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Killing, in peace and war

Killing a fellow human is among the worst crimes and unethical acts that any of us can commit.

Except in war time?

When there is a war when we are led to believe that killing becomes not only acceptable, but even commendable. Why? Because that's how it's always been?

Or because we trust our governments to make that decision for us? Surely people have very little trust in their politicians; why would they (we) trust them to decide for us when killing is justifiable?

This page written 2016/04/27, last edited 2023/11/13
Contact: David K Clarke – ©


The question of when it is acceptable to kill another person, in everyday life or in war, is one that seems to receive very little thought or discussion in modern society.

George Bush the younger, with encouragement and help from Prime Ministers Tony Blair of Britain and John Howard of Australia and no justification, invaded Iraq in 2003. The war resulted in millions of refugees and hundreds of thousands of deaths.
Acknowledgement: Russmo
In the early twenty-first century in most nations to kill a fellow human is a crime; even when that person wants to die. On this page I will discus only those situations when there is a true victim, when the person being killed does not want to die. In war time most people accept that killing 'the enemy' is acceptable and even something that soldiers should try their best to do. How can this dichotomy in standards be ethically justified?

Should we just trust our governments when they tell us that, while killing is a terrible thing in peace time, it is good in war time? On matters other than killing do we normally trust our governments to tell us what is right and wrong? There are laws that are set down by our governments and which we generally have to abide by; although how many of us could say that we never choose to break the law once in a while – when we consider the particular law to be a foolish law, or to be wrong in a particular case; perhaps something like a temporary road speed restriction in a place or at a time when there is obviously no need for it; or perhaps allowing our dog to run around without a lead in an area where the law says that dogs must be on a lead?

And then there are things that most of us would consider to be wrong, even when they are not against any law; being unnecessarily rude to other people for example, or walking in front of someone who is taking a photo or admiring a painting, or unnecessarily getting in the way of other people on a busy footpath.

So, in every day life most of us make make many decisions based on ethics rather than law. Is the decision of whether and when it is acceptable to kill another person just to be left to governments to decide? Is the government's say-so sufficient justification for us to do something that is normally considered to be a very serious crime?

To complicate the situation further we must take into account whether the particular war is 'a just war'; most people would think that the wars against Germany and Japan from 1939 to 1945 were justified while the 2003 invasion of Iraq by nations lead by the USA, Britain and Australia was not. Is killing in an unjust war unethical even if killing in a just war is ethical?

Whom might we trust to tell us when it is acceptable to kill another person? (Apart from government)

Perhaps some of those of us who are very religious would trust our religious leader(s) to tell us; for example a very few Muslims seem to accept that their imam can tell them it is right to kill some people. But it seems that very few of us would take our religions so far and be so trusting of our religious leaders to kill when told to.

I can't think of any person or group of people who I would trust enough to believe them if they told me that I should kill somebody else, can you?

Some people come under the influence of some other very persuasive person at times, see Robert Hendy-Freegard. Perhaps our willingness to trust our governments to tell us when it is right to kill, while we don't trust them in much else is a similar sort of gullibility?

Who starts wars? Who are the victims of wars?

The people who start wars are typically incompetent, insufficiently caring men too old themselves to have to fight in the wars that they start. They are typically interested primarily in increasing their power; they see power as being more important than the damage that will be done and the lives that will be lost in the wars they start.

The wars that the older men start are fought by young men who should have most of their lives before them. Many will die, many will come home physically damaged, many will have psychological problems for years, many will suicide.

The victims of the wars are the young men who have to fight the wars and the innocent civilians who suffer from the damage and poverty caused by the wars - and many, both civilians and soldiers, will loose their lives.

World War One
Soldiers deciding not to fight

The German people had no quarrel with the British or the French people. It was mainly the German ruling elite wanting more power that started the war. The soldiers were the pawns who were sacrificed in their hundreds of thousands by those in power.

At Christmas 1914 there was an unofficial truce between the waring sides on the Western Front. Soldiers on both the German and British sides decided to have a day off from the war. This was quite early in the war which had started with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June, 1914. Consider how many thousands or even millions of lives would have been saved if that unofficial truce had spread and all the soldiers refused to fight any more.

The Russian people were the only ones who saw through the corruption and power lust of the rulers and refused to fight. (See the Kerensky Offensive, Wikipedia.)

Never a good war or a bad piece

Letter from Benjamin Franklin to Sir Joseph Banks...
"I join with you most cordially in rejoicing at the return of peace. I hope it will be lasting, and that mankind will at length, as they call themselves reasonable creatures, have reason and sense enough to settle their differences without cutting throats: for in my opinion there never was a good war, or a bad peace.

What vast additions to the conveniences and comforts of living might mankind have acquired, if the money spent in wars had been employed in works of public utility. What an extension of agriculture even to the tops of our mountains; what rivers rendered navigable, or joined by canals; what bridges, aqueducts, new roads and other public works, edifices and improvements, rendering England a complete paradise, might not have been obtained by spending those millions in doing good which in the last war have been spent in doing mischief! In bringing misery into thousands of families, and destroying the lives of so many thousands of working people who might have performed the useful labor."

Franklin was American and Banks British. It seems that they must have corresponded in spite of being citizens of the nations on opposite sides of the American War of Independence.

Plainly Gorge W. Bush (US President), Tony Blair (UK Prime Minister) and John Howard (Australian Prime Minister) didn't have the wisdom that Benjamin Franklin had when they got their nations and their young men involved in the illegal, unethical, unjustified and counter productive Iraq War. The repercussions of those men's stupidity continues to the time of writing (2023).

References/related pages

Pages on this site...

The Bible contains very mixed messages about killing
A word on China
Crime against humanity
Euthansia and assisted suicide
Greatest crime in the history of humanity
Iraq War
War and killing, written a year earlier than this page
What is a crime? Who are the worst criminals?

On another page on this site...

Howard Zinn on the problem of civil obedience

On the Internet...

McMahan on the Ethics of Killing in War

Conflict pollution, washed-up landmines and military emissions – here’s how war trashes the environment, The Conversation, published 2023/11/14, written by Stacey Pizzino, Jo Durham and Michael Waller.