Ethics: November 2004 Archives

UPDATE: Kevin Sites, the NBC journalist at the scene, doesn't seem convinced that he saw a murder: "I have witnessed the [M]arines behaving as a disciplined and professional force throughout this offensive. In this particular case, it certainly was a confusing situation to say the least."

An NBC camera crew filmed a Marine shooting a wounded Iraqi insurgent in Fallujah, and the media will doubtless give this the objective, calm treatment for which they are famous. However, I wouldn't rush to judgement on this one. Here are a few things to consider:

1. The guy wasn't a prisoner, he was a combatant. After a combatant indicates he wishes to surrender, and is searched and restrained (hands tied, blindfolded, etc.), then he is a prisoner. Until then, he's a combatant.

2. Unlike civilians, enemy combatants are presumed to be mortal threats unless they are obviously incapacitated or have surrendered. This combatant was apparently making no move to surrender, although he may have been incapacitated, which would be a crucial fact.

3. From the time of the initial invasion last year, the insurgents have completely disregarded the laws of war, which ban the use of the "ruse," appearing to surrender and then continuing to fight when the Coalition forces approach them. They have also booby-trapped dead and wounded men, as well as used the suicide-bomber attire that is so fashionable on the West Bank.

4. We have no idea what all the facts are. One left-wing Australian paper calls this incident "cold-blooded murder." I am betting that they haven't used that phrase to describe the bombings of Iraqi marketplaces or police stations.

5. Under Catholic teaching, it is permissible for servicemen acting under legitimate authority to use deadly force against the enemy -- even when the an individual member of the enemy poses no immediate threat. For example, if a enemy soldier is sleeping in his bed, one can justifiably slit his throat. It might not be nice, it might not be sporting, but it is permissible.

6. Sprinkled in with our military — indeed, any fighting force — are those contemptable persons who enjoy the thrill of killing for its own sake. They can be weeded out beforehand, but some will always slip through. That being said, I have no idea whether this Marine fits into that category.

7. Marines will protect their own, but if one of their own has done something criminal or dishonorable, God help him, because the Marine Corps won't. Robert Bork, himself a Marine lawyer in the 1950s, says that if he were a innocent defendent, he would want to face a military jury, but if he were guilty, he would prefer a civilian jury.

An aside: This has no bearing on the moral question of whether this shooting was justified, but I am reminded of the Iranian response to the USS Vincennes accidently shooting down one of its civilian airliners, killing dozens of people. According to one account that I read, the Iranian government believed that it wasn't an accident — they truly thought the U.S. directly ordered the shooting.

Here's the sick part: afterwards, the Iranians were impressed with our "bloodthirstiness," and resolved to treat the U.S. with more respect. After all, it's something they would have done to demonstrate their own lack of scruples. That's one of a zillion examples of why we're deeply involved with pacifying the Middle East.

What? Who?

On life and living in communion with the Catholic Church.

Richard Chonak

John Schultz

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This page is an archive of entries in the Ethics category from November 2004.

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