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Let's Kill Women and Children: The Republicans on War Crimes

(To read the rest of our coverage on the 2016 Presidential primaries, please click here.)

“[Bill] O’Reilly asked Trump if he meant it when he said that he would “take out” the family members of terrorists. He didn’t believe that Trump would “put out hits on women and children” if he were elected. Trump replied, “I would do pretty severe stuff.” The Mesa crowd erupted in applause. “Yeah, baby!” a man near me yelled. I had never previously been to a political event at which people cheered for the murder of women and children.”

    - Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker

As we wrote on Monday, when politicians say they want to loosen ROE, they really mean killing civilians. The most egregious example during this campaign is Ted Cruz repeatedly threatening to carpet bomb civilians. Next most egregious is Donald Trump emphasizing he would kill terrorists’ families (really, force our soldiers to kill them) as vengeful punishment, even if it violates the military’s Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Obviously, this is morally and ethically abhorrent. We’re not the only ones to condemn this talk. In fact, a ton of people (rightfully) condemned it. Most persuasively, the top general in Iraq condemned the idea of carpet bombing.

So we want to add our voices to the chorus. As a society, when history looks back on this moment, we want them to see that some people did adamantly oppose killing civilians. And we oppose it for a simple reason:

It is morally wrong.

Every moral philosophy utterly condemns killing civilians. The “Golden Rule”--treat others as you wish to be treated--is present in almost every major world religion. So if you are a Muslim, Hindu, Jew, Confucian or Buddhist, you shouldn’t think your country should kill civilians in warfare. Of course, followers of every religion have broken this policy at some point, but they still hold to it.

For the Republican candidates, though, the only moral philosophy that really matters is Christianity. Ted Cruz is part of a “National Prayer Team”. Marco Rubio has advised that faith, “influences every aspect of your life.” Donald Trump has also flouted his own religious bonafides, but also got into a scrum with the Pope.

So let’s summarize the Christian position on war crimes: it forbids them. Virtually every Christian thinker who studies the words of Jesus Christ finds it impossible to advocate killing civilians. (As Eric C reminds me, a textual/originalist interpretation of the Bible forbids wars in general, but that’s for a later discussion.)

Christian philosophy forbids war crimes but does allow for wars, through the dominant philosophy of “Just War” theory. This theory--which is literally thousands of years old, created and developed by Christianity's greatest thinkers--demands strict limits on when you can go to war (as a Christian), and if you go to war, who you can kill (as a Christian). Obviously, there are a ton of nuances here, but suffice to say that to justify war crimes primarily means ignoring one’s Christian faith altogether.   

This widespread moral condemnation of war crimes extends to America’s political philosophy. The Founding Fathers believed in strict limits on the ability of America to make war, and even limited the size of the military in the Constitution. The Founding Fathers of America abhorred war and feared what it would do to the soul of our country. If one of our political parties embraces the legal position of “originalism”--and Republicans do--it should listen to the Founders on war. Like James Madison:

“Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other...No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

In the current Republican primary fights, Just War theory and limited military intervention have fallen out of favor. Instead, a “real politick” view of the world that basically says, “What happens in foreign affairs isn’t covered by morality” has dominated the debates. Basically, a state should do whatever it takes to win...including killing civilians. The Wiki article on Just War theory has a fairly good summation that viewpoint--even if some academics would quibble with its accuracy--perfectly captures the layman’s perspective on realism:

“Realism is a skepticism as to whether moral concepts such as justice can be applied to the conduct of international affairs. Proponents of realism believe that moral concepts should never prescribe, nor circumscribe, a state's behaviour. Instead, a state should place an emphasis on state security and self-interest.”

This is what Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are providing their third of the electorate. It is an “us against them” view of the world. And in that view, if you aren’t us, you are eligible to die, even if you’re a civilian.

Donald Trump and Ted Cruz won’t have to pull the trigger on their own actions. They won’t have to live with the moral consequences of their calls to kill civilians. The US Army does and, as a result, has embraced Just War theory to maintain its moral compass. As General MacFarland said in response to Trump and Cruz, “At the end of the day, it doesn't only matter if you win, it matters how you win...Right now we have the moral high ground and I think that's where we need to stay.”

Perfect.