Hierchal value of life in wartime. What should be the order?

Ok, there are four basic categories of people when there is a conflict.

Our civilians.
Our military.
Their civilians.
Their military.

So, how should these groups be ranked in order of whose lives it is more important to protect? All else being equal, if a certain behavior is likely to increase risk to one of these groups, which should it be? Please note that although obviously inspired by debates about the Iraq war, this thread is an attempt to get conflict and nation independent rankings.

I’d say the two outliers are the easiest. Our civilians are the most important and the most effort should go into protecting them. We put our soldiers in front of them for precisely this reason. This means we are willing to accept more risk to our soldiers than our civilians. The other end of the spectrum, their troops, are similarly easy to place. They are the de facto targets. Aside from casual massacres of this group pretty much anything goes.

The other two are the sticky wicket. All else being equal, is it more important to preserve the lives of civilians on their side or soldiers on ours?

History is replete with times and places where these questions flip-flopped like mad. The firebombings of Dresden and Hamburg, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Deliberate targeting of civilians instead of military personnel, each for their various reasons. Still these events were not the norm. In general warfare has been designed to deplete the enemy’s troops, not their civilians. The Geneva Convention treaties specify protecting of civilians when possible. So that would argue that in general care should be taken to minimize danger to civilians. If we place our military beneath their civilians in this hierarchy of “worth” then logic would dicatate that in a choice between increasing danger to our forces versus their civilians that we choose to increase danger to our troops. Is this generally agreed? Why or why not?


You might wnat to address and distinguish the cases in which civilians are used to protect military targets. If my army’s command staff holds its weekly meetings in the middle of a neonatal hospital ward, for instance, may they legitimately rely on the protection of being surrounded by helpless infants to avoid any attack?

ALL civilians, equally
our soldiers
their soldiers

I believe that maximum care should be taken at all times to protect civilians in a time of war. If that means we risk the lives of American soldiers, so be it. The soldiers signed up to be in a war (and don’t give me that crap about “they signed up for college loans,” signing up explicitly means that you are willing to fight and die in a war), but the civilians didn’t sign up to be born in the wrong country at the wrong time. The exception is draftees: although you could make the argument that any draftee who was really against war would have gotten out of it somehow (allowed himself to be arrested, gone to Canada, cut off his trigger finger), for many people conscientiously objecting is not a viable option. This is one of the reasons I hate the draft–it blurs the line between soldierdom and civilianhood, and makes the moral questions less clear-cut. In that case, I think that I would personally value the life of a draftee over that of a willing soldier, though less than a civilian (since he did, after all, go to war).

I don’t see much of a difference between which “side” a civilian is one. To me, civilians HAVE no sides, we’re all just people trying to make it through the day, no matter what soil we were born on. If there’s a military procedure that will kill either 500 Americans or 1000 Iraqis, it is morally indefensible to choose the option that will kill more people. Nothing makes American lives worth more than other lives. Given that, it seems a little hypocritical that I haven’t grouped all soldiers together, but if the object of a war is to win it, then I guess you have to “debase” enemy soldiers by making their lives (on a theoretical level) worth “less” than ours.

There are all kinds of specifics we could get into, and I would like to later in the thread, but for now I’d just like to focus on these four broad populations. Guerilla warfare alone throws a huge wrench in the works. Things like the Iraqi insurgency, human shields, Dresden, Nagasaki, all muddy the waters. I’m not afraid of those waters, and I look forward to getting there, but I think we should start from some agreed upon common ground.


Broadly speaking I’d agree with this. Where the rubber meets the road though it doesn’t hold up. The decisions about that military procedure are made by people charged with protecting the civilians of their nation. I’d agree that in an extreme case(total annhiliation of the entire rest of the globe versus a handful of “our civilians”) the answer is pretty clear, but in a state of war the decision makers have a responsibility to their civilians. Since there is no global authority who can be even handed with such decisions then we have to go with what we have.


I understand your point.

But I disagree. I would rather save American soldiers than enemy civilians in time of war. I agree that we should not wantonly kill civilians, but if there is a ranking, our soldiers come first.

The hierarchy goes:

My buddies
Friendly troops
Friendly civilians
Enemy civilians
Enemy troops


If I had to choose between saving a member of my family, and saving you, I’m sorry, bud, but you’re toast. I don’t do this gladly, but I don’t value all human life equally. There are some human lives I value more.

