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Acceptable civilian casualties

  1. Sep 15, 2004 #1


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    Many of the threads here boil down to an argument over what constitutes an acceptable civilian casualty rather than discuss the issue from which the thread arose, so I thought it might be worthwhile to start a thread on the topic that people are really discussing. :tongue:

    The question for each of the following scenarios, of course, is if civilian casualties are acceptable. Some will be realistic, some not. Some of these will lead into additional scenarios (such as 5 and 6).

    Let's start with the most unrealistic:

    (1) Each enemy combatant is surrounded with three enemy civilians who have willingly decided to serve as a shield.

    (2) Each enemy combatant is surrounded with three enemy civilians who have been forced to act as a shield.

    (3-4) Same as above, but with friendly civilians.

    (5) Civilians who wear the enemy's military uniform in a battle zone.

    (6) Civilians who wear the enemy's military uniform and marcn en masse on a military stronghold.

    (7) Civilians resupplying the enemy combatants with ammunition during a firefight.

    (8) Civilians transporting military equipment to a battle zone.

    (9) Civilians in a military installation.

    (10) Civilians willingly shielding a military installation.

    (11) Civilians unwillingly (or unknowingly) shielding a military installation.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 15, 2004 #2
    civilian casualties are acceptable in all of them.
  4. Sep 15, 2004 #3
    I don't think there is a distinction between enemy and friendly civilians. I would suggest Points (2) and (4) are the only ones worth analyzing. The others are pretty cut and dried.
  5. Sep 15, 2004 #4
    Killing civilians is never acceptable. Go further back, and look at the reasons behind the conflict which may give rise to such circumstances.
  6. Sep 15, 2004 #5


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    (12) Civilians providing shelter for enemy combatants.

    (13) Civilians providing medical care for enemy combatants.

    (14) Civilians providing entertainment, and other morale boosting functions, for enemy combatants.

    (15) Civilians providing direct economic support for the enemy military.

    (16) Civilians providing indirect economic support for the enemy military. (I suspect the level of indirectness may matter to some; comment on it in your response)

    (17) Civilians showing moral support for enemy combatants.

    (18) Enemy civilians dressed in friendly military garb in a combat zone.

    (19) Friendly civilians dressed in friendly military garb in a combat zone.

    (20) Civilians providing tactical military support to enemy combatants.

    (21) Civilians living in a combat zone you are attacking.

    (22) Civilians living in a combat zone you are defending.
  7. Sep 15, 2004 #6


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    When we have time machines available to avert these dilemmas, this will be an acceptable option.
  8. Sep 15, 2004 #7
    Adam's right. Civilians never deserve to be harmed in conflict. let alone killed. How would you respond to the news that your family and friends had been killed?

    No, when leaders stop pushing their own agendas and realise that people die in war, the 'dilemmas' (how could you call casulties a dilemma?) would cease to exist.

    There is NEVER a cause for war. I know that may seem like a naive view, but it's not. Can you justify war for me?

    AMW Bonfire
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 15, 2004
  9. Sep 15, 2004 #8
    Or perhaps simply stop the activities which cause these things?
  10. Sep 15, 2004 #9
    Rules in a war are there to prevent intentionally injuring those not directly involved. Civilians should stay out of the way. It has nothing to do with what they deserve.

    Wishful thinking, my friend. Wars do happen and civilians if they wish to be considered civilians, should stay as far from the battles as possible.

    I don't think that Hitler would have stopped without violent opposition.
  11. Sep 15, 2004 #10
    They deserve to be safe in their homes without attackers bringing the war in there. Hard to "stay out of the way" when soldiers come into your town, conduct searches in your family's home, park tanks out the front, drop bombs on your town's infrastructure, and in general turn your home into a war zone.

    See above.
  12. Sep 15, 2004 #11


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    In the first set of circumstances, none of them provide a basis for stopping a fight (from the point of view of the other side). In Gulf II, American civilians did go to Iraq to act as voluntary human sheilds. That act is only half a step above treason.

    The real question is would the soldiers with civilians around them do anything to protect them (and would the civilians do anything to protect themselves). According to the rules of war, its the people using forced human shields who are comitting a crime.

    In the second set, #12, they are combatants.

    #13 isn't specific enough: are they providing medical treatment in the middle of a battle? In that case, they are treated the same as any military medical personnel - they are noncombatants (you can't shoot them on purpose), but you don't stop the battle for them. If they are not treating injured people in a battle (say, they are in a MASH hospital), then none of them, including the soldiers, are combatants. Anyway, 13 is generally a "no."

    #14, they are not combatants, but being around military makes you a target: a USO show is a legitimate target - Bob Hope's presence (Playboy bunnies or not) doesn't give all the soldiers a free pass.

    #15 also is not specific enough. Does that mean giving money to buy weapons or what? In any case, that would generally be a no, with the caveat that if they are near combatants by choice at any time, they are not protected.

    #16, I can't think of any situation where economic centers are viable targets. Again, the rules have changed (for the civilized world) since WWII.

    #17 - moral support as in waving a flag from inside your house? No. Again, the critereon are action based and its the level of participation in the battle that matters.

    #18 and 19, impersonating military is likely to get you arrested, but if you're in the middle of a battle, you might get shot.

