On the problem of dehumanising rhetoric in war – A Christian theological perspective

This article was initially published on my discontinued blog ‘Just Peace and War’ on 17/01/2018. A few editorial changes were made for republishing it on this website.

Dehumanising rhetoric in the context of war is nothing new. Therefore, the recent statement by U.S. Army Command Sergeant Major John Wayne Troxell that the Joint Force fighting ISIS is on orders to annihilate the enemy and if ISIS fighters do not choose to surrender, they should be killed “with extreme prejudice, whether that be through security force assistance, by dropping bombs on them, shooting them in the face, or beating them to death with our entrenching tools” is just the latest example. Jonathan Horowitz rightly calls this language in his post “Words Matter in War” dehumanising and links it with recent criticism by the ICRC on dehumanising rhetoric against ISIS fighters by Western government officials last year. But the dehumanisation of the enemy can also be found in less straightforward ways.

In the essay “Avengers in Wrath: Moral Agency and Trauma Prevention for Remote Warriors” on coping strategies for remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS)  operators (commonly known as drone operators) with moral and mental hazards through targeted killing missions, Dave Blair (a US Air Force officer and academic with experience as RPAS operator) and Karen House (a professional counselor who works with RPAS operators) explain why the distinction between tragic and malicious enemies influences the strategy for trauma prevention. They elaborate that, while in cases of tragic enemies, “the better a tragic enemy is known, the more traumatic killing them becomes”, in the case of a malicious enemy it is the other way around: “The better a malicious enemy is known, the more compelling the need to stop them becomes.” With reference to Dave Grossman’s book “On killing” and his assessment that human faculties for relationship and empathy become entangled in the process of killing, Blair and House conclude, that when this entanglement becomes stronger through the observation of the target over long periods of time, which is common practice in targeted killing operations, the risk of trauma through the killing rises. But according to the observations of Blair and House this is only true in cases of tragic enemies. They state: “The better the crews knew certain [malicious] targets, the less traumatic the strike was to them.” Therefore the authors demand that the RPAS crews get all necessary information to make their own moral judgment on the target to decide for their own, if they can legitimately kill the enemy. Blair and House assume a moral difference between killing a tragic and killing a malicious enemy, which helps the agent to cope with their action, if she knows how malicious the enemy is. But how can this moral difference be explained? Is it maybe, that the malicious enemy is seen as less human and that the killing annihilates just something inherently bad? The authors state regarding the malicious enemies: “By their very nature, they are a clear and present hazard to the innocent, and a world where they are free to achieve their objectives is a worse world for humanity.”

Dehumanising rhetoric in the Bible and Christian tradition

From a theological perspective one must acknowledge that dehumanisation rhetoric is not only a problem in a secular context but can be found in the Bible and in the Christian tradition, like e.g. in the sermons of Bernard of Clairveaux in his support for the crusades. In his recent book “Totale Religion” the German Egyptologist Jan Assmann traces the origins of violence in monotheism e.g. in chapter 20, verses 16-18 of the book Deuteronomy :

16But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, 17but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded, 18that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God. [Deut. 20.16-18 English Standard Version]

As one can see, there is not much difference between the words of Command Sergeant Major John Wayne Troxell and these words in the Bible. As Jan Assmann points out, this section was read to emperor Charles V. of the Holy Roman Empire every evening to calm the royal conscience because of the bloody conquer of the Americas in the 16th century.1

The traditional theological justification for killing in war concentrates on the question, whether a war is just. (For the sake of the argument, I will take it for granted that all targeted killings Blair and House discuss take place in war, even if this is highly debatable from a legal and ethical perspective at least for killings in Somalia and Pakistan.) If the assessment is positive, then killing in war is legitimate in the boundaries of the ius in bello, which are “distinction between legitimate and non-legitmate targets (combatant/non-combatant)”, “proportionality” and “military necessity”. Thus, the distinction between a tragic and a malicious enemy would be redundant, because of the missing moral difference between the tragic and the malicious enemy as long as one can categorise the target as combatant.

