Force Protection, Noncombattant Immunity and Moral Injury

Marc Livecche has written an excellent article for The Philos Project that, despite its title, isn’t really about the atomic bombs that ended WWII in the Pacific: Hiroshima and the Dilemma of Force Protection. Rather, it’s really about the broader ethics of balancing of force protection, mission accomplishment and non-combatant immunity in the light of moral injury.

Livecche’s thesis statement comes well into the article:

In light of moral injury, when trying to achieve that balance between force protection and noncombatant immunity, it is crucial to not so dial back discrimination in deference to force protection that we increase the likelihood of warfighters committing morally injurious actions. Our appropriate commitment to keeping our fighters safe may well mean that we expose them to greater physical threat in order to protect them psychically.

Let’s discuss terms for a moment.

Force Protection

When weighing possible courses of action to accomplish the mission, one factor that planners must consider is the risk to friendly forces that each COA creates. Livecche captures the ethical importance of force protection in one short declaration:

There is, of course, an obligation incumbent upon the state to protect one’s own military personnel.

For Livecche, the risk entails more than just physical dangers to flesh and bone. The mind and the heart are at risk as well. Protecting the force means protecting the entire person, including the psyche. When assessing risk, then, planners must consider the potential for both physical injury and moral injury.

Non-Combatant Immunity

Livecche frames his problem in terms of just war theory, beginning with jus ad bellum, the just resort to war.

… the state owes warfighters the confidence of knowing they will be called upon for only morally legitimate and weighty causes and with the implicit promise that the circumstances under which they are being called to risk death are such that the defense of vital human goods, the sovereignty and integrity of the nation or the careful extension of its national interests truly requires their action. …

In just conflicts, combatants must also act justly. The protection of non-combatants is one componet of jus in bello.

For at the same time as warfighters risks their own lives, they obviously imperil the lives of others as well. However much the end of war (under Augustinian terms) is peace, this good end is most typically achieved in combat through the problematic means of killing our enemy-neighbors. Compounding the problem – and often pulling in the opposite direction – there is a responsibility toward noncombatants, codified in both the just war tradition and the laws of war as the principle of discrimination. Achieving the right balance between these often-conflicting norms of force protection, mission and noncombatant immunity can be extremely difficult. I want to make it even more so.

Combatants must discriminate between non-combatants and legitimate military targets. Their use of force must be proportional to the military effect they are trying to achieve. The customary laws of war identify several specific prohibitions, but the basic principle is even broader. Warfighters at every level, from the tactical to the strategic, must cause no more harm to non-combatants than required by military necessity. Combatants must mitigate the risk to non-combatants by taking active steps to protect the innocent.

Livecche’s use of the term “immunity,” however, does not imply that combatants can never take actions that indirectly bring death or suffering to non-combatants. Obviously, war affects non-combatants directly and indirectly. In war, as in every human enterprise, there are accidents and mistakes, unintended actions that result from human fallibility. There are unforeseen and unintended consequences of our intended actions. And our plans have foreseeable consequences for the non-combatant population as well.

The balancing act Livecche describes, then, should be obvious. Commanders at every level have a number of courses of action available to them, including how and where to apply lethal power on the battlefield. “Dialing up” (in Livecche’s term) the power may reduce the risk to friendly forces (force protection) and destroy or degrade more the enemy’s ability to carry on the fight. But it also may be less discriminate in its application, and thus more likely to put non-combatants at risk. Reducing the risk to non-combatants is not only important of their own well-being, but for the well-being of combatants as well.

Moral Injury

Livecche adopts a definition of moral injury consistent with most of the contemporary literature.

Many readers are familiar with the concept of “moral injury” as a form of combat trauma emerging from perpetrating, failing to prevent or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held normative beliefs. As would be expected, both the committing of atrocity as well as the accidental killing of noncombatants are common predictors of moral injury. Moreover, there is clinical evidence establishing moral injury as a, even the chief predictor of suicide among combat veterans.

With this definition, it seems to me, just acts in a just war should not lead to moral injury. I’m not sure that this is the case.

Livecche implicitly distinguishes between sorrow and moral injury. Early in the article he acknowledges:

Augustine taught us that sorrow can and ought accompany the prosecution even of just wars. For wars are fought well when they are fought with compassion for the enemy – even as we close with and kill them; with reluctance – after it’s clear nothing else can reestablish justice, order, and peace; and with remorse – that it all had to come to this in the first place. So one can be sorry even when one is not guilty.

This “sorrow,” in my opinion, is a burden that all combatants bear regardless regardless of the rightness of their actions or the justice of their cause. I think Dave Grossman’s claim in On Killing and On Combat is essentially correct: human beings have evolved to be averse to killing their fellow humans.

And as a Christian, I can affirm that all lethal violence, no matter how necessary and legally justified, falls short of God’s perfect plan for humanity. Lethal violence is cause not only for regret and sorrow, but for repentance and for calling on the mercy of God in Christ. And, I would add, this is true not only when there are subjective feelings of guilt or shame. The objective fact of my participation war does something to my state-of-being, not just to my feelings and emotions. I realize that I am now blurring the line between theological and behavioral health categories, but I’m OK with that.

All lethal violence violates my deeply held normative beliefs. But so does abandoning the innocent to the violence and injustice of the wicked rulers of this age. There are no, as the article  recognizes, “immaculate wars” or “wars-without-costs.” The moral burden that combatants carry with them for the rest of their lives is one of those costs.

Whether or not that burden rises to the level of an injury, I think, is a matter of definition. Perhaps we should posit a continuum of moral burden and injury, from sub-clinical memories and feelings with minor behavioral impacts to debilitating disease.


A number of factors contribute to the severity of moral injury, and I think Livecche’s thesis may offer an important insight into its reduction. Sometimes the physically riskier course of action is the more honorable (my word, not his), and thus less likely to contribute to severe moral injury.

Near the end of an article, Livecche gives the reader a concrete example of how such a moral calculation might impact military operations.

In our own day, when circumstances allow for American warfighters to, say, clear a building room-by-room rather than by simply leveling it then clearing that building room-by-room is what we must do – not just in deference to the welfare of non-combatants but as a recognition of our commitment to our own warfighters and the care of their souls. In my experience, warfighters are ready to do this: they do not unduly fear their lives being spent, only wasted.

If we have done our moral reckoning correctly, when a mother of the fallen or the ghosts of the dead themselves ask us why we took a riskier path, we can tell them – in all integrity – that we chose that method for their own good.

It is about ordering our warfighters to fight their wars in ways that they look themselves in the mirror the following morning. It is a means of helping our warfighters endure the morally bruising environment of combat without themselves becoming morally bruised.

Read the whole thing.