Friendly troops over friendly civilians? That sounds a bit odd. Aren’t they the ones specifically designated for taking on the hazardous work? I’m trying to keep this from getting personal, which is why I didn’t take the groups all the way down to intimates/family/self levels. The idea is to pretend we’re a head of state and come up with how we should view these groups of potential casualties for policy decisions like those which had to be made during the decision to firebomb Dresden or nuke Nagasaki.


You’re absolutely right, I misinterpreted the OP. I was looking at it as if I was a soldier in a wartime operation, not as the head of state. My mistake. I think everyone would agree with the two outliers - our civilians are at the top, their troops are at the bottom. The real question is who gets priority, our troops or their civilians. In a perfect, ideal world we’d be able to leave civilians completely out of it and let the two militaries duke it out.

The problem is that there’s overlap. I think everyone would agree that wiping out 100,000 enemy civilians to save 1 friendly soldier would be completely immoral. Probably even 100 enemy civilians to save 1 friendly soldier. And it would go around the other way, sacrificing 100 friendly troops to save one enemy civilian.

So, continuity eror (and everyone else, for that matter), does an enemy who drafts soldiers to fight change the situation? That is to say, the enemy soldiers don’t always want to be there, either.

= Civilians of the defending country
= Neutral parties

Military of the defending country

civilians of the aggressor country

military of the aggressor country

But why? Didn’t the soldiers sign up to be put in danger? And about the “there are some lives I value more” comment, I agree when it’s family or friends, but do you (or anyone else) have kinship with some random American vs. some random Iraqi? I don’t feel closer to someone upon hearing they’re American; the world is divided between “people I know” and “people I don’t know” and while I do value the first over the second I don’t feel as if I “know” any random American better than any other random person. And knowing that the average American has a greater negative influence over the environment and general world situation than say, the average Indian, makes it seem more moral to kill the American, since his existence might impact my life or that of my family’s life negatively (in an infinitesmal way, of course), whereas the Indian’s wouldn’t.

Yes, they’d be treated just like draftees from our side, except maybe a little lower. So I guess the order would go:
friends and family
all other nonsoldiers
our draftees
their draftees
our willing soldiers
their willing soldiers

I’m still trying to figure out why I’d support killing their troops over killing ours. It feels like an ethical inconsistency to me.

I’m not sure using the categories of “aggressor” and “defending” work here. Each head of state is sure to see themselves as the good guy(s). I can’t see a way to make this work in the case of a pre-emptive war, or a war where alliances forced participation by one or more states. I’d rather not get into the 3+ party war scenarios just yet, although they are certainly the norm today(and for the past several centuries actually).

Still, you bring up a good point by mentioning neutral parties. I’d suggest that neutral parties should belong somewhere in the middle as well. Not as high as your own citizens, but from there it gets unclear. Should you increase the risk to your troops with a policy decision to protect neutral parties? Shouldn’t they work to protect themselves? I agree you shouldn’t target them, but should you run interference for them with your own troops if they are threatened?


Pre-emptive war is a nonsense, or at best an implausible hypothetical.

I don’t care who sees themselves as the ‘good guys’. If you’re the aggressor, you are the bad guy. It’s a triumph of justice when your troops die, less so for your civilians and a tragedy when troops and civilians of the defending nation are injured.

But aren’t most civilians neutral? With the exception of insurgents (and you’d probably put them in the “military” category), most people are not involved with the fighting of war at all and are just waiting for the war to end, especially when the war is being fought on their soil. I’m sure that most Vietnamese (to give an example of an impoverished group of “enemy” civilians) didn’t care which side won or lost; they just wanted ALL the soldiers out of their land so their lives could go back to normal.

I agree completely. You have nicely applied the libertarian Principle of Noncoercion.

I agree mostly, but what about if there are gross human rights violations on the defender’s side? If we had invaded Germany before being attacked by Japan, would we have been the bad guys?

All lives are equally important. When we stand before St Peter, I don’t think he is going to ask about kill ratios or how many of our countrymen, he’s going to ask how we treated ALL of mankind.

I agree with that as well. (At least, with the intent of the metaphor.)