Skip to site content

“Just War” and Civilian Casualties

image_pdfimage_print

The U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan proves yet again that civilian casualties are inevitable in war today. This raises a question about the just-war theory: Is it sufficient not to intend to kill civilians when we know the war will kill some? If civilian casualties are known to be inevitable, does the attack become morally justified simply by saying we didn’t mean to kill them?

The Christian pacifist answers these questions by saying it is always wrong to kill. We believe the Bible teaches that we should see the face of Christ in every person and especially in “the least of these.”
The people of Afghanistan fit that description. In a land ravaged by 20 years of war, the average person does not live past the age of 50. An estimated 7 million Afghans are displaced within the country. Malnutrition is rampant. Three years of drought have deprived the people of their livelihood and their meager resources.
And now comes America’s war on terrorism. The Pentagon estimates 85 percent of U.S. bombs and missiles have hit their targets. If that is true, it still leaves “450 or more that may have gone astray, regularly nailing civilian structures and residential neighborhoods,” according to the Nov. 5 Time magazine. On Oct. 31, the Taliban claimed 1,500 people had been killed in 25 days of U.S. air strikes. U.S. officials said that number was exaggerated. We may never know the real death toll.
The United States has acknowledged several bombing errors, including dropping two 500-pound bombs in a residential area north of Kabul. U.S. planes have bombed the same Red Cross warehouse twice.
The great majority of Americans are willing to accept the deadly results. A Gallup poll in late October “asked about the possibility of up to 5,000 military or civilian deaths resulting from military action and found that three-quarters or more of those interviewed still supported the concept of a military response,” according to the Christian Science Monitor.
The Taliban have proved their lack of concern for civilians by moving some of their troops and arms into mosques and schools. For them, Afghan civilian deaths are useful in efforts to portray the war as an American attack on Islamic people. So the United States has strategic, as well as moral, reasons to avoid accepting the Taliban’s invitation to bomb worshipers and schoolchildren.
“A debate has begun,” states a Washington Post editorial, “about whether [civilian] casualties make the bombing counterproductive or unsustainable.” Just-war principles require asking an additional question: Are civilian casualties morally acceptable? If so, how many? Those who take such questions seriously have at least rejected the view that any response is justified because the terrorists attacked us first.
Meanwhile, pacifist Christians will continue to see the face of Christ in every victim of terrorism and war, whether American or Afghan, and say there is no justice in their death.
Paul Schrag is editor of Mennonite Weekly Review where this article first appeared. You can access the Mennonite Weekly Review online at www.mennoweekly.org.