When Did the Killing of Civilians in War Become Illegal?

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Originally published 3-24-03

Mr. Morgenthau was a founder of the school known as "political realism." For many years he taught international relations at the University of Chicago. In the mid-1960s he became a fierce critic of the Vietnam War. He died in 1980.

Following is an excerpt from Mr. Morgenthau's book, Politics Among Nations.

From the beginning of history through the better part of the Middle Ages, belligerants were held to be free, according to ethics as well as law, to kill all enemies whether or not they were members of the armed forces, or else to treat them in any way they saw fit. Men, women, and children were often put to the sword or sold into slavery by the victor without any adverse moral reactions taking place. In Chapter IV of Book III of On the Law of War and Peace, under the heading"On the Right of Killing Enemies in a Public War and on Other Violence against the Person," Hugo Grotius presents an impressive catalogue of acts of violence committed in ancient history against enemy persons without discrimination. Grotius himself, writing in the third decade of the seventeenth century, still regarded most of them as justified in law and ethics, provided the war was waged for a just cause.

This absence of moral restraints upon killing in war resulted from the nature of war itself. In those times war was considered a contest between all the inhabitants of the territories of the belligerent states. The enemy to be fought was the total number of individuals owing allegiance to a certain lord or living within a certain territory rather than the armed forces of the legal abstraction called a state in the modem sense. Thus every individual citizen of the enemy state became an enemy of every individual citizen of the other side.

Since the end of the Thirty Years' War [1618-1648], the conception has become prevalent that war is not a contest between whole populations, but only between the armies of the belligerent states. In consequence, the distinction between combatants and noncombatants has become one of the fundamental legal and moral principles governing the actions of belligerents. War is considered to be a contest between the armed forces of the belligerent states, and, since the civilian populations do not participate actively in the armed contest, they are not to be made its object.

Consequently, it is considered to be a moral and legal duty not to attack, wound, or kill noncombatant civilians purposely. Injuries and death suffered by them as incidents of military operations, such as the bombardment of a town or a battle taking place in an inhabited area, are regretted as sometimes unavoidable concomitants of war. However, to avoid them to the utmost is again considered a moral and legal duty. The Hague Conventions with respect to the Laws and Customs of War on Land of 1899 and 1907, and the Geneva Convention of 1949, gave express and virtually universal legal sanction to that principle.

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pie pants master - 12/8/2003

When are u getting your own TV channel? You could be good like the histroy channel... and pie. By the way who's George Mason? He sounds like a dude who teaches other dudes aboot stuff. Am I right?

Jonathan Dresner - 3/26/2003

The Quran, compiled in the 8th century, clearly states that non-combatants are protected, that war is between states, not peoples.

Walter Sutton - 3/25/2003

What about WWII bombing?