Civilian Casualties Factor Into War Decisions

The fighting in Gaza has killed more than 600 Palestinians — many of them civilians. Col. Jim Helis is chairman of the U.S. Army War College's department of national security and strategy. He talks with Ari Shapiro about how the U.S. military factors in civilian casualties when assessing war strategy. Helis says it's a balance among legal, ethical and political concerns.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

And now to some of the legal and ethical questions of war. As we've heard, the fighting in Gaza has produced many civilian casualties. On Monday, Israeli military spokesman Michael Oren told us that roughly one in four killed in Gaza so far have been civilians.

Major MICHAEL OREN (Spokesman, Israeli Defense Force): That is a percentage which is very rarely attained in urban warfare. We're dealing with an enemy that specializes in fighting from in the midst of civilian neighborhoods. We actually have pictures of them shooting rockets out of schools, even using hospitals as headquarters. So, civilian casualties are unavoidable. Keeping those civilian casualties less than excessive is the great task of the Israeli Defense Forces.

SHAPIRO: That prompted us to ask how U.S. military planners draw the line between what's necessary and what's unacceptable.

Colonel JIM HELLIS (Chairman, Department of National Security and Strategy, U.S. Army War College): There is no fixed mathematical calculation for what is or isn't an acceptable level of civilian casualties.

SHAPIRO: That's Colonel Jim Hellis. He teaches war planning at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Colonel HELLIS: The thought process that you should step through is, first, what is the value of the target that you're trying to engage? Then you have to weigh against that, what are the risks of causing civilian casualties or destroying civilian structures - mosques, churches, hospitals, and so on - in attacking that target?

SHAPIRO: Is there anything that the law of war specifically says about what is unacceptable?

Colonel HELLIS: The law of war lays out certain structures, facilities as off-limits, such as medical facilities, religious shrines and so on. If a combatant uses one of these protected sites for military purposes - as an observation post, as a firing point, as a storage facility for weapons - then it does become a legitimate military target. And again, law of war lays out criteria, but it's conceptual, it's subjective. There's no objective criteria.

SHAPIRO: Well then, if we set aside the law of war for a moment and just look morally at waging war, are there things that might be legally acceptable that would not be morally acceptable in terms of civilian deaths?

Colonel HELLIS: I would argue that the legal test is the first test that you have to go through in engaging a target, but then you have to go through the moral and ethical factors. You also have to couch it in a political and a strategic perspective.

SHAPIRO: Right.

Colonel HELLIS: In a conflict, wars end with political solutions. Wars are fought for political reasons. And if you look at Gaza, if you look at Afghanistan, those are conflicts that are not going to be resolved by military means. They are going to be resolved by political reconciliation. And anytime that you cause civilian casualties, that potentially pushes back your ability to reach a political solution.

SHAPIRO: You teach at the U.S. Army War College. And I wonder how you teach these principles when, as you say, there is no black and white. There is no hard and fast rule that you can turn to.

Colonel HELLIS: We teach it at the War College by first introducing the law of war, which is a somewhat more objective test because it does lay down criteria of whether or not the target is a legitimate military target. We also address at the higher level what determines a just war in terms of the cause for which you're fighting, the proportionality in pursuit of the war, the limitation of civilian casualties. So we look at it at the strategic and the operational levels.

SHAPIRO: Could you explain what you mean a bit more by proportionality?

Colonel HELLIS: Sure. Wars are costly. They're destructive. In my mind, there's no such thing as a good war. There may be necessary wars, but there's no such thing as a good war. And in proportionality, the issue is, are the gains that you're going to achieve worth the costs in terms of lives and destruction and treasure that are going to be expended in fighting that war?

SHAPIRO: So it's not proportionality of casualties on one side versus the other?

Colonel HELLIS: No. It is the proportionality of the ends that you're pursuing as opposed to the costs of achieving those ends.

SHAPIRO: Relative to all of the other decisions that commanders are making in the thick of war, how important is this particular calculation?

Colonel HELLIS: It's an extremely important one for a lot of reasons. There is the legal dimension. There is the moral and ethical dimension. There is the strategic political dimension. And anytime that you are going to cause or risk causing casualties amongst that population, you've got to think hard about making that because it is going to be a setback. There's going to be a price paid politically by incidents that result in civilian casualties.

SHAPIRO: Colonel Jim Hellis is chairman of the Department of National Security and Strategy at the U.S. Army War College. Great talking with you. Thank you.

Colonel HELLIS: Thanks very much. Good to be here.

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