Morality of Kosovo-style wars


in Bombs and rockets, Politics

This afternoon, I saw Henry Shue give a talk for the Changing Character of War Program on ethics and the targeting of civilian infrastructure – such as power plants – during wartime. While I am sure he put a lot of thought into it, it was not ultimately convincing. Largely overlooked were a number of key factors.

His basic argument was that states can behave morally by leaving enough infrastructure, such as electrical power, to maintain the basic needs of the civilian population. If the state starts with twenty power plants – and it takes three to run basic hospital services, water treatment, and the like – you can morally bomb seventeen, but not eighteen, of them. Even if the enemy state then uses that remaining capacity for military purposes, the moral responsibility of the first state to not imperil large numbers of civilians will be upheld.

The first problem with this is that the re-tasking of such capacity to military purposes is very predictable. In the US, Canada, and UK there was extensive rationing during the second world war. While it didn’t put anyone into a state of desperate privation, that is reflective of the fact that it wasn’t necessary to make such cuts. I am sure people died in the Soviet Union because resources were directed towards the war effort instead. If a state knows that the capacity they leave will be thus re-tasked, how is that morally different from destroying it, from the perspective of protecting civilians? How responsible are states for immoral actions taken by others, but prompted by their own actions and predictable in occurrence? Human security isn’t meant to be about whether the attacking state is blameless or not; it is meant to be about maintaining the lives and human rights of people in general. As a teleological objective, it’s hard to see how such a simple deontological moral axiom holds.

Also, there is the question of what the moral difference is between a civilian noncombatant and someone who has been forcefully drafted. Why is blowing up an apartment block worse than blowing up a barracks full of teenage conscripts? Likewise, there is the matter of how the purposes for which things like power plants are being used can be determined.

Dr. Shue’s analysis did raise and try to address many of these questions, but did not do so in a comprehensive or forceful way. I suspect a more complete answer would require the rejection of some of the rationalist assumptions that underlay his whole analysis. He assumed, for instance, that citizens could choose freely to support their government or not. Likewise, he didn’t give any special consideration to the psychologies of warfare: an element that would need to be included in a normative theory with real-world applicability.

The degree to which such questions are really engaging makes me feel as though I should take his normative theory optional paper next year. It might lead to some excellent discussions.

PS. The talk also reminded me of one of the reasons I thought the Spider Man films were so bad. At one point, Spidey is offered the choice between saving his love interest or a whole tram full of civilians: a real moral dilemma. Instead of having to actually give him such a difficult moral choice – akin to choices made by powerful people and organizations all the time – the filmmakers allow him to use his super powers to save both. Such cop outs, when it comes to grappling with ethical questions, serve no good purpose.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

kerrie June 13, 2006 at 9:55 pm

Moral dilemna eh?

“Ok, here’s a good one. A serial killer tells you you can only keep one of your children-which do you choose?”

“That’s not funny, that’s just-horrible”.

Maybe it is the way you’re summarizing it, but it sounds like a bizarre argument. Some of these theories I hear sound so glib when you actually think about the real world. Even if there is some moral argument to be made about a state’s capacity to care for its own, shouldn’t he also be looking at what is actually motivating the state to act?

Another interesting tidbit is that some of those “hardship” measures during WWII were primarily meant to create a rally-around-the flag effect and make civilians feel that they were contributing to the war effort. For example most of the scrap metal collected out of East Midland towns (people would donate their iron fences, bicycles, everything) actually got dumped into the sea instead of used to make weapons. But it made people feel closer to the war, and more determined.

Milan June 13, 2006 at 10:55 pm

Henry Shue’s bibliography for this topic, which seems to be the eighth week of his normative theory course, is online here. (PDF)

Milan June 13, 2006 at 10:56 pm

A slightly different argument of his is also online here.

Ben June 13, 2006 at 11:39 pm

Thanks for this. It sounds rather similar to last term’s lecture, but I imagine it’s what he’ll present at Brave New World too.

“If a state knows that the capacity they leave will be thus re-tasked, how is that morally different from destroying it, from the perspective of protecting civilians?”

