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The slaughter of the innocents

Marc LiVecche | Russian soldiers have allied themselves with evil


Volunteers on Tuesday load bodies of civilians killed in Bucha, Ukraine, onto a truck to be taken to a morgue for investigation. Associated Press/Photo by Rodrigo Abd

The slaughter of the innocents
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As Ukrainian military personnel and Western journalists enter towns and villages abandoned by repositioning Russian troops, they and the world have been confronted by a horror show. In Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, the streets were littered with the bodies of civilians, some executed at close range, shot in the head, some with their hands bound behind them, some burned in apparent efforts to hide the forensic evidence.

Elsewhere, the corpse of Olha Sukhenko, the 50-year-old mayor of the village of Motyzhyn, was recovered in a shallow pit alongside the bodies of her husband and son. They had been kidnapped, allegedly tortured, and executed. Sukhenko’s hands were tied. As the horrors pile up, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told the United Nations Security Council of further atrocities: entire families—adults and children—slaughtered together, child rape, torture, the execution of prisoners, the violation and murder of women in front of their families. Ukraine is no longer just a battlefield. It is a crime scene.

The looting, rape, and slaughter of the innocent at the hands of Russian fighters seem to confirm Gen. William Sherman’s aphorism that “War is hell.” But Sherman was wrong. Along with whatever else it is, hell is where God is known but not worshiped. Against that vision, the Hebraic tradition of just war, fortified by classical thought and grounded in Scripture and natural law, asserts that war is a place where God can be both known and worshipped, where His law can be grasped, and followed.

Just war tradition is a moral framework that helps both the statesman and the moralist in the act of making judgments between good and evil, right and wrong, and guilt and innocence. Moreover, it presupposes that these distinctions can be known and acted upon even in war.

Vladimir Putin’s name will now be joined in the company of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao.

One of the most basic judgments of just war theory is the principle of discrimination. The traditional formulation of this principle requires that direct attack be restricted to combatants only. This distinction corresponds to the common contention that we fight against a state and not against its people. In a just war, enemy combatants may be targeted because in cooperating directly in their state’s perpetration of wrong, they have forfeited their basic right not to be harmed. Civilians are innocent noncombatants. They might be at risk of material loss and deprivation, but they must not be subject to direct attack.

The responsibility to avoid targeting civilians in combat goes all the way down to the individual war fighter. Two overlapping criteria govern just war tradition: one that helps determine when it is morally right to fight, and the second determines how to fight rightly. Discrimination is a part of this second criterion and follows the principles of military necessity and proportionality. Military necessity governs battlefield tactics by permitting only those actions required to achieve victory. This requirement is constrained by proportionality—the goods that can be expected to be brought about by a particular tactic aimed at victory must outweigh the expected harms. These expected harms, while foreseen, cannot be desired or justified for their own sake. The principle of discrimination is not violated by the mere fact that in a particular instance non-combatants are killed. It is violated when they are directly—and intentionally—killed.

The Russian slaughter of innocents fails the moral requirement at all points. There is no plausible military gain from the atrocities on display. No goods can be obtained by raping, looting, and murdering that can outweigh the evils of such acts. In intentionally and directly doing such things, Russian troops have aligned themselves with their morally obscene counterparts at Katyn, Babi Yar, Auschwitz, My Lai, the killing fields of Cambodia, and Rwanda. Vladimir Putin’s name will now be joined in the company of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao.

The moral tradition behind just war reasoning understands that war fighters, because they are human, will not keep any moral command all the time. It posits, instead, that there is a choice set before the war fighter—a choice between good and evil, guilt and innocence, life or death. This choice is pivotal. Those Russians who have participated in the atrocities committed in Ukraine have betrayed their basic obligation to their fellow human beings, especially their defenseless and innocent neighbors. But they have also betrayed themselves. Their choice to commit these crimes hamstrings their ability to grow in virtue. Further, it denies the image of God that breathed life into them, and, left unresolved, it will hamper their desire for heaven. By allying themselves with evil, they have directed their hearts toward hell.


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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