Are Citizens of Warring Nations “Innocent”?


“Innocent” and “civilians” apparently go together like a horse and carriage, if one is to believe the cliché used with increasing regularity by journalists, bloggers and even elected officials. The instance that finally provoked me to write about the irresponsible acceptance of this falsehood was the gratuitous appropriation of it by a sportswriter, who, if I understand him correctly, feels the United States has no standing to object to baseball star Barry Bonds’ lying and cheating because it dropped atom bombs on “innocent civilians” in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (The sportswriter neglects to mention that these act occurred during wartime; perhaps he doesn’t know.) The exoneration of civilian citizens for the acts of their governments is a relatively new phenomenon, one happily endorsed by the habitually politically correct. It is untrue, and it is time to blow the whistle. Ethics foul.

Governments are the agents of their populace, and when they attack other nations and kill human beings, the citizens of those governments share in the responsibility. Innocence, used in the sense of an innocent bystander to an event that in no way involves him, cannot fairly be used to describe the adult citizen of a country engaged in violent or destructive acts unless these act are completely unknown and unknowable  to the citizen and the rest of the public as well.

Responsible governments fight wars on behalf of their obligations to a nation’s populace—for security, safety, to protect resources and important allies, or for important cultural principles and goals. As the intended beneficiaries of a war’s objectives, citizens cannot responsibly assume bystander status. Moreover, citizens support their battling nations in many ways, including, in most cases, financially, but politically and spiritually as well. They also contribute their sons and daughters to the battlefields, however reluctantly.

Civilian citizens are also accountable for the governments they allow to use their nation’s name, honor, reputation and resources on their behalf, as well as the acts of those governments, domestically and abroad. This is obvious in the case of a democracy, but it is true of autocratic governments as well. The German people were culpable for supporting the government of Adolf Hitler; to its credit, Germany has acknowledged this. The argument of the “innocent citizens” advocates that a totalitarian regime can operate without the acquiescence of its people is demonstrably false: when a regime becomes truly intolerable, citizens rise up and end it. The citizens of Libya were not sufficient outraged by their government blowing a passenger airliner out of the sky to throw out their government, but they are trying to end it now. The Soviet Union perpetrated horrible offenses against human rights for decades, and the Soviet public acquiesced. (When I was in Russia after the Soviet bloc’s fall, I was amazed at how many Stalin admirers there were there still.) If a nation’s public will overthrow a government it concludes is intolerable, how can they be “innocent” of the conduct of a government they tolerate?

They are not. They are accountable.

The convenient myth that the citizens of warring countries are innocent bystanders has an unstated agenda behind it, of course. Requiring the U.S. military to calibrate its activities to place as few civilians at risk as possible is part of the effort to make warfare itself impossible…at least by governments that care about civilian casualties. The fact that following the imposed subsidiary objective of treating citizens as innocents often has the effect of prolonging a costly and bloody conflict and costing more American lives in the process is, intentionally I think, ignored.

Meanwhile, the innocence myth supports apathy and irresponsible conduct at home. Most of the U.S. public during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts  acted as if they were innocent bystanders, in sharp contrast to the sacrificing, actively involved American citizenry during World War II. To its eternal shame, the Bush Administration asked nothing of the public during its two wars—not increased taxes, not volunteerism, not anything at all except acceptance and trust, which often proved to be unwarranted. Most of us, as we do today in the midst of three wars, went about our daily routines, watching sporting events, buying gadgets, eating out, renting movies, following “American Idol” and reality shows, often going days and weeks without surrendering a minute’s thought about the violence we were involved in overseas. Ignorance is not innocence. Apathy is not innocence. Complacency is not innocence. We are not innocent.

Citizens of every nation have an obligation to make ongoing efforts to learn what their government is doing in their name, on their behalf, with the results of their labor and resources. If their government engages in evil, they cannot shrug their shoulders, go about their daily lives as if nothing is amiss, and claim innocence when accountability comes due. This is especially true of democracies, but it is true of all citizens of all nations.

Perpetrating the myth of the innocent civilian aides and abets all varieties of bad governments—the incompetent, the corrupt, the profligate, the repressive, the brutal and the violent. It is a dishonest and unethical concept that does real, extensive harm. We need to stop pretending it is true, and to protest any time we hear or read someone claiming that it is.

15 thoughts on “Are Citizens of Warring Nations “Innocent”?

  1. I think this was al Qaeda’s reasoning for using commercial airliners to attack the WTC towers.

    Which is fine. I’ve always believed them. I just thought their response to our presence in the Middle East and our policies in their region of the world was a bit overblown. Of course, I am in no way an expert, so perhaps it wasn’t.