    #21,22, these civilians should be protected to the extent possible/reasonable. Obviously, there is wiggle room there, but actions such as shooting from residential apartment buildings (which the terrorists have done) and hiding your equipment/vehicles in civilian neighborhoods (which Saddam did) are war crimes. For the more general case of collateral damage, precision guided weapons make it possible to vastly reduce the number of civilian casualties - but not all are avoidable.

    As a general rule, Artman's characterization is correct:
    Using that as a guidline will allow you to figure out 95% of cases.

    amwbonfire and Adam: 'we shouldn't go to war in the first place' is a nice sentiment, but it does not answer the question asked. Its completely irrelevant here. Worse, it ignores reality. You can't close your eyes and wish and make these situations disappear. When you open your eyes, they are still there and rules on how to act still have to be made. If your objection is to the current conflict, thats also irrelevant as Hurkyl framed his question in general terms.
    Thats a nice, canned thing to say, but it also ignores reality. Real life is seldom that simple as the cases Hurkyl brought up (and you utterly ignored) indicate. Further, this directly contradicts what you said in another thread. You said the WTC was a legitimate target. Your attempts to be black and white about this are a transparent attempt to avoid the issue.
    That's true, of course. But one at a time:

    -"They deserve to be safe in their homes" - in the incident that precipitated this discussion (and in several of the cases presented), they chose to leave their homes.

    -"Hard to "stay out of the way" when soldiers come into your town, conduct searches in your family's home, park tanks out the front..." - Indeed, and I'm sure that will come up at Saddam's war crimes tribunal. The Al Queda terrorists who started the specific battle in question will be more difficult to prosecute.

    -"drop bombs on your town's infrastructure" - there is nothing wrong with destroying infrastructure (bridges, roads, airfields, power stations) that are active parts of the war effort.

    -"and in general turn your home into a war zone" - again, I'm sure that'll come up at Saddam's war crimes tribunal. For the specific case in question, the civilians who were cavorting with the terrorists (and harboring them in their homes) need to ask themselves the question "which side am I on, or am I a bystander?" otherwise someone else will answer it for them.
    Last edited: Sep 15, 2004
  13. Sep 15, 2004 #12
    Not at all. The reality is, those questions only come into play after people have done all sorts of stupid and immoral things. Things need not get that far. To say it is simply unrealistic to hope we can avoid wars is just another attempt at dodging responsibility.
  14. Sep 15, 2004 #13


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    Adam, amwbonfire, I think the words y'all're looking for are something like:

    "I am unable or unwilling to respond to these scenarios. However, I think all due effort should be made to prevent them from occuring."

    Although prevention of these scenarios is entirely off topic, I can certainly understand the desire to mention it.
    Last edited: Sep 15, 2004
  15. Sep 15, 2004 #14


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    There are some more scenarios I wanted to offer, but I'll hold off for a bit.
  16. Sep 15, 2004 #15
    Human shields. By allowing human shields to be effective in protecting military targets, then you encourage their use and put even more civilians in harms way.
  17. Sep 15, 2004 #16
    Yes, I can justify war for you. When the Japanese invaded Singapore and began debating how to attack Australia, that was a good time for war.
    In this example, the best way to prevent war would have been to simply let the Japanese take over Australia. Is that a good idea to you?
    Instead, brave Australian and American troops lead the battles against the Japanese, pushing them back from invading.
    Do you believe that this was a lost cause? a bad idea?

    If I come to your house and steal something, the easiest way for there to not be a problem is let me take and leave. In reality, that place the rest of us exist, conflict is real. Some people are evil. That's reality.
    War is conflict. Wishing that one person hadn't done something won't stop it. Conflict can, and often does.
  18. Sep 15, 2004 #17
    In Germany during WW II, we killed 2 million civilians in order to stop the Holocaust and the enslavement of Europe. If the killing of civilians is never acceptable, then should we have left the Nazi in power to continue the Holocaust?
    World War II: Combatants and Casualties (1937 - 45)
    So those civilians death were not acceptable either?

    United States could have stopped this, but we didn't.
  19. Sep 15, 2004 #18
    hey, so long as there was no war!
  20. Sep 15, 2004 #19
    Yeah, the main thing is we aren't the ones killing civilians.

    Same thing here in Sudan. If we get involved, we might hurt a non-combatant or some endangered species of bug or weed.
    But you know things must be getting kind of bad when even MTV starts carrying the story.
  21. Sep 15, 2004 #20


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    The US gov't is starting to make noise like they want to act there. Powell recently dropped the "g" word in the UN, which compells action. The UN response: complain about it (Powell's use of the word, not the situation in the Sudan). In light of this and past failures of the UN to do its job, the US leading the way outside of the UN is more than justified: its our moral responsibility.

    RE: Camboadia - I didn't realize it was that bad. I'm not convinced we could have stopped it though. The Sovs would not have approved of us entering another war in SE Asia.

    North Korea is a similar situation today: somewhere around 2 million of a total population of 20 million have starved to death in the past 10 years. With such a large army though, it would be tough for us to do anything about that.

    In any case, where and when to act is a complicated question and depends on the situation. The first criteria of course, is can we actually help. In situations like the Sudan, where it would take a relatively trivial military force, there is no excuse whatsoever for inaction.

    I hope we didn't just hijack the thread, Hurkly - if you have more hypothetical scenarios (or want to discuss some of the tougher ones you already posted), by all means....
    Last edited: Sep 15, 2004
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