Assassination is the refinement of war to its most moral form

Resolved: assassination is, by far, the most moral tool in conducting military conflicts between nations

First off, let’s dispense with sugarcoating and linguistic chicanery: the point and purpose of war is to kill people and break things. That is why nations engage in military conflict. The fundamental nature of war cannot be avoided. Demonizing assassins makes no more sense than demonizing any other class of combatant; once combat has begun, it hardly matters if the thing that ends your life is a bullet fired by a sniper, or a bomb dropped out of a plane, or poison in your glass. That assassins are often associated with trickery, stealth and unfair fights is hardly a mark against them; if the defender sees an attack coming, can plan properly to counter it and gets a fair fight, generally the attack has failed at one point or another in their strategy or tactics.

Assassins are, properly, specialized soldiers.

Now, that being dealt with, let’s move on to the second point. Namely, the fact that while wars are to be avoided by reasonable means, once conflict has been engaged in, the aim is to win and, in order to prosecute as moral a campaign as is humanly possible, to minimize civilian casualties. In this respect, a skilled assassin can actually do more to save lives than a hospital full of doctors. A bullet, cellphone bomb, etc… in the right place at the right time, has the potential to eliminate a target without any innocent victims being caught in the attack. A truly well conceived and well orchestrated assassination can, likewise, hamstring an opponent and enable pitches battles to be ended much more quickly and cleanly.

Now, some might object that assassination is likely to start conflict as well as prevent/contain/limit it. This is certainly true, and WW I serves as a convenient example. But just like the use of any other sort of military force, assassination is not good in-and-of-itself. Once one has decided to initiate military conflict, however, there is no more humane method of prosecuting that than by targeted assassinations.

For these reasons, if there is going to be a military conflict, whether limited or full-out, assassination is the refinement of war to its most moral form.

One caveat: the point of war is for one group of people to impose their will on another group. Violence: killing people and breaking things, as you put it, is the technique.

Assuming the conflict is moral in the first place, you may have a point. If the conflict in question is not a just war, then assassination of enemies is just as subject to condemnation as the whole war is.

Agree. I believe the military calls this “decapitation”, where you knock out their command-and-control. Kill the dictator and his inner circle, vs. wipe out his army? Don’t even this it is a close call.


Agree too.

War’s basically the “last argument of kings” as the phrase goes. Like Evil Captor said, it’s about one nation or group trying to compel another nation or group to its will.

In some countries (dictatorships, mainly), the state and the head are pretty intertwined, and an assassination would change things quite a bit.

In others, assassinating the head of state or head of government, or even the commander of the troops in the field would cause confusion and chaos, but would hardly be a “one-shot kill” in the way you’re describing.

For example, even if FDR’s brain hemmorhage was caused by hypothetical Japanese assassins, it didn’t do a bit of good for Japan’s war effort.

The OP is mistaking modern Total War with historic. Historic war was, effectively, a case of bands of young hooligans running about waving their dicks in the air. They weren’t wars between nations over issues of trade and securing resources, the grand majority of the time they were more like football teams going against one another because it was what a proper noble lad was supposed to do to show how mighty he was.

For that sort of war, assassination is about the same as one football team going and poisoning their rivals before a game. It defeats the purpose. Yeah they’ll win, but no one will respect them and they’ll quickly lose out for having done it.

In modern day, most of our wars have been policing actions. You might say that these are bad people and we should just go kill them – but what right do we have to do that? We can make a mild argument via the UN that picking up despots and putting them on trial for human rights violations, but until they’ve been sentenced by a court of law for those crimes, they’re still not criminals, just persons of interest.

If that person of interest has a personal army, and you’re going to have to spend 6 months searching through basements to find him, you’re going to have to deal with that army first before you can conduct your searches safely. Given as their army isn’t going to pause before trying to kill you, lethal force is justified.

But really, the only moral form of modern day war is kidnappings, before they realize you’re coming for them.

As someone not particularly interested in acting moral, at the expense of what works, I’m happy enough to go ahead with assassinations, of course. But let’s not fool ourselves that this is a clean activity.

I disagree. The point and purpose of war is to coerce another state to do (or not do) something. The killing and breaking comes when the other state resists the coercion. Don’t confuse the effect with the purpose.

That said, I agree that assassination can be legitimate tool of a state at war with another. It’s subject to the same moral scrutiny that any strategy or tactic or weapon used at war is. Possibly justified, possibly a war crime, depending on the circumstances.

Perhaps. If a state of war has been declared, killing off the leadership could end the war quickly, but how far down the totem pole would one side have to go before they find someone willing to negotiate? What assurances would that someone have that negotiations would take place in good faith, and that another special ops team isn’t waiting for them?

I think the effect would be turning every nation involved into police states to protect their leadership, thus creating a situation of total war where everyone is considered a potential combatant. Granted, the more forces that have to act as police lessen the number of forces on the battlefield, but the unintended consequences on the average non-combatant could be greater.

As in Libya, assassinating Gaddafi sounds good, and I would shed no tears for that idiot, but we have no idea what kind of power vacuum that would create. The replacement would actually have cause to be even more ruthless.

While it is a valid tool during war, I doubt it will ever lessen the need for other tools, but may increase them.