    • It was clearly their rationale. But an attack on civilians outside the boundaries of war becomes murder, so 9/11 isn’t really on topic, rationale or not. An attack on civilian targets during war, or civilians who are killed in the course of attacks on military targets, are not murder. There also needs to be an identifiable nexus between the civilians and government action. If 9/11 was in retribution for the Crusades, for example, the civilians were clearly innocent by any rational definition.

  2. An excellent analysis of “committee” mentality. [A committee is a group of people who individually can do nothing getting together and deciding that nothing can be done.”] I think a nation’s people have a responsibility for knowing what their governments, especially democracies and republics, are doing in their names in all aspects, not just the waging of wars and kinetic military actions, or whatever the current euphemism for killing people and breaking things is.

  3. The laws of war make a distinction between combatants and non-combatants. That’s a more useful, and less fraught, distinction than innocent–and its opposite, guilty, or maybe responsible.

    • Thanks, Bob…excellent distinction, and the right one. And a non-combatant who allows himself to be used as a “human shield” is, I think, a lot closer to combatant than non.

        • You may not like my answer: non-combatants, innocents, and 100% the responsibility of the regime that uses them in that way.
          It is the most depraved of all war tactics…I assume it is a war crime; if it isn’t, it should be. But it’s a tactic that can’t be allowed to succeed, or it will just encourage more.

          And the use of such a tactic obligates the public of that nation to remove the government that would try it.

  4. In the larger frame, I can’t contest your evaluation, Jack. But there have to be some mitigations. One is that, to overthrow a well-established dictatorship, one must put together a viable political and military organization together under a watchful eye. That’s not easy, by any means. It requires planning, broad popular support, financing and timing. True, tinpot dictators are rising and falling constantly. But murderous fanatics like A-jad, Khadaffi and worse are a different breed. “Scientific” despots like those of the WWII Era were even a tougher nut to crack from within, once established. Morally, it has to be said that a people are ultimately responsible for their government… just as parents are ultimately responsible for their family. And when war comes; women, children and the elderly are going to suffer. It’s also true, though, that this suffering should not be carelessly inflicted or done so for purposes of terror. Otherwise, the attacker becomes no better than what he’s fighting against.

  5. Jack,
    If I’m a political prisoner of war for who spoke out against said tyrannical government, even to the point of leading direct insurrection, and the jail I’m being held in is bombed by US forces? Am I still culpable?

    My point here is not to nit-pick .. only to suggest that just because they’re not entirely “innocent” doesn’t mean they deserve death either. I realize civilian casualties in war are as inevitable as friendly fire, but we don’t blame the victims of the latter by arguing they shared responsibility because they chose to go into battle (any more than one get’s to choose where one is born). A lot of them are innocent, which is what makes war so tragic.

    Arguing something is necessary is one thing (and I do agree people make far too much about civilian casualties), but arguing it’s morally right is a horse of a very different color. I’m sorry, but I don’t see how refusing to stop evil justifies my being a victim of more evil.


    • Neil, I don’t disagree with a single word you wrote. I certainly don’t believe non-combatants deserve to die, just that their deaths in pursuit of legitimate war strategy is not the equivalent of murder. I actually had the line “that doesn’t mean they deserve to die” in my draft but took it out, as I think it should be obvious.

      There is a big difference between say that someone deserves to die and saying they share accountability for conditions that may end up killing them. This seems to be a persistent confusion, as in the Baby Emma thread. I said that John Wyatt had some responsibility for his plight, not that he deserved to be betrayed by the mother of his child.

      Yes, a political prisoner of war is still not “innocent”—the accountability is collective, not individual.

    • Adding to that, what if evil is happening because 51-60% of the population supports it? Does it make the other 49-40%, who may not have the resources to commit to full-out rebellion, equally culpable?

  6. Very few would side with suicide bombers; specifically, Palestinian suicides targetting israeli non-combatants, for example, is terrorrism and yet IDF bombing civilian/high profile targets is seen as ‘an operation’.
    It would seem that the Israeli non-combatant is more culpable in that he lives in a democracy with more rights to protest a government action, wherein the palestinian not as much. In addition, the IDF invests billions (some from us, which would make us culpable since we know where these investments are going) to buy/create more accurate weapons against a less technologically advanced enemy.
    It’s tragic and abhorrent to see Israeli citizens die in restuarants and bus depots, but I am not sure I understand the ethical difference. They are both acting within a ‘theatre’ of operations and specifically targetting each others (PLO/Hamas bombing planes, etc. is not the issue here). What am I missing here?

  7. Pingback: If you want to bash America why not try living somewhere else

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