Willing to Kill But Not to Die?

Apr 19, 2001

Are we witnessing a fundamental shift in the way in which the United States will wage war? Recent U.S.-led military operations including the cruise missile attacks against Afghanistan and Sudan, and the air campaign against Yugoslavia, are classic cases in point.

These recent engagements were dominated by the use of precision-guided missiles and long-range bombing attacks. The protection of our troops was emphasized as a critical goal, arguably at the risk of incurring more casualties to innocent noncombatants. In cases like these, smart bombs are making it easier to take life without risking the lives of American servicemen and women.

Is American policy drifting toward an approach that could be labeled "willing to kill but not to die"? By bombing from 15,000 feet and beyond, and by insisting on a near zero-casualty policy, Americans have signaled a willingness to take life as long as force can be used without fear of retribution. Of course commanders should fiercely protect their soldiers, and of course zero casualties is the best of all possible situations. Military advantages should be exploited; one would be foolhardy and irresponsible to suggest otherwise. The question, however, is when does advantage become arrogance?

Our moral sensibility is in danger of being lost when the fundamental equation of risk is altered so radically. If Americans can use force with impunity, will we use it more often and less carefully? Will we be tempted to use it in cases where we should not? If a case is severe enough to warrant the taking of life, is it not worth risking life as well? If such a risk is out of the question, perhaps the willingness to take life in the first place should be reconsidered.

Ethics is about who we are, and who we want to be. Our identity and character are determined by our choices. The lure of immaculate war is that it makes our choices look easy. Let us not deceive ourselves. We cannot engage in the meaningful protection of human rights without accepting risk and without acknowledging the moral ambiguities inherent in using force in the pursuit of peace. If America is indeed to consider itself a moral nation, our next task ought to be a serious reassessment of our professed goals in relation to the price we are willing to pay to achieve them. This reckoning is sure to reveal a compassionate nation that has a healthy sense of its possibilities and limitations, and that is hungry for leadership that possesses that same understanding.

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