form the basis for the internationally recognized Laws of War. Their ramifications in the nuclear age are being explored by such people as libertarian philosopher (and REASON contributing editor) Eric Mack.
Those who have difficulty accepting the legitimacy of this position should consider Professor Mack's discussion of the consequences of denying it:
If the defensive killing of shields or bystanders is proscribed, then the guilty aggressor can gain immunity for his project by strapping bystanders to the front of his tanks or by locating his weapons in the midst of bystanders. Thus, if either the killing of innocent threats or of bystanders is prohibited, the more morally indiscriminate the aggressor, the more moral immunity he will enjoy.
The relevance of these principles can be seen directly in the recent Israeli-PLO war in Lebanon. Throughout its seven-year occupation of Lebanon, the PLO has followed a deliberate policy of placing its military assets amongst civilians. PLO guerrillas located heavy guns in the center of southern Lebanese towns in order to shell Israel. When Israeli jets hit a West Beirut PLO ammunition dump on July 26, the hour-long chain reaction of explosions killed or wounded 54 people, most of them probably civilians. Who is responsible for those casualties?
According to the Laws of War, hospitals, schools, and other civilian locations are supposed to be off limits to attack—provided that military targets are kept out of such safe zones. But the presence of military targets—ammo dumps, observation posts, or whatever—automatically voids the immunity. Thus, conclude military researchers Stephen Glick and Seth Carus, "the PLO must bear the onus for the majority of the civilian casualties in Lebanon. Had they not chosen to make civilian areas their battlegrounds, the numbers of civilian casualties would have been greatly reduced."
This is not necessarily to exonerate every Israeli action—for example, the use of cluster bombs. But it is worth noting that Israeli forces took great pains to warn and avoid civilians—evacuating the residents of Tyre and Sidon prior to bombing those towns, dropping warning leaflets over West Beirut, trying to persuade guerrillas to surrender so as to avoid house-to-house fighting. So the sweeping moral condemnations of Israeli actions one hears today are clearly unjustified.
As for the morality of nuclear weapons, what are we to make of the claims of people like Georgetown University professor Rev. Francis X. Winter that the only moral policy is to renounce the use of nuclear weapons? Such a claim confuses the weapons themselves with doctrines concerning their use. Certainly, a 25-megaton warhead (as on single-warhead Soviet SS-18s) is far too large to be useful as anything but a city-buster. But what of a one-kiloton artillery shell designed to stop invading tanks? Clearly, that size weapon in that usage is legitimately defensive.
Of course, the picture is more complicated than that. If the use of any nuclear weapon makes escalation to an all-out city-busting nuclear war highly probable, then one cannot stop with the analysis of individual weapons' characteristics. That's why a rethinking of this country's overall strategic doctrines is so essential. Although the government claims that US warheads are no longer targeted against Soviet cities, the fact remains that their sheer size and number would produce millions of civilian casualties in an all-out exchange. And that threat, in the guise of Mutual Assured Destruction, remains the fundamental basis of US policy. In the name of preserving MAD, "arms control" advocates are adamantly against any form of defense against ballistic missiles. Incredibly, they argue that the balance of terror must be maintained, with each side holding the other's civilians hostage.
Modern Just War theory rejects MAD as both immoral and dangerous. A morally sound strategic policy would consist of a multilayered defense against ballistic missiles (both space-based and earth-based) coupled with a retaliatory capability designed specifically to destroy the enemy's military infrastructure. Harm to bystanders would be kept to an absolute minimum by appropriate warhead design.
Such a policy would recover the moral high ground. If the United States were no longer pledged by NATO treaty to answer a conventional attack on Europe by unleashing ICBMs, then our government could pledge not to be first to use nuclear weapons. And the restructuring of our forces for defense and retaliation would be visible to all the world.
Under such circumstances, a nuclear exchange might still occur. And some Soviet civilians would probably die. But the responsibility for their deaths would not be ours. It would be that of the Soviet leaders who, like the PLO, chose to place military installations in the midst of civilians.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "War and Morality".