Recently there has been growing interest in the idea that all casualties of war (civilian and combatant, friendly and enemy) should be documented. See, for example, the Every Casualty programme and an article by Gabriella Blum, entitled “The Dispensable Lives of Soldiers”. I’m pleased that this idea seems to be gaining momentum, and I wrote an essay in July 2011 – during UK involvement in the conflict in Libya – that explains why I think it’s important. Here is the essay, reproduced without alteration:
One thing that I’ve noticed about the media’s coverage of the Libyan conflict is the lack of any detail on how many combatants – either rebels or Gaddafi’s soldiers – have lost their lives. In contrast, we do receive *some* detail about civilian casualties – although it’s possible that not all civilian casualties are reported – and we would certainly hear of NATO casualties, should they occur.
I feel that this lack of information about combatant casualties is a bad thing (as I’ll argue below). Paul Rogers agrees with me. But I don’t wish to lay the blame squarely at the feet of the media. I believe that *if* the information were made available by NATO – or, indeed, by Gaddafi or the rebels – then it would indeed be reported (at least by media whose editorial slant is somewhat critical of NATO’s involvement in Libya, such as the Guardian). The reason that the information is not reported is that NATO does not choose to make it available, even though it doubtlessly has estimates of the loss of combatant life. I can only assume that they feel that releasing a scorecard of how many of Gaddafi’s soldiers have been killed – as they do for the number of targets they hit each day – would be in bad taste and would weaken public support for their involvement in Libya. I think most of us would agree that this assumption is correct.
There are two main reasons why we should demand of our governments (in this conflict and in future conflicts) that they report to us the number of estimated combatant casualties on all sides, as well as the loss of civilian life. The first reason follows from the general principle that an electorate has a right to any information concerning their government’s activities, provided that right is not trumped by a stronger reason against the information being released. Governments will often want to withhold information on the basis that – for example – they don’t have accurate numbers or they don’t want to compromise the safety of their sources. I suspect that in many cases these reasons are bogus and are simply excuses for not sharing the information. However, we don’t need to consider these cases for present purposes. All we need to observe for the present case is that there is *no reason* that NATO can make for not releasing their best estimates of the loss of combatant life that trumps our right to that information. Claims, for instance, that they don’t want to pass strategically valuable information to the enemy, or that they don’t want to compromise their sources simply don’t apply in this case, because a) the enemy already has similar information; and b) the sources are NATO’s pilots and rebel soldiers, not undercover agents whose cover could be blown.
The second reason why we should demand estimates of the number of combatant casualties on all sides is moral. All human lives are equal and any loss of life – whether it is friend or foe, civilian or combatant – is a harm that we should strive to avoid. Believing that loss of enemy combatant life matters less than loss of civilian life is a mistake that can be made in two ways. The first way is to confuse a strategic distinction for a moral distinction. There is clearly a strategic distinction between combatants and civilians; the distinction in Libya is that Gaddafi’s soldiers are engaged in conflict and may therefore become legitimate targets for NATO on that basis (assume, for the time being, that NATO’s involvement in Libya is just) whereas civilians are not engaged in the conflict and pose no threat to either the rebels, NATO or other civilians. This strategic distinction means that it may be legitimate to attack and even kill enemy combatants should this be the only possible way to achieve a just end (such as protecting civilians from harm). However, the strategic distinction does not cross over to a moral distinction between the value of combatant life and the value of civilian life. All human lives remain of equal value – in war as in any other context – and any loss of life remains a harm that we should strive to avoid. Thus, the decision to kill enemy combatants to, for example, prevent them from attacking civilians, can be made only after judging whether a) killing the combatants is the *only possible way* of preventing them from attacking civilians; and, if so, that b) the harm that comes through the loss of combatant life is outweighed by the good that comes through saving civilian life. It is this second point that entails that we must have access to estimates of loss of combatant life; the information is essential for appraising the moral justness of our governments’ involvement in Libya.
