Fighting on Behalf of a Third Party and U.S. Military Ethics

Members of the Iraqi 6th Emergency Response Battalion conduct weapons training under the supervision of U.S. Special Operations (Dvidshub 2010/ Flickr Creative Commons)
Members of the Iraqi 6th Emergency Response Battalion conduct weapons training under the supervision of U.S. Special Operations (Dvidshub 2010/ Flickr Creative Commons)
Members of the Iraqi 6th Emergency Response Battalion conduct weapons training under the supervision of U.S. Special Operations (Dvidshub 2010/ Flickr Creative Commons)

In July of this year, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch formally accused the “U.S. led coalition” of having potentially committed war crimes in Mosul, in their quest to retake the strategically vital Iraqi city from ISIS. They claimed that these forces, either aligned with or led by the Iraqi government, used weapons indiscriminately, causing an unnecessarily high number of civilian casualties. Amnesty’s report estimated that at least 3,706 civilians had been killed “by Iraqi and coalition forces in Mosul from February 19 to June 19”.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) statute defines war crimes as “serious violations of the laws and customs applicable” in both international and internal armed conflicts. Among a list of actions that the ICC deems as fitting this description, they list “launching an indiscriminate attack resulting in death or injury to civilians, or an attack in the knowledge that it will cause excessive incidental civilian loss, injury or damage.” If Amnesty’s estimate is accurate, or even near accurate, one could well argue that the coalition’s Mosul raid qualifies as a war-crime under the ICC’s definition.

In a response to the report, American General Andrew Croft claimed that “to be effective we’ve got to support the Iraqi security forces and that’s what we’ve done.” That in effect is a common viewpoint among the US government and military. However, it raises two interesting questions: first, whether a different standard should apply for the conduct of Iraqi troops fighting in their own country and for that of US forces fighting there; and second, whether a different standard should apply in assessing the conduct of US (or any other country’s) troops when fighting their own war as opposed to when fighting on another country’s behalf.

These are important questions to answer in light of Amnesty International and HRW’s reports, for the answer would help determine whether the U.S defense — that it was acting to help Iraq defend itself — is dispositive or not from a political and moral point of view. In other words, putting aside the ICC standard and international laws of war, the issue is whether a higher ethical and legal threshold ought to apply when a country’s military is fighting another country’s war.

The answer to the first question — on whether the US military should follow a foreign military’s standards when fighting in its country — has been plainly and legally answered with a resounding no. Yet officials often seem to forget this. Just this January, the Trump administration was rumoured to be considering re-opening CIA “black-sites”, a system that allows the US government to treat detainees in ways that it could not do on its own soil.

The second question however — whether the ethical and legal standards the US applies in its own wars should be the same as when it is waging a war on behalf of another country — does not seem to have been addressed. While it might make sense at face-value to conclude that the US military should indeed follow the same conventions regardless of its location, there are two arguments that undermine this idea.

The first is that, in many cases, an army fighting its own war faces an immediate threat, either to their lives, their families’ lives, the lives and well-being of their entire community, etc. This in turn creates the need for an immediate response. In such an emergency situation as this, where you or your people are in a present life-or-death situation, the ability to be certain that no civilian will be killed as a result of your operations is likely to be significantly impaired. In contrast, a military fighting another country’s war will seldom face a similar threat; they do not have families and communities that they have an oath to protect.

As a result, there is little rationale, little excuse, for the US military to kill a large amount of civilians when fighting abroad. While one could argue that it is always wrong to kill even a single civilians, to do so while fighting a foreign war purportedly in order to help these same civilians (who, it must be said, often reject the US being there at all) is far less justifiable. Patience is not always possible when fighting one’s own war, and thus mistakes are more common, and even understandable; it should always be possible, and mandated, when fighting a war on another country’s behalf.

The second is that the government fighting a war on another country’s behalf faces relatively little political accountability for their actions, making it all the more essential for their military to live by higher standards. The Iraqi government faces the judgment of its citizens when acting against ISIS. Their Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, is democratically elected, and could get voted out of office if his citizens felt he had committed serious domestic war-crimes, for example.

In contrast, when the US fights in Iraq, our political leaders typically don’t pay a price for the death of innocent civilians. They might suffer the wrath of their citizens if too many U.S. troops die, as they did in Vietnam; the death of Vietnamese, or Iraqis, or Afghans, on the other hand, is relatively cost free. Elections are rarely if ever won or lost based on how many civilian casualties there were in a foreign civil conflict, even when at the hands of US soldiers. Mainstream media in the US, and the general public, rarely mention US involvement in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, even when a plethora of non governmental organisations tracking the conflict have made clear that that war is causing hundreds of civilian casualties. U.S. politicians have nothing to fear as a result of such actions at the ballot box.

In short, the absence of both a categorical imperative (the need to defend one’s community from immediate threat) and of democratic accountability (the risk of being voted out of office in the event of disproportionate military action) suggest U.S. forces should be held to a higher standard of conduct when acting abroad on behalf of a third party. The laws of war might not account for such a distinction. The ethics of war-making arguably should.


The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff, editors or governors.


Miles Malley

Miles Malley is an International Relations major at the University of Southern California, with minors in Political Science and French. His primary research interests include American foreign policy, specifically in the Middle East, geopolitics, and the ever-expanding role of nuclear weapons in international security. In 2016, Miles interned for both HSG Campaigns, a Democratic Political Consulting Firm, and the office of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton — in both positions, he practiced the balance of maintaining firm ideals while dealing with the reality of an increasingly politicized world. Last summer, he worked as a Community Engagement intern for the Democratic National Committee (DNC), where he worked on promoting progressive grass-roots movements and candidates. He is currently in his fourth semester of TIRP (Teaching International Relations Program), where he provides under-privileged high-school students the students a glimpse into what IR-focused college classes might look like.