Noncombatant Immunity and Truman’s Decision



Richard Schoonhoven

Department of Art, Philosophy, and Literature

U.S. Military Academy

West Point, NY 10996

(845) 938-2485

Fax: 938-2562


One of the cornerstones of modern Just War Theory is the combatant-noncombatant distinction: noncombatants may not be deliberately targeted at any time, while combatants are always subject to attack.  This is often taken to imply that combatants have a duty to risk their lives to protect noncombatants, or that noncombatant lives are to be spared, even at the cost of greater combatant casualties.  Thus Jean Bethke Elshtain, in a recent editorial,[1] writes that “it is better to put one’s own combatants in danger than to stand by as the innocent are slaughtered,”[2] and Walzer amends the Doctrine of Double Effect to include a requirement that soldiers accept increased risk in order to protect noncombatants.  As important as the protection of innocents is, the attitude expressed here concerns me, for it seems a bit glib.  My case can be made most clearly by concentrating on what is often considered to be one of the grossest violations of noncombatant rights, the dropping of atomic bombs on the civilian population of Japan in 1945.

Michael Walzer (JUW) gives two arguments for why President Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan at the end of WWII was in fact the morally wrong decision.  His first argument rests on the claim that the standard justification is predicated on a false dilemma.  That is, it is usually claimed that Truman was confronted with an awful choice: drop the bomb or sacrifice hundreds of thousands of American lives in an invasion of the Japanese home islands.  Walzer rightly points out that this overlooks other alternatives; in particular, it overlooks the possibility that we might have allowed Japan to surrender on terms.  Walzer argues that we had no right to demand unconditional surrender from the Japanese, and so the dilemma is a false one.  I find Walzer’s arguments in this regard reasonably compelling, but I lack the historical knowledge to make a firm judgment, so I do not wish to quarrel with them.  Indeed, I wish to leave them aside. 

Suppose, though, that we had been justified in demanding unconditional surrender from the Japanese – suppose, for example (what Walzer at least suggests might be a sufficient condition for such a demand) that the Japanese had been in fact a Nazi-like regime, such that their total surrender was morally necessary and that any negotiation with them would have been a moral compromise.  At this point, Walzer’s second argument enters.  Walzer seems to suggest that faced with such a dilemma, the right thing to do would have been to invade, even given the massive numbers of American lives this would cost.  His reason for this is based upon (his version of) the combatant-noncombatant distinction.  Roughly: it is the job of soldiers to take risks, and in particular it is their job to take risks – to sacrifice themselves if necessary – in order to protect noncombatants.  In fact, Walzer claims, soldiers have surrendered their right to life: they have exchanged it for the rights of combatants.  The civilian population of Japan – the women and children and old men – on the other hand, were innocent in a way the soldiers weren’t.  In particular, they retained their right to life.  While I do believe that noncombatant immunity is vitally important, and I hesitate to undermine it in any way, I find Walzer’s reasoning in this regard, insofar as I understand it, specious and disconcertingly cavalier in the attitude it manifests towards the lives of soldiers.  The worries I have with it can best be seen by considering the decision from the perspective of President Truman, or any national leader faced with a similar decision.

Harry Truman (felt he) had to decide between the lives of tens of thousands of Japanese civilians, or a (perhaps smaller) number of U.S. servicemen (and their Japanese counterparts[3]).  It would have been a hard thing for any U.S. president to explain to his citizens, weary of war, that he was going to demand the lives of their sons and daughters in order to save even a greater number of Japanese lives.  Nor am I sure this is what he should have done.  That is, assuming for the moment that the numbers are roughly equal, it is far from obvious that Truman had any moral obligation to spend[4] American lives rather than Japanese lives – even the lives of Japanese civilians.  For the combatant-noncombatant distinction seems to me to cut no ice in this regard, at least so long as soldiers are conscripted.  It may well be that soldiers who do volunteer take on a special obligation to protect those who are not soldiers, and to the extent that they do so knowingly (informed consent) I am enormously grateful that there are men and women willing to accept such a supererogatory burden.  But to the extent that soldiers are not volunteers, when they’re drafted to fight, it’s not clear that they are morally required so to sacrifice themselves, even though it may be extremely morally admirable of them to do so.  For this reason, I prefer to view things not from the perspective of the soldier who has to decide for himself whether or not to give up his life for others, but from the perspective of a leader who has to decide whether or not to force him to do so.  The point can be made clearer through a couple of hypothetical scenarios.

