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The just war must be justly fought

Ukrainians have a moral duty to avoid targeting noncombatants, even as their enemy violates that duty

A damaged apartment building in Moscow on May 30 Associated Press photo

The just war must be justly fought
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A wave of at least eight kamikaze drones headed toward Moscow in the early hours of May 30. Russian defense ministry officials reported that five were shot down by air defense systems and the other three “lost control and deviated from their intended targets.”

The latter claim is rather euphemistic, for the errant drones had to land somewhere. As it happened, several residential buildings across the city suffered measurable damage. There were injuries. Notably, debris hit one of Moscow’s most exclusive districts where Russia’s elite—including President Putin himself—have residences. However much off-bullseye they might have been, the drones certainly scored hits, including marking the first time since Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine began that the war has reached the streets of the Russian capital.

Kiev was quick to deny responsibility. This isn’t implausible. The drones could have been launched by Russian partisans or as part of a false flag attack. There are also plenty of relatively low-cost commercially available drones with varying degrees of military capability. An increasing number of nongovernmental forces within Ukraine appear to be building and possibly deploying them. The problem of attribution is real and will only get more complex. Meanwhile, even as they dismiss Moscow’s accusations, Ukrainian leaders haven’t hesitated to admit their general delight. As one presidential advisor proclaimed, “We are certainly enjoying watching!”

While the satisfaction is appreciable, even infectious, Christian observers ought to be careful. Because each of the drones were interdicted to some extent, it’s likely impossible to guess their intended targets. Therefore, while the strike on the particular apartment block was probably accidental, we can’t know for certain whether military sites alone were in the intended crosshairs. But we ought to hope they were.

The Christian tradition of just war guides moral reflection on when it is right to fight and how to rightly fight the fight that’s right to fight. There is, of course, no question that the Ukrainians are engaged in a justified fight for national defense—just as there is no doubt the Russians are guilty of aggression. Nevertheless, it is also clear that even justified wars can be fought unjustly.

It isn’t to say noncombatants are blameless, but merely that they are not involved in combat and are not to be targeted.

Augustine understood that the true evils in war include a love for the violence itself, unnecessary cruelty, a desire to see the enemy—or the enemy population—suffer for the sake of the suffering itself, a lust for domination, and implacable hatred. Even just warriors can find their moral resolve weakened as war proceeds along its terrible course—especially when fighting an enemy unrestrained in its own evil tactics. The tradition of just war, therefore, helps to shape a warrior’s conduct even in the midst of battle.

The rules for just conduct in the prosecution of war include discrimination, or distinction, which is codified in international law as “noncombatant immunity.” In most cases, noncombatants are those not directly involved in the prosecution of the war. This isn’t necessarily a moral assessment. It isn’t to say noncombatants are blameless, but merely that they are not involved in combat and are not to be targeted.

Exceptions to this definition are easy to propose. But those rather obviously classified as noncombatants include the very young, the very old, the infirm, and all those who lack the capacity or will to engage in fighting, including surrendered or incapacitated troops. More than a few of these were presumably in those Moscow apartments. Because they pose no harm, noncombatants ought not to be harmed. To harm someone who does not deserve harm is an injustice. The principle of distinction, therefore, serves as a hedge against sin. It is a shield to the soul.

There is no military need for Kiev to abandon purely military targets and put Russian civilians in the crosshairs. While there is no proof they have done so, they point remains that they should not do so. This commitment, of course, will continue to distinguish the Ukrainian fighter from the Russian fighters who have shown no compunction against harming civilians and to distinguish Ukrainian leaders from Russian leaders who have bombed civilians and civilian infrastructures for more than a year now.

Ukraine has every right and duty to fight for its existence and freedom, but a fight that is just must be justly fought. Slava Ukraini.

Marc LiVecche

Marc LiVecche is the McDonald Distinguished Scholar of Ethics, War, and Public Life at Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy. He is also a non-resident research fellow at the U.S. Naval War College in the College of Leadership & Ethics. He is the author of The Good Kill: Just War and Moral Injury.


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