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How Many Lives Is This War Worth?

A moral nation must balance human cost and potential good.

March 27, 2003|Peter Singer | Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics in the University Center for Human Values, Princeton University. He is the author of "One World: Ethics and Globalization" (Yale University Press, 2002).

As the war goes on, the casualties inevitably rise: American and British combatants, Iraqi combatants and Iraqi civilians are being killed. How many lives is it justifiable to sacrifice in order to protect American security and to free the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein's dictatorship?

In August 2001, in defending his decision to refuse federal funds for research that involves destroying human embryos, President Bush said: "I worry about a culture that devalues life and believe as your president I have an important obligation to foster and encourage respect for life in America and throughout the world."

But how do we know whether we are devaluing life or protecting it when we go to war? It's easy to talk about respect for life, but in wartime, it often involves hard calculations. In Afghanistan, for instance, we killed, according to the best estimates, between 1,000 and 1,200 civilians. Now we read heartbreaking stories of houses in the suburbs of Baghdad being destroyed by missiles and of husbands losing their wives and parents losing their children. Are we wrong to use weapons that have the potential to go astray and kill innocents? Are we justified in going to war if war involves a risk of significant civilian casualties?

During the conflict in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said "war is ugly" but added that no nation had ever done as much to avoid civilian casualties as the U.S. was doing in Afghanistan. Gen. Tommy Franks said: "I can't imagine there's been a conflict in history where there has been less collateral damage, less unintended consequences."

Yet it is clear that the American forces in Afghanistan were willing to put the lives of innocent Afghans in jeopardy in order to destroy military targets of minor significance.

On Nov. 1, 2001, for example, American planes bombed the village of Ishaq Suleiman because a Taliban truck had been parked in one of the streets. The truck left before the bomb hit, but 12 villagers were killed and 14 were injured. A Pentagon spokesman said that even in villages, trucks and equipment belonging to the Taliban were still "authorized military targets."

Does attacking a truck parked in a village "foster and encourage respect for life in America and throughout the world"? The U.S. military seems not to have trained its commanders to ask the crucial question: Can a truck be so important a military target that destroying it justifies risking innocent lives?

The principle of proportionality, an element of all defensible accounts of what it takes for a war to be just, says the costs of the war, in terms of death and destruction, must not outweigh the good to be achieved. In doing this weighing, we have to take into account the fact that although the casualties of war are certain, each of the Bush administration's grounds for attacking Iraq involves a gamble.

The administration is betting that U.S. security will be enhanced by eliminating the weapons of mass destruction that Hussein is suspected of having. But he may not have such weapons, or persevering with inspections might have disarmed him peacefully.

In contrast, the invasion of Iraq hands militant Islamic movements the perfect recruiting tool, and its long-term outcome could well be more people ready to carry out terrorism against the United States.

The administration is also betting that the damage done to the Iraqi people will be sufficiently minimal for the overwhelming majority of them to welcome the Americans as liberators. That is another gamble, and one on which the odds lengthen with every Iraqi civilian killed or wounded by the war.

No ethical assessment of the war in Iraq can avoid these factually messy questions of the harm that the war does, as compared with the good that it may do. There are also other harms, even more difficult to assess.

For all its faults, the United Nations remains the only body in the world that can bring about peaceful resolution of international conflicts, and its authority has been seriously damaged by the decision of the U.S. and its allies to act without Security Council authorization.

There is also the risk of the war damaging priceless archeological treasures from this cradle of Western civilization. Though lifeless things rather than sentient beings, these artifacts, buildings and excavation sites are part of the heritage of all humanity. Their destruction, after they have survived for thousands of years, would be another tragic consequence of this war.

But the most important ethical point to make about the conduct of the war is that nothing can justify placing a higher value on the lives of American civilians than we place on the lives of foreign civilians. Governments may have a greater responsibility to protect their nationals than they do to protect foreigners, but when it comes to calculating the costs of war, nationality does not change the value of a human life.

In Afghanistan, it looks very much as if the U.S. military did not go to the same lengths to protect the lives of Afghan civilians as it would have gone to prevent the loss of American lives. Now the same thing appears to be happening in Iraq.

Even if Hussein's regime is adopting tactics that deliberately put Iraqi civilians at risk, we cannot avoid responsibility for the casualties that result from the war we chose to fight. The Bush administration knew how little the Iraqi dictatorship cared for its people, so it must have anticipated these unscrupulous tactics and should have factored them into the decision to go to war. Any actions that show less respect for the lives of Iraqi civilians than the U.S. military would show for the lives of Americans would not be ethically defensible.

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