Because the bombing state isn’t directly doing it. To hold us responsible for how others react to our actions could leave us hostage to all sorts of threats – as in Bernard Williams’ famous Jim and the Indians case.

“Human security isn’t meant to be about whether the attacking state is blameless or not; it is meant to be about maintaining the lives and human rights of people in general. As a teleological objective, it’s hard to see how such a simple deontological moral axiom holds.”

But this assumes you’re talking about a teleological objective of human security. Just war theory often seems (to me) about what state-agents may permissibly do. This does seem to be a deontological matter.

Obviously one can’t resolve these consequentialist vs deontological controversies, or even go into them justice in a paper on civilian bombing, but I get the same impression of this talk as I did of another seminar yesterday on the alleged human right to water – all the interesting work is done ‘off-stage’ by the underlying assumptions about more abstract issues (in that case, rights, property and justice). The concrete debate won’t move much further forward while all disagree at the more abstract level.

Scott Davy June 13, 2006 at 11:42 pm

This of course ties in with the legal issues surrounding the question.

For a basis on IHL,
Additional Protocol I, Article 52 (para 2) states that “In so far as objects are concerned, military objectives are limited to those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage.”

A belligerent can therefore legally destroy all the power plants in the above scenario, so long as the strikes are proportional and an effort to limit civilian casualties is made.

This may be a case where the moral deviates from the legal and Shue would say while a state could legally destroy infrastructure in war, such strikes would not be moral. How much weight does morality carry in war? Much less than legality does in my opinion.
And thats not saying much…


Milan June 14, 2006 at 2:45 am


Dr. Shue was very clear that he does not believe that any principles laid down in law, regarding proportionality and non-combattant immunity for instance, are not necessarily morally relevant. While he did argue that law was an important mechanism for guiding real world behaviour towards a more ideal form, he definitely did not espouse a blackletter conception of ethics.


I really have my doubts about why this is morally different. We can’t just wash our hands of something that we knew would happen, just because we weren’t the last decision-making agent in the chain. If we’re serious about having moral obligations towards civilians in other states, I think we need to treat them with a level of consideration that takes into account the probable consequences our actions will have upon them, whether directly or indirectly.

While just war is a deontological framework, I would argue that it is an instrument primarily aimed at achieving teleological ends: namely, the general avoidance of war and the minimization of the horrors thereof.

My general sense is that neither Dr. Shue, nor any of the other people present at the seminar, really had a good answer to the question raised. Partly, I think that relates to how artificial elements of his scenario were (for instance, that the attacking state has a very high degree of knowledge about how the enemy state is diverting resources like electricity). At the same time, it relates to important moral considerations about the relationship between morality and rationality. In particular, the question of how to behave morally when presented with either an enemy or enemy-state civilians who do not conform to your idea of rationality is a really tricky one.

Milan June 14, 2006 at 2:48 am

Another thing Dr. Shue mentioned a number of times is carbon fibre munitions – something I have never heard of, but which apparently allows the temporary disabling of facilities like power plants.

A quick internet survey has turned up nothing useful. Does anybody know about these, and/or can provide a link to information?

Milan June 14, 2006 at 2:51 am

Having remembered that most of the info will probably be about ‘carbon fiber’ rather than ‘carbon fibre,’ I found all sorts of stuff. For instance:

CBU-94 “Blackout Bomb”
BLU-114/B “Soft-Bomb”

Scott Davy June 14, 2006 at 7:29 am

An important weapon that I only became aware of during an argument with a fairly nationalist Serbian.

Important in that, to satisfy legal and moral standards, it behooves the user to make use of their weapons that best limit collateral damage.
Should say, Iran strike at an enemy powerplant, they could use their most advanced air to ground munition (a comparatively inaccurate optically guided bomb, the Qadr) and meet the same moral standard as Americans striking with a CBU-94.
Have both belligerents not done their best to limit collateral losses?

It seems that as the United States develops standards of accuracy in GPS guided bombs like the JDAM and non lethal munitions like the CBU-94, they are committing themselves to use “dumb” ordinance less and less.

Milan June 14, 2006 at 12:24 pm


That is one of the perverse incentives involved. If you are required to use your most accurate, least damaging weapons – regardless of the cost – there is a pretty good reason not to develop new weapons, unless they have considerable military value.