But as Nigel Biggar, Professor for Moral Theology in Oxford and Director of the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life, explains in his book “In Defence of War”, this view ignores the dehumanising tendencies in the work of Thomas of Aquinas, where this distinction originates from. Biggar shows that in Aquinas explanation only the sinner can be directly killed by a person with authority because “the sinner falls away from the dignity of his manhood […] and falls into slavish state of the beast” and to kill a sinner is no more evil than to kill a beast.2 Rightly, Biggar states that this view of the enemy as subhuman loosens all restraints and provokes atrocity, and is also incompatible with modern Christian anthropology, which sees all human beings as fellow creatures and fellow sinners. (As Biggar points out, Aquinas himself was not consistent in his argument due to anthropological grounds.) Therefore, Biggar proposes a different approach which takes into account the intention of the soldier who kills his enemy as a moral criterion.3

Intention as a moral criterion

The doctrine of double effect makes the intention of the agent an important criterion for a moral distinction between the effect of an act one intends and the effect of an act one only accepts with reluctance. Aquinas develops the doctrine for the legitimisation of killing in case of self-defence (by a private person). In this case, one may not intend the killing of the attacker, but only the defence of oneself or of somebody else in need, while one accepts the death of the attacker with reluctance. Biggar explains why nobody ought to intend to destroy a human life with two reasons: Firstly, “the life of the human individual is precious because it is constituted and dignified by a unique vocation by God to affirm, defend, and promote what is valuable in the world”.4 Secondly, even in cases of people, who are indistinguishable from evil as Hitler, Stalin or some sadistic Islamic terrorist like the ones Blair and House mention as an example, the person’s spiritual and moral corruption is largely opaque to other humans why it would be wise to refrain from claiming the competence to judge it irreversible.5 Therefore, Biggar comes to the conclusion that soldiers at war ought not to intend wounding or killing, but that they ought to intend e.g. the protection of the innocent and subsequently only accept with reluctance the destroying of human life.6 He shows hat this principle can be operated on the battlefield by giving a variety of examples of soldiers’ accounts of their mindset on the battlefield.7

In my opinion, Biggar’s concept not only has the advantage of taking the dehumanising tendencies in Aquinas thought into account, but it also unties the tight connection between the question of just war and the legitimisation of individual killings in war. Therefore, it considers today’s understanding of the individual conscience and the importance of the individual moral choice everybody has to make when one chooses to accept the death of another human individual as an effect of one’s action. From this point of view, the concept is combinable with the concept of Blair and House. They want to give the RPAS operators the necessary information to make their own informed decision on the individual targeted killing. But here ends the similarity of both concepts. According to the title of their post Blair and House seem to understand the duty of RPAS operators as avengers. But revenge implies guilt or at least liability on the target’s side and some kind of judgement on the avenger’s side, which is opposed to Biggar’s right conclusion, that it would be wise to refrain from claiming the competence to judge irreversible. Furthermore, at the end of their post, Blair and House conclude: “The nature of the target matters.” But from a theological perspective the answer ought to be ‘no’. The nature of the target ought not to matter. Instead, the agents intention matters. It matters for the RPAS operator on targeted killing missions whether the act she is supposed to do supports her good intention like e. g. protecting the innocent, so that she can accept with reluctance the effects of the act on the life of another human individual. (Of course, she also has to consider the further jus in bello boundaries as proportionality and military necessity.) For this decision the operators need the information and the time for reflection Blair and House demand in their post. But they do not need a new category like malicious enemy, because such a category ought not to influence their decision and is unnecessary, if they consider the intention of their act instead of the target’s nature.  It ought to be clear with all contemplating about the legitimation of killing of another individual, that there is only one category of targets: human individuals. Any other category dehumanises the enemy in the same way as the rhetoric of Command Sergeant Major John Wayne Troxell or the words in Deuteronomy 20. But this cannot be accepted from a Christian theological perspective as Nigel Biggar’s concept shows.

1 Jan Assmann, Totale Religion, Wien: Picus, 2017, p. 55.

2 Nigel Biggar, In Defence of War, Oxford: Oxford University Press,  p. 107.

3 Ibid., pp.100-106.

4 Ibid., p. 101.

5 Ibid., pp. 107-108.

6 Ibid., p. 104.

7 Ibid., pp. 78-90.104-106.


Feature Image: MQ-1_Predator remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS)

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