The second way to make the mistake of believing that loss of combatant life matters less than loss of civilian life is to believe that we should care less when enemy combatants die because their engagement in something morally bad (e.g., attacking civilians) means that their death is their “just deserts”. There are three responses that I wish to make to this. The first is a weak response but worth making nonetheless. Some of Gaddafi’s soldiers may indeed have been engaged in attacking civilians, but the reason for this may have been ignorance (for example, Gaddafi had convinced them that the civilians were terrorists who wished to destabilise the nation) or coercion (physical or otherwise). Ignorance and coercion are just two of many factors that may lessen the moral culpability of soldiers fighting in an unjust war.
The reason why this is a weak response is that it relies on the assumption that enemy combatants are fighting in circumstances that mitigate their culpability. But I don’t believe that we need this assumption. Even without mitigating circumstances, such as ignorance or coercion, the lives of enemy combatants remain of importance equal to the importance of civilian lives. Regardless of the crimes they may have committed – by fighting in an unjust war without factors that mitigate their culpability – they retain their human rights. The only legitimate way to dispense justice to combatants engaged in an unjust war is through fair trial and sentencing. Thus, their death in conflict should be regarded as both a tragedy (as with the loss of any human life) and the loss of an opportunity to dispense justice.
The final response I want to make is to point out the double standards inherent in the idea that the deaths of enemy combatants matter less than the loss of other lives. Many UK and US citizens were opposed to their country’s involvement in the conflict in Iraq and regarded it as an unjust war. Many even regarded Bush and Blair as war criminals. Yet few, if any, would say that UK and US soldiers who fought and died in Iraq deserved to die because they were engaged in an unjust war or that the loss of their lives mattered less than the loss of other lives (such as those of Iraqi civilians or those of US and UK journalists). The proper position to take with respect to combatants who participate in an unjust war – and who do so without factors that mitigate their culpability – is to endeavour that they face fair trial and sentencing (whether it be during or after the conflict). This applies whether they fight for one’s own country or for another country.
At this point I hope to have convinced the reader that we should demand estimates of the number of all combatant casualties in the same way that we demand to know of civilian casualties or of the loss of our own soldiers. To recap, the main two reasons for this are that: 1) we have a right to any information concerning our government’s activities, provided that right is not trumped by a stronger reason against the information being released; and 2) the number of combatants killed by our forces in a conflict is an essential part of the information needed to appraise the moral justness of our governments’ involvement in that conflict.
I believe that this issue deserves more attention and ought to be pushed by moral philosophers, commentators and electorates as a whole. Whereas everyone can agree that we ought to know about civilian casualties that result from our governments’ involvements in conflicts, not everyone seems to agree about combatant casualties. Perhaps there is something of a taboo against showing too much regard for combatants who are actively engaged in trying to kill our own soldiers. I hope to have shown why it is essential that we overcome this taboo.
When civilian casualties are reported in our media, and this weakens public support for government involvement in conflict, democratic governments are forced to invest more effort in minimising civilian casualties in the future, both through short-term measures (such as issuing orders to the military to take greater care to avoid civilian casualties) and through long-term measures (such as increasing research into so-called “precision weaponry”). If governments were forced to report on combatant casualties, and if such reports weakened public support for conflicts, then democratic governments would be forced to: a) factor the possible resulting loss of combatant life in their decision to engage in a military conflict; and b) invest in future technologies that could achieve military goals without loss of combatant life (for example, increased investment in cyberwarfare technologies).
To summarise, I have argued that electorates should demand of their media and governments that all human costs (both friendly and enemy) of their governments’ involvements in conflicts are reported, and that we should view loss of combatant life as of equal importance to loss of civilian life. A long-term consequence of this could be increased government investment in future technologies that could achieve military goals (such as degrading an enemy’s military hardware) without loss of enemy combatant life. Although the outcome of such investment cannot be predicted at this time, there is a moral imperative to demand it.