[Charles Kels is a major in the U.S. Air Force Reserve and an attorney for the Department of Homeland Security. He is writing in his personal capacity and his contribution is not meant to represent the views of the Department of Homeland Security, Air Force or Defense.]
Group Captain Henderson and Squadron Leader Cavanagh’s series of posts comparing and contrasting the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) and self-defense under criminal law (first, second, third, and fourth parts, along with the responses to posts one and four) provides an excellent analysis of how the legal basis for the application of force impacts the conditions upon its lawful use.
It is hard to argue with the central premise of the discussion: simply put, self-defense is not a part of LOAC. As the authors note, it is a term applicable to specific scenarios—namely, as a defense under criminal law and as a justification for the resort to force by states—and has different meanings depending upon the context in which it is invoked. This, by the way, is why I think the concept of “naked self-defense” as a standard for targeted killings is misplaced: it impermissibly (and I would argue counterproductively) conflates the jus ad bellum with the jus in bello.
The same can be said about the related issue of imminence. It has one meaning under a state’s right of self-defense, and another meaning under the law enforcement “force continuum,” but I’m unaware of any relevance to status-based targeting under LOAC. This is why some of the Obama administration’s pronouncements regarding imminent threats in the midst of what it deems an armed conflict have at times been so confusing.
The inapplicability of self-defense to LOAC is aptly encapsulated by Professor Ohlin vis-à-vis its interplay with the combatant’s privilege: the latter trumps the former, thereby rendering reliance upon it both unnecessary and self-defeating. Claiming self-defense in the face of criminal or disciplinary proceedings is essentially an excuse, but a privileged combatant who has exercised lethal force in compliance with LOAC has no need for vindication. In fact, he or she may be in line for a medal.
Yet, I am left wondering whether the discussion thus far elides a larger issue, rooted not in LOAC per se, but in the moral framework that undergirds it. That is, to what extent does the internal logic of LOAC as a coherent legal regime rest upon a generalized notion of individual self-defense? To the extent this insight has merit, I of course can’t take credit for it, although I have tried to flesh out its implications for remotely-waged warfare. It stems from Walzer’s famous formulation (p. 34) of the “moral equality of soldiers,” and has found perhaps its most eloquent expression in the writing of legal philosopher Paul Kahn.
Essentially, Walzer’s notion is that “the capacity to injure” is what makes combatants legitimate targets in war. Kahn takes that argument to its logical conclusion, claiming that “the internal morality of warfare” is based upon the principle of “self-defense within conditions of reciprocal imposition of risk.” As such, what we lawyers call the combatant’s privilege is at heart “the soldier’s privilege of self-defense.”
Of course, given the irrelevance of imminence to LOAC, the risk posed by the identified enemy need not be immediate—hence another of Walzer’s well-known examples, the “naked soldier” (p. 138). Presumably, however, when that soldier gets dressed, he just may try and kill you (and may even be obligated to do so). This is what differentiates him from those who are hors de combat. So better to shoot him now, while you have the chance. What Michael Ignatieff calls the “tacit contract” of “kill or be killed” (p. 161) is still intact, even if attenuated.
One way to respond to Walzer, Kahn, and Ignatieff, et al. is simply to say that they’re wrong. Mutual risk has nothing to do with LOAC. To the extent that LOAC is concerned with promoting reciprocity, it’s a reciprocity of compliance, not physical peril. The jus in bello principle of proportionality, of course, imposes no requirement whatsoever with respect to parity in casualty rates among opposing forces.
Even so, it’s hard to deny that the reductive notion of combat as self-defense has intrinsic appeal, if nothing else than for providing a conceptually digestible précis of LOAC for those who actually have to implement its tenets in less than ideal circumstances. After all, the true value of LOAC is not just that it forbids some inhumane practices, but also that it legitimates certain acts of violence so that soldiers can do their jobs “without resorting to their own personal moral codes” or becoming paralyzed by principled indecision. This is especially so where, as in today’s conflicts, exhortations to abide by LOAC in order to incentivize compliance by the enemy are likely to fall on deaf ears (not to mention fail the straight-face test). At the end of the day, adhering to LOAC is about preserving our own humanity, not performing a risk-benefit analysis.
None of this detracts from the cogency of Henderson and Cavanagh’s observations, nor does it obviate the importance of avoiding confusion with respect to both the different contextual meanings of self-defense and their divergence from wartime targeting rules. However, I’m not sure that it’s possible to get away completely from accounting for permutations of self-defense when we talk about war-fighting. Otherwise, we risk being legally correct in the technical sense, while losing sight of the larger discussion over what it means to fight honorably.