It seems obvious to me that before a soldier is drafted, he is just as innocent as the average Japanese citizen.  Take a farm boy in Iowa, who does not want to fight in the war, who takes no more effort to support the war than is required, and who desperately wants to stay at home and plough his fields.  How is he engaged in harming?  Why is he not just as innocent?  Now suppose that Truman is faced with his choice, but that in order to invade Japan, he will have to draft up an additional 100,000 soldiers, an additional 100,000 such farm boys.  Why should he do this, rather than just drop the atomic bomb and spare the farm boys?  Again, before they are drafted, these farm boys don’t seem any different in kind from the Japanese women and children.  The only difference seems to be that they are young men.  But this begins to look like a pernicious and outdated chauvinism.  Who says that the lives of young men are inherently worth less than the lives of women and children?  Is it morally right that young men should be sacrificed, possibly against their will, to save women and children.  I share the intuition that perhaps they should be willing to be so sacrificed, but it bothers me to force them.  And it does seem tantamount to some form of vicious prejudice.  Absent some argument for just what would justify this preference, it seems no different in kind than an analogous claim that Blacks or octagenarians (or even Japanese) are inherently worth less.[5]

The situation can be made even clearer if we consider an even less likely scenario.  Suppose the nation is plumb out of young men.  They’ve all been drafted and killed.  But we’ve got lots of women and children we could press into service.  We could draft them, call them up, train and arm them, and send them off to invade Japan.  Should we do that if the only alternative is to drop a bomb that kills many of “their” women and children?  I don’t see it.  Somebody’s going to die; why should it be “our” women and children rather than theirs?  Again, it’s no good claiming that our women and children are armed and dangerous, for I am focusing on the decision whether to make them armed and dangerous, and thus susceptible to being killed in the first place.  Who says that our women and children are worth less?[6]

Walzer (150) says that soldiers have “exposed themselves to the coerciveness of war.”  How?  By being young and male?  By being capable?  But notice that this last loses much of its force in a day and age when women can operate weapons systems as well (or better) than men.  And notice that it’s no good complaining that these young men are soldiers, that they’ve been trained to fight and kill and armed to do so.  It is for this reason that I focus on Truman’s decision.  For before they are so trained and armed, this argument fails to apply.  It seems the height of casuistry to force a man, on penalty of death or imprisonment, to pick up a weapon and aim it at someone, and once he does to shoot him, or allow the other person to shoot him, and claim that his rights have not been violated, on the grounds that he is then dangerous.  It may well be his decision whether to wield the gun effectively or not, and if he does the person at whom he points it may well have a complete right to defend himself, but I at any rate, as the person who forced him into the position, cannot claim that his rights were not violated, because he was not a threat before I forced him to become one.  If I am going to decide who lives and who dies, it is specious to argue that I should decide he must be the one who dies because he’s a threat, when I forced him to become a threat in the first place.

So I think the traditional line regarding the relative risks combatants and non-combatants must be expected to run is highly suspect, at least when combatants are drafted.  But it also seems that the interest of the issue extends beyond this narrow sphere.  It seems to me that the fundamental issue here is whether an individual can be required to sacrifice himself to protect noncombatants, if he doesn’t want to.  The case where someone is willing to, I think, presents few moral problems, but can we force someone to sacrifice himself to protect others when he is unwilling?    

I should explain that what’s in the background here is my experience teaching Walzer’s book JUW to cadets at West Point.  When we get to the discussion of noncombatant immunity, cadets will occasionally balk.  These are good kids, and I should point out that they are at their most sympathetic when their primary concern not for their own well-being but for that of the men they know they will lead.  But they will say something like:  I will gladly sacrifice my life and those of my men to protect American noncombatants, and even American interests, but why should I or my men die to protect the other guy’s noncombatants?  As General Dunlap pointed out, such people are often only innocent in a technical sense: they hate us, do everything they can to support the war against us, and often will not overflow with gratitude for the protections we do afford them.  So why should I risk my men’s lives for them?  And notice that the obvious response here – that we need to respect their noncombatants rights so that they will respect the rights of our noncombatants – loses almost all of its force when we are talking about an enemy who already refuses to recognize the rights of our noncombatants.  So why endanger ourselves for them?  [I should point out that my argument only applies to the protection of noncombatants that requires risk or sacrifice on our part; nothing here, I think, should be taken to justify wanton attacks on noncombatants.]  Now, while I may not find the position my cadets take completely admirable, I do find it understandable, and the question deserves an answer.    

The quick answer in both cases – that of the conscript and that of my cadets – is that the state does have the right to require such sacrifice, because it has the right to compel obedience – of the cadet because he or she volunteered, and of the conscript because he or she is a citizen, and thus signed that elusive and fine-print laden document, the Social Contract.  But this answer is a bit quick; there are limits to the sacrifices the state can legitimately compel, so we need to examine a bit just what citizens and cadets “sign up for.”  Let me start with the conscript, and I will try later to diminish the distance between him and the volunteer.