For historical examples I would look to Japan. I am afraid I do not more than what is presented in Shogun: Total War, but ninjas were a common part of the arsenal. I do not know how effectively they were actually used in lessening conflicts. (Geishas kick ass though.)

I’d say killing an individual is better than killing thousands or millions of soldiers and civilians of course. But as a practical matter, most armies aren’t going to forgive and forget once the evil witch is dead. You could make matters worse as an assassin by enraging the populace.

So I’d say the premise is not necessarily true. It’s not killing one person vs. millions. It’s killing millions vs. the results of the assassination.

I’ll argue the “con” side - too much agreement and the thread dies. :wink:

A critique of the morality of assassination as a military technique:

  1. A “just war” must be “just” in several ways - “just” in its purpose, and “just” in its excecution. A war that descends into barbarity isn’t as “just” as one which does not. Part of the practical reason for this is that once cannot look at any one conflict in isolation: to win a war by some enormity may seem “just” in a cost-benefit sense, that is purely a short-term view. The goal of a “just war” is not simply to win the conflict, but to create the grounds for peace. Over the longer term, a record and reputation for committing enormities will fester and create hatreds which make future conflicts inevitable.

  2. Committing assassination is just such an enormity. Its use has always been associated with sneakiness and underhandedness. While it may seem unfair that the lives of individual soldiers (and civilians) are held of less account than those of politicians and generals, leaders do have greater symbolic importance - to the people they lead, particularly in a democracy. To murder a democratically-elected leader is not merely to kill one person, it is also to attempt to set at naught the will of the people, democratically-expressed.

  3. This leads to the fact that in many if not most cases, assassination is not an effective way to prevent wider conflict. Imagine that the US gets into a conflict with (say) Iraq, and Saddam Hussein manages to have the US President assassinated. Would the US just pack up and go home? Unlikely. Whoever replaces him will naturally pledge revenge - which means more conflict, rather than less.

  4. So, assassination is only “more moral” in unusual circumstances - where its use can, on a balance or probabilities, lead to less conflict rather than more, and will not lead to increase in rancour and hatreds. It may be a “just” way to remove unpopular warmongering dictators or terrorists, but its use in other situations is more problematic.

I partially disagree. Sometimes the purpose is just coercion; sometimes the killing is an end in itself. And the real prime mover isn’t the “state”; it is the wealthy & powerful who control the state.

That in my opinion is the real reason assassination is taboo; war is between ruling elites who regard themselves as important and the rest of humanity as just resources. Governments and armies are just the tools they use for the job. They don’t care if people die for their wars and profits any more than a soldier worries about the welfare of his bullets. Assassination means that they, the only people who actually matter are at risk.

But assassination might prevent such wars from happening in the first place. Judging from their behavior, most leaders (democratic or otherwise) care little for the lives of their citizens, but they do care about their own. That’s the main reason why nukes are an effective deterrent; the thousands or millions that would die in a conventional war may not matter to the typical leader, but weapons that will kill them along with everyone else do scare them.

“Wouldn’t it be great if wars were just fought by the assholes who started them?”

A great quote by Kevin Costner from The Postman.

I don’t think we are talking about the same thing here. I do not agree that in the course of a war that assassination is “taboo.” Can you explain where you got this idea?

I think the taboo of assassination has to do with it’s use in peacetime, like as an adjunct to espionage. But that’s a much different situation than what the OP proposed.

So, assassins are as perfectly worthless, then.
The mistake is to think there can be such a thing as “moral war”. If you start off with that error, you can make all sorts of arguments about what is more or less moral. But the initial premise is flawed, “soldier” is already as immoral an occupation as you can get, a slight improvement on that is hardly something to crow about.

The only moral refinement of war is not to fight it. Anything else is evil.
Yes, WWII too.

True, but no one is going to claim that a war whose end purpose is killing is justified. Any tactic, weapon, etc, used in such a conflict will be immoral.

As for who controls the state, that does not matter when discussing the morality of war. I can’t think of a war (or tactic or weapon) whose morality would depend on the identity of the people directing it rather than their purposes and methods.

So Oswald and Booth were performing a moral acts.

No. The act itself is not inherently moral. I believe the OP’s point is that assassination is a more moral form of warfare than conventional fighting.

How do you not fight a war that someone else starts? Belgium desperately tried to stay neutral. Your premise seems very flawed and more like a platitude.
As to assassination, it is a better tool only were it would stop a war. Assassinating Hitler early would probably have been great, but assassinating FDR before Pearl Harbor would not have prevent bloodshed.

Who could be assassinated in Vietnam to prevent that war? Kennedy? Johnson? One of the many communist leaders? None of those would have stopped or slowed the war. In fact JFK’s assassination probably accelerated our involvement in Vietnam, though I know it was not the reason for the horror.

The fact that we’ll bomb much of Baghdad and kill thousands of random civilians in order to avoid officially admitting we are after Saddam Hussein specifically comes to mind. The fact that repeatedly we’ve done great damage to entire countries just because we don’t like one guy in it. We think that mass slaughter is morally permissible, but assassination isn’t; so when we want one guy dead we make a point of attacking thousands of people so we can pretend that we aren’t after just one guy.