By Michael McKenzie, associate professor of philosophy and religion
The latest report from the White House is that Osama bin Laden was unarmed when he was killed. Does that fact make his death an illegal and immoral act of war? Is there any precedent for killing an enemy leader who is not a direct threat at the moment?
Although the analogy is not a precise one, I believe there is ample precedent to justify killing bin Laden, despite the fact that he may not have been armed at the time of his death. In the Just War Tradition, direct lethal action is to be directed at enemy combatants, with civilian casualties only inflicted non-directly, and not excessively. Bin Laden clearly was an enemy combatant, both in his leadership of an enemy entity that has killed thousands of Americans, and in his long and publicized history of taking up arms.
But does that justify his death in this specific situation? When his status is combined with historical precedent, I believe that it does.
In the early years of WWII, one man was the face of the Japanese military: Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the commander-in-chief and a leader in Japanese naval aviation. Yamamoto had attended Harvard for two years, was familiar with the huge potential for America’s military might, and had initially warned against war with the United States. After becoming convinced that war was inevitable, Yamamoto was the architect for the attack on Pearl Harbor and other American interests in the South Pacific.
On April 14, 1943, Navy cryptographers deciphered a message that revealed Yamamoto’s entire itinerary for his upcoming inspection of Japanese forces near Bougainville in the Solomon Islands. Yamamoto’s penchant for punctuality was well-known, and so a plan to kill him was devised. Like the plan to kill Bin Laden, this plan also needed approval from the top and President Roosevelt told Navy Secretary Knox to “Get Yamamoto.”
In one of the most amazing intercept missions of all time, a flight of 18 P-38 Lightnings (the only plane with the long range capacity to undertake such a mission) took off from Henderson Field on Guadalcanal and flew four precise legs over 600 miles of open ocean at wave-top level (to avoid being spotted by either radar or coastal observers). In an incredible feat of navigation, undertaken with only a Navy compass and a watch, Major John Mitchell arrived at the precise rendezvous point one minute early, and just in time to see Yamamoto’s Mitsubishi “Betty” Bomber begin its descent.
In the ensuing dogfight, Yamamoto’s plane was shot down and the admiral was killed. The mission touched off a firestorm of controversy, mostly in trying to determine which American pilot was responsible for downing Yamamoto. Although we will never know with absolute certainty, most military historians believe that First Lieutenant Rex Barber fired the fatal shots from his P-38, sending the admiral’s plane crashing into the jungle.
Yamamoto’s body was found the next day, his white-gloved hand still holding his officer’s sword.
The parallels between Yamamoto and bin Laden are not exact, of course, as Congress has never formally declared war on Al-Qaeda, but both men may be considered military leaders of sworn enemies to the United States in a state of war.
Both men planned successful first attacks against this country, after having significant contact with America.
Both men were killed in daring raids ordered by sitting presidents, missions in which the odds were high, and which were the direct result of American intelligence services breaking enemy codes.
Both men were unarmed at the time of their deaths (although Yamamoto was in an armed and resisting enemy aircraft).
Some may see a difference in killing a leader at his home, as compared to killing him while he is performing his military duties, but war is not a 9 to 5 proposition. And considering the proportionality undertaken by the Navy Seals in the mission, there is no moral significance to killing bin Laden at home. Armed or not, Bin Laden was an enemy combatant and, like Admiral Yamamo some 68 years earlier, was killed in a legitimate mission.