Why Do States Kill Civilians?

by Benjamin Studebaker

In recent days, there’s been much talk of how the Syrian government is killing civilians in Syria. Most people have been inclined to view this as manifest evidence that the Syrian government is run by malevolent and/or insane individuals. I think this response is too quick and too dismissive. Throughout history, states have often killed civilians. The individuals who give the orders that civilians be killed are not all uniformly evil or crazy. There is some purpose that states seek to achieve by targeting civilians, and today I wish to shed some light on what that purpose is.

There are instances in which a great many otherwise morally normal people have agreed with the killing of civilians. The case that comes most quickly to mind for me is the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki toward the end of World War II. In that case, the United States opted to kill between 150-246,000 Japanese citizens, the majority of which were in both cases civilians. Harry Truman does not strike most people as malevolent or insane. What was Truman’s justification for these bombings?

Truman maintained that by killing mass numbers of Japanese civilians with atomic weapons, the United States could coerce Japan into surrendering without having to mount an invasion of the main Japanese islands. By avoiding this invasion, the United States was able to avoid losing many of its citizens in combat against the Japanese. The Joint Chiefs of Staff estimated at the time that a US invasion of Japan would have cost the United States 40,000 lives and resulted in 150,000 additional injuries. This number is noticeably smaller than the number of Japanese civilians killed in the bombings.

This decision is clearly at odds with the moral reflex most Americans have against foreigners killing civilians in war. There is a fundamental inconsistency here. Either:

  1. Deliberately killing civilians is always wrong, in which case the use of the atomic bombs was wrong and Harry Truman acted wrongfully.
  2. In some cases, killing civilians may be justified.

In order to take position 2, one would need a moral theory that offers a justification for civilian killing that states could appeal to. I have such a theory. The argument is as follows:

  1. Citizens have created states in order to protect and advance their collective interests.
  2. This gives states a duty to protect and advance citizens’ interests.
  3. It is usually not in the interest of citizens to die.
  4. Therefore, the state should usually attempt to minimize citizen deaths.
  5. Killing civilians sometimes reduces the instance of citizen death.
  6. Therefore, killing civilians is sometimes justified.

Under this theory, Harry Truman has special duties to US citizens that he does not have to Japanese citizens, because, as leader of the American state, his job is to protect and advance the interests of US citizens, not Japanese citizens. American citizens contribute to the American state by economic activity, by taxation, by military service, by supporting the existence of the American state by various means. As a result, the American state has a duty of reciprocity to American citizens. Japanese citizens do not contribute to the American state by these various means, so the American state does not have the same duty to them. From the American state’s point of view, American lives are vastly more valuable than foreign lives, because Americans contribute to the American state’s existence, while foreigners do not.

For this reason, Harry Truman’s goal in fighting World War II was not merely to defeat the Germans and the Japanese, but to do so at minimal cost to the United States, not merely in money or material, but in human lives. If killing Japanese civilians causes Japan to surrender and prevents the loss of American life, the American state has, on this theory, a duty to kill Japanese civilians.

There are two principal ways killing civilians can be advantageous to a state in this way:

  1. Hamstring the Economy–by killing civilians, states impede their enemies’ ability to produce the things necessary to wage war (food for the soldiers, weapons for the soldiers, etc.), hastening the end of the war.
  2. Terrorize the Population–by killing civilians, states intimidate their enemies into early surrender.

Truman’s bombings were a case of terrorizing the population. Many civilian bombings are used to achieve both purposes, such as attacks on British and German industrial centers by both sides during World War II. In both cases, the goal of the state in question is to kill foreign civilians so as to reduce the number of citizen-soldiers that will need to die, be wounded, or otherwise be psychologically scarred before the war is won.

What about the Syrian case? In the Syrian case, the civilians are not foreigners, but are themselves citizens. Does this mean that Assad is evil?

Not quite. In the Syrian case, both the soldiers attacking the state and the civilians in question are Syrian citizens. This means that, from the point of view of the government, killing a rebel soldier and killing a citizen both result in a goal the state seeks to avoid–the killing of the citizens it relies upon for its strength.

The Syrian government’s goal in the Civil War is to end the conflict as quickly as possible, as all military engagement, regardless of who wins, weakens the eventual victor of the conflict by damaging the country’s infrastructure, economy, and, most critically, by reducing its population. It wants to kill as few rebels as possible, because those rebels are themselves potentially economically productive citizens of Syria. Ideally, the Syrian government would like the rebels to lay down their arms and return to work as quickly as possible.

What is the most efficient means by which the Syrian government can get the rebels to give up? It is not necessarily the case that fighting the rebels directly is the best means here. Direct conflict kills many Syrian citizens, both those loyal to the regime and rebels. It might be the case that the Syrian government can get the rebels to give up with fewer total citizen deaths if it attempts to intimidate the rebels with attacks on civilians. If the rebels are sufficiently intimidated, the Syrian government imagines it could retain power without having to kill so many citizens. Paradoxically, the Syrian government may be killing its own people in order to avoid killing its own people.

This view of civilian-killing, that it is a tactic states use to hasten the end of wars and avoid losing more of their own citizens, provides a sound, reasonable explanation for a wide array of civilian killings. At the same time, though, it highlights instances in which killing civilians was well and truly wrong–take the Hitler case. In the Hitler case, Adolf Hitler killed many German citizens on the basis of race or religion. These citizens were not revolting against Germany. They were willing and capable of contributing to the German state. By killing these people, Hitler did not reduce the total number of German citizens who would die in World War II. Rather, he increased that number, and robbed his state of much of its own strength in so doing. Hitler wronged not only the citizens he killed, but, by weakening Germany, he harmed all German citizens. When states act against the interests of their citizens, they act wrongfully, and so Hitler acted wrongfully. Even as this moral theory can justify Truman’s actions and potentially shed some light on Assad’s thinking, it nonetheless condemns the Holocaust and other similarly unreasonable genocides.  The only explanation left to us in the Hitler case is that Hitler was operating under a delusion that some German citizens were not willing and capable contributors when in fact they were.