A moral battle

Civilians: Throughout history's wars, detecting and protecting noncombatants has carried risks.

The Ethics Of War

April 06, 2003|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

There were no smart bombs the last time an army of this size approached Baghdad. That was in 1258, when some 200,000 Tartars under the command of Hulagu Khan - grandson of Genghis - came from the East.

Baghdad resisted, and the result was devastation. This army did not worry about civilian casualties. The slaughter of Baghdad's populace was said to go on for 40 days, with the blood of tens of thousands flowing in the streets.

With the whole world watching as U.S. troops enter those streets, the scene will be quite different. Those forces are expected to do all they can to avoid any civilian casualties. It would not make sense to do otherwise.

"The United States has no interest in causing civilian casualties," says Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, College Park. "It would only hurt its case down the road in terms of controlling Iraq. Aside from the moral issue, its makes no sense to even contemplate it tactically."

The fate of civilians in wartime has been considered for more than 1,000 years. The first rules were promulgated 300 years before Baghdad was sacked by the Tartars.

"It goes back to the 10th century," says James Turner Johnson, a professor of religion at Rutgers University who says the concept originated in southwest France with the Peace of God movement. "And it really has not changed very much. The basic idea is that you don't directly or intentionally harm people who are not functionally involved in fighting the war."

Johnson says that the Roman Catholic Church addressed this issue in the days when bands of knights were either employed by rulers to fight their battles or - in times of unemployment - roamed the countryside, along with other brigands, seeking plunder. The church acted in its self-interest in specifying classes of people who should not be subject to war. Clergy were at the top of the list, up there with women, children, the aged and infirm.

Others groups were added - farmers working the land, peaceful travelers, merchants going about their business. The rules applied only to Christendom and thus did not restrict the acts of Crusaders who were involved in some horrible atrocities against the Islamic defenders of the Holy Land sites.

"The whole idea came together in the Middle Ages, was very well formed by the 12th and 13th centuries and remains pretty much in that shape until the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th when the Geneva conventions picked it up," codifying rules of war as international law, Johnson says.

"The Geneva language basically restates the idea that if you don't participate in the war, you are not to be a target of the war," he says. "The moral tradition flows into the legal tradition."

The rules of the Geneva conventions - the first was signed in 1864, others followed at regular intervals for the next century - were designed in large part to protect civilians. The requirement that armies wear uniforms or some sort of identifying marker - which the Iraqis are accused of violating - is part of those treaties.

"Interestingly, the Swiss signed that treaty - it was negotiated in Switzerland - but they refused to go along with the uniform provision," says George H. Quester, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Their mentality was that every male was a soldier. So if he couldn't get back home to put on his uniform, you should assume he is a combatant."

After World War I, these conventions also outlawed poison gas - one of the weapons of mass destruction at issue in the war against Iraq - in part because it could easily float over civilian areas.

Despite the specifics of these treaties, the legalities can be murky. Certainly a soldier is a fair target, but how about a civilian who works in a weapons plant? Or one who works at a power plant? A telephone exchange?

Weaponry and warfare were different at the time of the American Civil War, when troops from both sides would knock on farmhouse doors to warn civilians they were about to be in the midst of a battle. On the bloodiest day of that war - the Battle of Antietam - there were no recorded civilian deaths.

The march to the sea through Georgia by Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman was considered shocking because, even though few civilians were killed, the swath of destruction was clearly aimed at non-military targets, causing a discomfort in the South that would be felt by the soldiers on the battlefield.

Even before that act, the traditional rules of war had been brought into question by the French Revolution, when the new government called on all citizens to be soldiers, blurring the line between combatant and noncombatant. The Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century presented further complications.

"That's when the idea of whole nations fighting each other appeared," says Tony Lang of the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs.

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