. January 28, 2010 at 5:42 pm

Much of this revolution, as Mr Hiznay terms it, is due to guidance kits that can be attached to existing “dumb” bombs. An upgraded bomb, when falling, uses data from the global-positioning system in combination with laser and infra-red sensors to adjust a set of fins that work like aeroplane flaps. This steers the bomb towards its target—even if that target is moving. The AASM, a French navy and air-force guidance system, has fins that can guide and glide bombs for 50km (31 miles) and hit a target within a metre of the bullseye. The LJDAM, a system made by Boeing and first exported in 2008, can land a bomb on a vehicle that is travelling at 110kph.

The market for add-on guidance systems is booming. More than a dozen countries, including South Africa, make them. Two dozen—including India, Pakistan and Turkey—buy them. They are not cheap: $23,000 per bomb will get you one at the bottom of the range. It is not just a more effective weapon, but also a safer one for the bomber. He can fly higher, meaning that he is at less risk from ground fire.

Moreover, these bombs continue to be clever even after arriving at the target. Their fuses can set off explosions at precisely the right moment. One defence contractor, Israel Military Industries, makes a 225kg bomb, the MPR-500, that can hammer through several storeys of a building and explode on a chosen floor. This feat means triggering the detonation about two milliseconds after the bomb hits the ceiling above the doomed storey. The bomb can be programmed to do this just seconds before it is dropped. Such precision means it is sold as a replacement for ordnance two or more times its size.”

. March 2, 2011 at 5:54 pm

“In 2005, United Nations member states unanimously adopted a set of principles called the Responsibility to Protect, or R2P. Shamed by its inaction in the Rwandan genocide and its late and limited response in Kosovo, the international community committed to protect populations facing mass atrocity when their own governments are unable or unwilling to protect them.

Rejecting arguments that governments in sovereign states have the absolute right to do as they please within their own borders, the world’s leaders drew the line at mass murder. They endorsed a continuum of escalating responses from political condemnation, to sanctions and embargoes and, ultimately -in rare and extreme cases -to military intervention.

The international response to the crisis in Libya illustrates R2P in action: the world is telling Moammar Gadhafi that it will not stand idly by and watch him massacre his own people. The Security Council, in the first stage of the R2P process, has now imposed a range of preliminary measures to send that message and to set the stage for additional action if necessary.

Regrettably, neither the Security Council nor U.S. President Barack Obama has expressly referred to the R2P resolution as the intellectual framework within which these responses are situated. That is a missed opportunity on several counts. First and most importantly, should the council eventually be asked to authorize the use of force, the case may be more difficult if that is the first time R2P is mentioned. Second, here is a chance to demonstrate that R2P is not just about sending armies across borders, as many of its critics contend. Rather, it seeks to pressure in various ways. Military intervention is the last resort after all other measures have failed. The international response in Libya will demonstrate that more powerfully, provided the early measures are expressly linked to R2P.

There are other reasons why it is important to invoke R2P in this case. The doctrine provides a coherent framework against which to evaluate options should the crisis worsen. Seeing the Security Council’s actions last Saturday as the first step in an R2P response encourages a disciplined analysis of those options measured against the principles adopted in 2005. Furthermore, the impact of the measures imposed last Saturday is diminished if they are seen as isolated responses rather than the first points on a continuum that will lead, if necessary, to much more serious consequences.

Canada has a special connection to R2P. The Canadian government sponsored the international commission that conceived of the doctrine, and Canadian diplomats led the effort that resulted in its adoption. Canada should therefore play a prominent role in preparing for what might come during the next few uncertain weeks in Libya, including the “worst-case scenario.”

Should Gadhafi defy world opinion and unleash massive force against his people, including a return to airstrikes (not impossible given his erratic history), the option to intervene militarily must be available. That means preparing the ground, especially with Libya’s neighbours (including, of course, the newly liberated Tunisia and Egypt), but also with the African Union. African support and participation would make it difficult to condemn such an intervention as a mere “imperialist plot” hatched by an oil-hungry North.”

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