The Problem of Human Shields in War

For as long as humans have waged war, they have distinguished between combatant persons that are liable to attack, and protected persons that should enjoy immunity from attack. And for just as long, combatants have exploited such protected persons as “human shields.” They have moved protected persons to military targets, and military targets to protected persons with designs as grand as thwarting the outbreak of war itself, and as narrow as deterring attacks within war.

My dissertation explores two sets of questions about these strategies and tactics of “interposition,” as I call them, at the intersection of international relations, law, and ethics.

First: Whence the power of “human shields?” When and how can belligerents, somewhat paradoxically, find safety in exposure with unarmed persons? Under what conditions can noncombatants exposed at flanks, for instance, deny superiorly positioned ambushers, and captives tied to warehouses deny entire fleets of aircraft?

Second: How do we evaluate harm to people deliberately placed in harm’s way? And to what extent are our judgments consistent with prevailing prescriptive models from international law and ethics?

I argue that interposition leverages a peculiar kind of threat; and I attribute the force of this threat to its peculiarities, integrating theory from psychology, anthropology, sociology and evidence from detailed case studies, interviews with military commanders, lawyers and soldiers, and accounts from tens of conflicts across the centuries culled from chronicles, archives, original and memoirs. In a word, the threat is of killing, of directly and foreseeably harming others, of being identified with killing, of being held liable for killing, of authorizing outrage, massacre and scandal. The threat is distinct because it leverages not a hesitancy to incur damage, but to inflict damage. And it is under some conditions sufficient to thwart war and attacks in war.

Moreover, I present suggestive experimental evidence demonstrating some degree of conformity between lay intuitions and prevailing international legal and ethical prescriptions on proportionality in war. Lay respondents to a survey-embedded conjoint experiment balanced military value and collateral damage in ways prescribed by mainstream prescriptive models from international law and ethics. The results evince a lay or “intuitive” theory of proportionality whereby higher value targets are favored over lower, targets with fewer civilians nearby are favored over greater, involuntary shields are weighed as bystanders, and voluntary shields are discounted.

In sum, the dissertation illuminates prevalent but poorly understood patterns of conflict behavior, and sheds light on understudied aspects of moral and legal judgment about harm in war.