Accountability for Killing: Moral Responsibility for Collateral Damage in America’s Post-9/11 Wars by Neta C. Crawford

| March 6, 2015
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Accountability for Killing coverAccountability for Killing: Moral Responsibility for Collateral Damage in America’s Post-9/11 Wars, Neta C. Crawford (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 512 pp., $39.95 cloth.

This latest work from Neta Crawford focuses on the causes and consequences of, as well as accountability for, collaterally killed civilians in recent U.S. military  operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Yemen. It is the most comprehensive work of its kind.

The book is divided into three parts. The first lays out, in painstaking detail, who is killed in the course of these conflicts, how they are killed, and why they are killed. Crawford single-handedly gathers and analyzes data of such vast quantity that the result resembles the work of an NGO rather than an individual. For instance, she discovers and documents blatant discrepancies between civilian casualty reports by NATO and the United Nations in Afghanistan—discrepancies that cannot be explained away by competing operative definitions of “civilian” (pp. 105-107). She also closely examines the casualties resulting from the use of drones in Pakistan and Yemen, casting doubt on the conclusion that this new form of combat results in fewer civilian deaths.

Crawford’s most original philosophical contribution is her suggestion that we ought not to regard instances in which civilians are mistakenly targeted or instances in which more civilians are killed collaterally than had been anticipated as mere tragic accidents. For Crawford, such deaths are at least partly a result of institutional norms pitting a triptych of values against one another: the value of preventing civilian deaths, the value of accomplishing the mission at hand, and the value of protecting one’s own combatants. Emphasizing the latter two values at the cost of the former systemizes unforeseen civilian casualties in a way that at least partly vitiates the otherwise exculpatory role that the collateral nature of these harms is thought to play in our moral reasoning in general, and in the calculation of proportionality specifically.

Because these institutional norms play such a prominent role in systemizing unforeseen civilian casualties, Crawford argues that moral responsibility for these deaths lies not just with the soldiers who pull the trigger, nor even jointly with the commanders who order them to do so, but with the military tout court as a collective agent. Likewise, in the second part of the book Crawford argues that when soldiers who “snap” commit unsanctioned killings largely as a result of beingplaced in “atrocity-producing” circumstances, responsibility for their actions does not lie just with those in command, since such commanders are typically ensconced within a complex preexisting bureaucracy and a military culture that severely limits their options. Though she details the profound effects that attitudes and policies of those in command can have on the scope and scale of collateral damage (by comparing the air bombardment of Bosnia in 1995with the United States–led siege of Fallujah in 2004), Crawford claims that, ultimately, focusing on military and civilian leaders fails to explain and properly impute moral  responsibility for these tragedies.

In the book’s third part Crawford addresses the responsibility of the U.S. public and its representatives for facilitating systemic collateral damage. In addition to arguing that Congress and the Judiciary should take a more active role in the oversight of military conduct in war, she argues that the public in general has a moral responsibility to monitor and constrain civilian casualties. To this end, Crawford offers concrete institutional changes in order to facilitate public influence on government oversight of military conduct. Though, on her view, American citizens share responsibility for their government’s foreign policy members of the public are not a legitimate military target, since their responsibility is indirect, as opposed to that of individual soldiers, military contractors, public officials, military commanders, and the military institution as a whole. She ends the book by providing recommendations for specific organizational and institutional changes aimed at reducing collateral carnage in war. These include, but are not limited to: (1) systemically recording and analyzing the deaths of noncombatants, (2) reviewing weapons procurement with the aim of retiring indiscriminate weapons, (3) reviewing operational instructions and targeting criteria as well as rules of engagement, and (4) reviewing policy for targeting dual-use facilities.

An unnecessary hindrance to Crawford’s otherwise outstanding examination of systemic collateral damage is her treatment of collective responsibility. Eschewing “methodological individualism,” Crawford argues that we should consider whether the U.S. military as an institution is, properly speaking, an agent that bears moral responsibility for what it does. But she equivocates on this issue. In some instances she clearly attributes moral agency and responsibility to the military. As she states: “I locate moral responsibility [for collaterally caused deaths] not only with individual actors and commanders but also in the military organization” (p. 72). And later she declares that “military organizations are moral agents” (p. 317), and that “both organizations and individuals are morally responsible” (p. 344).

