Collateral Damage


Last August, a few days after he ordered the bombing of a Sudanese "chemical weapons plant" that turned out to be a pharmaceutical factory, President Clinton addressed an audience on Martha's Vineyard. "I was here on this island up till 2:30 in the morning," he said, "trying to make absolutely sure that at that chemical plant there was no night shift. I believed I had to take the action I did, but I didn't want some person who was a nobody to me–but who may have a family to feed and a life to live and probably had no earthly idea what else was going on there–to die needlessly."

As several commentators have observed, Clinton's account of his anxiety bore a striking resemblance to a scene from the 1995 movie The American President. It's not clear if this was a case of life imitating art or simply one kind of fiction imitating another. But whatever qualms Clinton may once have had about killing innocent people in an effort to look tough, he seems to have gotten over them.

According to a "former top foreign policy adviser" quoted in The New York Times, this is an improvement: "The former adviser said that Mr. Clinton had developed a 'switch' that allows him to turn off his concern not only for the lives of civilians but for American troops as well."

In this expert's view, the installation of this marvelous device has made Clinton a true commander in chief. "Your heart gets torn apart when you see things like this," he said, referring to noncombatants killed by the NATO assault on Yugoslavia, "and then you have to turn it off and put your mind in gear and calculate it the best you can. The main criteria [sic] has to be how many lives you save each way, knowing you will be responsible for the loss of some lives."

Let's do the math. So far, according to the Yugoslavian government, NATO bombs have killed more than 300 civilians. That may not sound like a lot, compared to the death toll from, say, the bombing of Dresden. But it's 300 more than the number of Kosovars NATO has managed to save.

Indeed, the bombing apparently encouraged Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic to dramatically intensify his "ethnic cleansing" campaign against Kosovo's Albanians. So NATO may be indirectly responsible for deaths among the people it is supposedly trying to help.

But suppose the numbers came out differently. Is this really the right test for the morality of a military action?

Given how the anonymous former Clinton adviser has framed the issue, the president would have been "responsible for the loss of some lives" even if he had declined to attack Yugoslavia. This suggests that the president has a moral obligation to order military intervention wherever X number of people can be saved at a cost of fewer than X lives.

Not all supporters of "humanitarian" intervention would go that far. But they do seem to believe that the United States, like a strong swimmer who sees a man drowning or a physician who happens upon a traffic accident, has a duty to help people whose lives are in danger.

Such analogies are fundamentally mistaken, however. The United States is not a person; it is a nation of 270 million individuals, each with his own views about conflicts in foreign lands.

When the president orders the U.S. armed forces into action, he is risking other people's lives and spending other people's money. His duty is to make sure those resources are used to defend the country, not to intervene in civil wars thousands of miles away.

The other problem with the moral calculus proposed by Clinton's former adviser is the unexamined assumption that killing innocent people is justified if it saves other innocent people. Ordinarily, this idea is a tough sell. It's not OK, for instance, to murder someone so you can harvest his organs and thereby save three other people who need transplants.

But this is war, so killing people at random is not homicide; it's "collateral damage." When a NATO bomb demolishes an apartment building or a NATO missile cuts a passenger train in half as it crosses a bridge, leaving behind the charred and mangled remains of men, women, and children who have done nothing to deserve such treatment, NATO officials have a ready response: Whoops.