It is of course an old and thorny issue whether and under just what circumstances the state can demand the life of its citizens.  Let me just assume arguendo that the state does have the right to demand the sacrifice of the lives of its citizens when this is necessary for the protection and preservation of the state itself.  Will this then also give it the right to demand that its citizens lay down their lives to protect (foreign) noncombatants?  Only if this can be shown to be necessary for the protection of the state.  Well, is it?  Not obviously.  General Dunlap suggested that nations that fight according to the laws of war tend to do better, but I lack the historical expertise to adjudicate that claim.  In any case, how might that be?  I’ve already questioned the argument from reciprocity, given that we are now often fighting enemies who fail to respect noncombatant immunity.  It is sometimes suggested that fighting according to the strictures of jus in bello, and in particular respecting noncombatant immunity, is necessary for a just and lasting peace.  But like any claim about consequences, this can only be an empirical, not a conceptual, claim.  It is therefore subject to empirical disconfirmation.  Indeed, I suppose it could be argued that as a universal claim, it is empirically false.  In the case that I’ve been considering, the attack on the civilian population of Japan at the end of WW II, it is far from obvious that our violation of NCI did prevent or impede a just and lasting peace.  And even if this is the wrong lesson to draw from the bombing of Japan, the claim still remains hostage to the empirical facts, so it fails to be an in principle bar attacking noncombatants.  One could always argue …

Even if this argument works, however, it only applies to wars where U.S. interests are at stake; it would not, for instance, do much to justify drafting soldiers to fight in a humanitarian intervention.  Here I suppose the response might be that as the world shrinks, no sharp line can be drawn between our interests and those of others.  But even if no sharp line can be drawn, it does seem that there are clear cases at either extreme, and it seems possible to imagine a purely humanitarian intervention in which no material interests of the U.S. were at stake at all.  Would it be immoral to require conscripts to fight in such a war?  I worry that it might.

Of course, even if the U.S. has no direct interests, it might yet be alleged that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  These are fine words, and I admire them, but one has to be careful when what is at issue is requiring – forcing – people to sacrifice or even simply risk their lives.  We do not, for example, force people to become police officers of firemen, or even to rush into burning buildings to save babies, and we don’t do this, at least in part I think, because we worry that it may be morally wrong to force people even to do what is morally right.

There is another response.  It can be alleged that requiring soldiers to fight in such a war is simply requiring them to act in accord with the highest ideals of our nation, and that in signing the social contract they have implicitly agreed to stand up for what this country stands for.  Here we get some convergence between conscripts and volunteers, for I take it that this more or less explicitly is what officers at least, and perhaps soldiers somewhat less explicitly, do sign up for.  This answer is fine as far as it goes – and I am extremely sympathetic to the idea, enshrined in a number of the war stories told at last night’s dinner, for example, that “that’s just not what Americans do; that’s not how we fight.”   But it in a sense this just returns us to the question with which we began: for now we want to ask what are those ideals, those moral standards?  And in particular, why do those ideals require us to sacrifice our young men and women in order to spare their young men and women?  It may simply be that there need to be some limits, some lines need to be drawn, to prevent total war.  In his discussion of where the line separating combatants from noncombatants should be drawn, Walzer says that “I don’t believe that this question must be answered in this or that specific way if war is to be a moral condition.  It is necessary, however, that at any particular moment there be an answer.  War is distinguishable from murder and massacre only when restrictions are established on the reach of battle.” It may be that largely due to historical precedent this is where the line always has been drawn, and that this line is as good as any.  Maybe.  But I’d still like a better answer for my cadets.



[1] “A Just War,” Boston Globe, 6 Oct. 2002.

[2] Also cf. Walzer’s emendation to the Doctrine of Double Effect (JUW, 155).

[3] It’s not that these individuals are unimportant, but I doubt that they figured in any important way in Truman’s considerations.

[4] One hesitates to use the language of economics to discuss human life, but it is after all appropriate.  The cost of victory must be paid, and that payment will take the form of, or at least necessitate the loss of, many human lives.  Somebody’s going to die; the only question is who.

[5] I do not claim that such an argument cannot be given – only that it hasn’t yet been given.  There is of course this difference: young men are typically more willing to fight.  They suffer from that peculiar malady known as YMIS (Young Man’s Immortality Syndrome), which makes the possibility of their own death seem impossibly remote.  Maybe this is the real reason young men are called upon to die, but then we should be honest about what’s doing the real work, if not in our propaganda then at least in our philosophy.

[6] Cf. the Paul Fussell article, “Thank God for the Atom Bomb,” especially for the claim that the Japanese were going to conscript all women between the ages of seventeen and forty.  This makes my hypothetical look somewhat less far-fecthed, and it also raises the question of whether they were really innocent, at least any more innocent than my Iowa farm boy.