Elsewhere, however, Crawford avers that complex organizations such as the U.S. military are merely analogous to agents (p. 318), and more weakly still, that it is merely practically or analytically “useful” to think of collectives as imperfect moral agents having moral responsibility (p. 333). And though she insists that she “will not argue that organizations are persons (with intentions and so on),” she repeatedly ascribes to organizations attributes wholly unique to persons, such as the ability “to critically reflect on their normative beliefs and the consequences of their beliefs, decisions, and actions” (p. 334).

Crawford might have argued in favor of full-fledged collective agency, thereby allying herself with Peter French and, more recently, with Christian List and Philip Pettit (all of whose views she favorably cites). Demurring, however, Crawford remains on the ontological fence by asserting that complex organizations are “imperfect moral agents.” Though she does not do much to clarify what differentiates an imperfect moral agent from a “perfect” one, she details attributes sufficient for this less exalted status. These agents must possess shared “purpose; persistent [and defined] roles; a decision-making structure characterized by rules, roles, knowledge, and decision-making procedures; a capacity to act; and the ability to reflect upon and revise its rules, roles, and procedures” (p. 336).

Claiming that the U.S. military as a collective agent is morally responsible for systemic collaterally caused harms is unsatisfying, because it leaves the victims of these tragedies with no one to blame except a nonhuman abstract agent. Indeed, Crawford explicitly claims that she will “not suggest whether and how collectives should be found legally liable and punishable” (p. 318, footnote 37). Recognizing this problem, she points out that the moral responsibility of the collective agent does not vitiate the moral responsibility of the individuals constituting the organization. But who, specifically, is individually responsible? In answering this vital question, Crawford exempts mere nominal members—those members who do not causally contribute to what the organization does. Rather, “what we do as members of a collective determines our causal and moral responsibility” (p. 346).

But if this is true, assigning moral responsibility to the collective qua collective becomes utterly superfluous. Policymakers, commanders, and soldiers might all bear varying degrees of responsibility for systemic collateral damage in virtue of their varying causal contributions, the varying importance of their roles in the organization, and the degree of institutional freedom they have to act otherwise. Members of a complex organization can thus be individually responsible (to varying degrees) for what they together do (or do not do) by way of their complicitous responsibility, both among one another and with erstwhile members. If this is correct then there is no philosophical need to assign moral responsibility to the organization qua imperfect moral agent in order to locate responsibility for what the members of the organization do.

This is, I think, good news for Crawford; it means she can jettison the unnecessary metaphysical baggage of “collective agency” and the vagaries of “imperfect moral agency,” thereby avoiding equivocation on the metaphysical status of complex organizations, while retaining her detailed and insightful analysis of the sorts of institutional patterns perpetuating (and at times mitigating) systemic collateral damage (to which the latter half of the chapter on “Organizational Responsibility” is devoted). Ostensible references to collective agency within what she calls the “the cycle of moral agency” can be understood as useful fictions—shorthand for a complex and massive bureaucratic process rather than as bona fide “agentially loaded” emergent properties. This also leaves intact not only her project of examining how complex organizations such as the U.S. military “shape, enlarge, and constrain individual agency and moral responsibility” (p. 385) but also the multitude of positive implementable prescriptions she proposes for improving the capacity of the U.S. military to control systemic collateral harm.

Even if the treatment of collective agency in Accountability for Killing is problematic, it does not undermine the book’s usefulness. Publishers often claim that scholarly works on the morality of war will be of use to academics and practitioners alike, when most of the time this is true of the former only. Crawford’s book is a rare and shining exception, and a prodigious one at that: she provides eminently implementable methods—borne of careful empirical research—for reducing systemic collateral harm in the U.S. military. Civilian and military policymakers concerned with civilian causality mitigation absolutely must read this work. In turn, academics interested in these issues would do well to learn from Crawford’s brand of data-informed philosophical analysis.


The author is assistant professor of philosophy at the University of California, San Diego. His work focuses on the morality of war and on individual responsibility for collectively committed harms.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 29.1

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  1. David Perry says:

    Thank you, Dr. Bazargan, for this balanced and thoughtful review! I hope to read Crawford’s book, but will now be better “armed” to do so with your philosophical lenses.