Why They Fight
Jim Manzi has written a provocative post on the moral distinction between battlefield killing and torturing unarmed POWs:
So apparently it’s OK to inflict (the most extreme imaginable) violence when the guy is totally helpless in combat, but suddenly upon his saying the words “I surrender”, any serious violence beyond confinement becomes wrong. Now, the natural justification for this is, I assume, that until he surrenders, if you let him run away, he might very well come back to try to kill you later. Therefore, once you have operationally captured him you are entitled to imprison him for the duration to prevent this future plausible attempt to kill you, but that is all. Why is that all? What changed when he said “I surrender?”. After all, he might escape from the prison camp. It might be your judgment that killing him, or intentionally injuring him short of death while he is imprisoned – as per landmines – might serve your purposes better. One could imagine all kinds of prudential reasons why one might make the judgment that war aims are better served by torturing such a captured combatant. What is the moral reason that you should not pursue such a course of action?
This is an interesting question because it raises so many other issues related to combat, civilian casualties, and the rules of war. Why, for example, are unwilling conscripts routinely subjected to unspeakable violence while high-ranking civilian officials who voluntarily contribute to their country’s war-making ability (and indeed, are arguably more vital to any modern military than an individual conscript) remain untouchable? What is it about putting on a uniform that makes battlefield violence morally justifiable?
I admit these questions are far too weighty for a blog post, but I thought I’d throw out my first intuition. Armies – for better or worse – are battlefield proxies for warring states. They are instruments for winning a war, yes, but they also offer an institutional mechanism for constraining violence. Certain people (soldiers) are acceptable targets for military retaliation. Other people (civilians) are not. This distinction is imperfect and may not always reflect a moral difference (the problem of conscription comes to mind), but identifying certain people as legitimate combatants is one way to ensure the scope of warfare remains (comparatively) limited. The Western tradition of excluding certain classes of persons from combat is actually pretty venerable, with institutional roots dating back to the Middle Ages.
In the case of torture, then, a captured POW is no longer participating in combat and therefore entitled to certain basic protections. This is entirely consistent with the notion of limiting the number of acceptable targets for military retaliation to certain readily-identifiable actors.
This is a prudential, not a moral, judgement. But the larger principle behind this distinction seems morally sound: violence and warfare are terrible, and if conflict is necessary, we should do everything possible to limit the damage to legitimate proxies (soldiers and other voluntary combatants). Since POWs are no longer legitimate combatants, they should enjoy as many protections as we can reasonably afford.