Say what you want about Donald Trump: he may be a demagogic moral midget and the possibility that he might become the GOP nominee for President may be alarming and depressing. But at least his rantings offer an occasion to provide moral clarity in a terrorist age.

Here he is dealing with ISIS:

“The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. When they say they don’t care about their lives, you have to take out their families!”

Now, there’s a few minor points that might be considered before embracing Trump’s position: the Christian just war tradition (in this case jus in bello), the Laws of War (or International Humanitarian Law as it is called nowadays) and American military Rules of Engagement (ROE) all prohibit the direct and intentional targeting of noncombatants [a good example of the extent to which the US attempts to limit harm to noncombatants can be found here]. Attacking noncombatants is unjust, immoral, and a clear violation of the laws of war to directly and intentionally attack a terrorist’s child or any other member of his family. Even apart from whether or not such a tactic will be successful in a military campaign against ISIS (which is unlikely since these tactics almost always generate sympathy to the weaker party of an asymmetric conflict), it is simply unlawful and immoral for a combatant to deliberately target noncombatants as a means to get to a legitimate target (e.g, an ISIS “combatant”). In fact, to target that child as a means to get at the terrorist is itself an act of terrorism.

Unfortunately, Trump’s bombastic statement, “you have to take out their families” gains plausibility among Americans who are primed to overreact against a widespread popular distortion of the requirements of the jus in bello. That popular misunderstanding considers any “collateral damage” resulting from a direct and intentional attack on a legitimate terrorist target to be unjust and immoral. This view, popular among theological and secular pacifists, both principled (e.g. the pacifism of the Evangelical peace churches) and functional (e.g., those who will deny being pacifists in theory but never support military force in practice), too often recognize no moral difference between the direct and intentional targeting of a terrorist’s child as a means to get at the terrorist and the unintentional (even though perhaps foreseen) death of innocents as a result of directly attacking the terrorist. Ironically, both the Trumpkins and the pacifists fail to make the requisite moral distinctions. For the former it leads to killing the families of terrorists as a means to get to the terrorists, for the latter it means avoiding attacking terrorists altogether. But the distinction that both fail to make is fundamental not only to the Christian just war tradition but also to the Laws of War and American ROEs.

The Christian just war tradition’s prohibition on the direct and intentional harm of noncombatants and the permissibility of unintended innocent harm to noncombatants, are both predicated on a commitment to protect noncombatants in a time of war (or “armed conflict”). While this commitment to civilian protection is obvious with regard to the prohibition on the direct and intentional targeting of noncombatants (e.g., the terrorist’s family) it is perhaps less obvious with regard to the permissibility of “collateral damage”, or the moral permissibility of unintended (even though foreseen) harm to noncombatants in the conduct of war.

Here’s why. If, per the view of so many of our contemporary pacifists, the moral and legal requirement were zero noncombatant casualties, then it would most certainly provide an incentive for an unscrupulous combatant to employ hostage shield tactics (e.g., placing forces in close proximity to schools, hospitals etc.) in order to render his forces immune from attack. That’s why this kind of activity is a war crime. In conventional warfare, the fact that this is a war crime along with the permissibility of unintended civilian casualties provides a disincentive for combatants to rely on hostage shield tactics. In fact, the law recognizes that when a combatant employs such hostage shield tactics the moral and legal responsibility for harm to noncombatants shifts to the combatant who employed such hostage shield tactics in the first place. The responsibility for any harm to noncombatants shifts to the combatant responsible for placing noncombatants in harm’s way, so long as the attacker is directly and intentionally targeting the combatant and that the harm to noncombatants is not intended and is not used as a means to get at the otherwise legitimate target.

The same principle applies to unconventional warfare and in the fight against international terrorist organizations such as ISIS. Contrary to Trump, it would be unjust and immoral for the U.S. to directly attack the families of ISIS terrorists as a means to get to the terrorists. Contrary to principled and functional pacifists it would be unjust and immoral to prohibit all casualties to ISIS families and to allow ISIS terrorists to be immune from attack by using their families as hostage shields. Should harm come to the families of ISIS terrorists as part of a just campaign against ISIS–a campaign in which we only directly and intentionally target the terrorists themselves–then the moral and legal fault for that harm rests entirely with ISIS.

Such things are important to grasp for anyone aspiring to our nation’s highest office. Trump’s tough-mindedness might appreciably distinguish him from the current occupant of the White House, but one would hope, at the very least, his morality would equally distinguish him from our enemies.


Keith Pavlischek, contributing editor, is a military affairs expert with a focus on just war theory and the ethics of war. He retired as a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps in 2007 after thirty years of active and reserve service having served in Desert Storm, Bosnia, Iraq, with the U.S. Central Command, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. He is the author of John Courtney Murray and the Dilemma of Religious Toleration (1994) and numerous articles, including a chapter on the ethics of asymmetric warfare in the Ashgate Research Companion to Military Ethics (2015).


photo credit: Gage Skidmore, Wikipedia Commons