Ethics & International Affairs Volume 19.3 (Fall 2005): Articles: Killing Naked Soldiers [Abstract]

Nov 11, 2005

Just war theorists contended that weapons are illegitimate unless they can be used in such a way so as to distinguish combatants from noncombatants. Contemporary international legal theory also draws heavily on the principle of discrimination. The Geneva Convention (IV), as interpreted in the Second Protocol of 1977, says: "The civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack...Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited." In both the Just War tradition and contemporary international law, the main justification for such a principle has to do with noncombatant immunity, the idea that only those who are combatants can legitimately be attacked in war. The principle of discrimination also relies on the idea that it is possible to distinguish, in a morally significant way, those classes or groups of people who participate in wars from those who do not. The categories of "civilian" or "soldier,” “combatant" or “noncombatant,” are thought to be stable. Yet, the case of the naked soldier taking a bath challenges such stability in a way that illustrates the serious conceptual and normative problems with identifying such social groups. In this paper I argue that, because of these problems, the traditional principle of discrimination offers no clear, morally relevant, line between those who fight and those who do not. Nonetheless, I argue that a distinction of this sort should be maintained, although one that will restrict tactics in war far more than is normally recognized.

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