Legitimate? What Qualifies as a Military Target in Societies Throughout History

Military targets are often seen as innocent, including civilians and children. But what qualifies a person or place as legitimate in any society?

Legitimate military targets in societies throughout history have been used as a means of instilling fear. In the early 20th century, the United States began using propaganda to spread fear and paranoia. Read more in detail here: legitimate military target meaning .

Throughout history, societies have grappled with the question of who or what may be considered a valid target for military action.

It was the last act of almost a century of brutal conflict between the two empires when a Roman army led by Scipio Aemilianus invaded Carthage in 146 bce. One of the most well-known accounts of the battle is that after the Romans destroyed the Carthaginian capital, they also sprinkled salt into the surrounding fields to guarantee that the city would never prosper again. That information was added later in the century by authors, but it raises an issue that contemporary laws of war are now grappling with: how can we govern the use of nature as a weapon of war?

Restraint was never a feature of ancient combat. Carthage was wiped out, its towns destroyed, and its civilian people killed or enslaved, whether on salted fields or not, and it was not the first ancient or medieval civilization to experience this fate. Warfare that purposefully damaged human and environmental systems was so destructive by the time of the Thirty Years War in Germany in the 1600s that it prompted attempts to regulate it under the law. International agreements aimed to restrict the worst excesses of war beginning in the 19th century, but these emerging rules nevertheless permitted civilians to be targeted when required. This was the notion of proportionality, which held that ordinarily morally repugnant military methods might be justified in some circumstances or to certain degrees. Of course, the issue is always who’s viewpoint decides if something is necessary or not. “Proportionality is notoriously difficult to handle,” says Gregory M. Reichberg of the Peace Research Institute Oslo, “because it seems to ask for comparison of incomparable things.”

The Hague Convention on the Law and Custom of War on Land, adopted in 1899, attempted to address the proportionality issue, but in a totally self-contradictory manner. It said that soldiers should not purposefully “destroy or take the enemy’s property,” but it did allow for such violence should “such destruction or seizure were imperatively required by the necessity of war.” However, this phrase allowed individual belligerents much too much leeway in deciding what was “essential” in their battles. The Second Hague Peace Conference in 1907 did not make any significant progress in resolving the issue.

Societies have long grappled with the question of who or what may be a valid target of military attack when attempting to create rules of legal warfare. The proportionality concept aims to strike a “acceptable” balance between the predicted damage of property and Loss of life caused by military action on the one hand, and the expected tactical or strategic benefit obtained on the other. Warfare, especially ones ostensibly regulated by international convention, has seldom been waged with such restraint.

During World War II, an estimated 50 million people perished, with millions of them dying as a consequence of illness and hunger, which are war’s everlasting handmaidens. The use of the natural environment as a weapon of war and how such tactics played into the formation of legal notions of proportionality in armed conflict were two issues that contributed to the massive human toll.

Japanese troops in Nanjing, China, during the Second Sino-Japanese War. (Dick Swanson/Life Images Collection, Adoc-Photos, George Rodger/Life Picture Collection/Getty Images) During the Second Sino-Japanese War, Japanese soldiers are seen in Nanjing, China. (Photos: Adoc-Photos/Dick Swanson/Life Images Collection, George Rodger/Life Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Military strategists have long found dikes that keep back the sea and regulate rivers to be an attractive target. When the war in Europe was finally coming to an end in April 1945, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported that Dutch farmland was underwater and people were fleeing for higher ground after retreating Germans destroyed a seawall at the Zuider Zee dike, threatening to destroy a country where millions were already starving. The dike was destroyed for no military reason, according to the CBC reporter, and the Germans did it “for no cause except bloody-mindedness.” 

The CBC program, however, made no mention of an Allied operation in Belgium’s Scheldt estuary near the vital port city of Antwerp the previous October. The Allies had taken control of the port, but not the sea approaches, since the Germans still maintained strong positions on the outlying islands, the most significant of which was Walcheren. The aircraft did not strike the German fortifications on the island, which were valid military objectives. 

Allied planes delivered leaflets on Walcheren Island on October 2, 1944, advising civilians to evacuate immediately. It was a useless gesture since the German troops forbade people from entering or leaving the island. The barrier that defended the island from the Atlantic tides was assaulted the following day by 240 British bombers, who breached the dikes in four places. The subsequent flood submerged over 80% of Walcheren Island in saltwater. 152 Belgian people were murdered in the first bombing attack, and almost 50 more perished in the uncontrollable floods that swamped the island that evening.

As tragic as it was, it paled in comparison to a previous use of dike destruction as a military strategy. However, in that instance, the horrifying human suffering was not caused by a foe.

The Second Sino-Japanese War was raging in China in 1938, and the Chinese were losing. The Chinese civil war which lasted ten years and pitted Mao Zedong’s Communists against Chiang Kai-Nationalists, shek’s was overshadowed by the mutual threat of Japanese invasion and occupation, but the only real change for Chinese civilians was the name of the war that was destroying their society. From December 1937 to January 1938, the Japanese army carried out a prolonged orgy of murder and rape of Chinese people in the city of Nanjing, which became one of the most infamous atrocities of twentieth-century warfare. Even if the larger estimate of 300,000 civilian fatalities in the massacre is exaggerated, it was a war crime on a massive scale by all accounts. Even more people were killed by the Chinese five months later.

Nationalist Chinese troops utilized the historic Yellow River dike system as a weapon in their fight against Japanese invaders in June 1938. They broke the dikes at Huayuankou in an effort to stop the inexorable Japanese march into the province; the resulting flood flooded hundreds of thousands of acres of land, killing almost half a million Chinese people. More than a million people were forced to leave their homes, farms, and crops, and the region remained an agricultural wasteland for years after the floods retreated. It was a deliberate act of desperation on the part of the Japanese troops, who merely redirected their assault and were only delayed by a few months. The ostensible military need of demolishing the dikes was never worth the terrible human cost.

The destruction of the Walcheren Island seawall in 1944. (Dick Swanson/Life Images Collection, Adoc-Photos, George Rodger/Life Picture Collection/Getty Images) The barrier on Walcheren Island was destroyed in 1944. (Photos: Adoc-Photos/Dick Swanson/Life Images Collection, George Rodger/Life Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Even at the end of world war II, no international agreement had tried to apply precise criteria of proportionality to military rules. That happened not long after. The 1949 Geneva Convention set limits on when environmental destruction would be proportional, identifying three scenarios: flushing-out operations, in which the natural environment shielded the enemy; protection tactics, in which the environment could be used defensively; and, most controversially, scorched-earth operations, which allowed for “wholesale destruction…when causation is not possible.” The breaking of the Yellow River dikes in 1938 seems to meet the second criteria in that list—protection tactics—but the heinous loss of Chinese civilian life was much out of proportion to the military gain. 

This evolving theory of proportionality in warfare was further expressed in the 1956 edition of the United States Army’s Field Manual on the Law of Land Warfare, which stated that “a condition of war between two States” should be understood to mean that “every national of one State becomes an enemy of every national of the other,” though they “must not be made the object of attack directed exclusively at the nationals of the other.” The handbook went on to say that “loss of life and property damage must not be excessive in relation to the military benefit to be gained.” It was an effort to harmonize two opposing concepts that resisted easy interpretation once again.

In the air war against North Vietnam, this was the moral issue that American military planners grappled with. An vast system of huge earthwork dikes controlled the Red River, which was vital to Vietnamese agriculture and trade. As a result, American bombing sorties found the dikes to be a particularly appealing target. They were also useful propaganda for the North Vietnamese government, which used the long-running Paris peace negotiations in 1972 to accuse the US of trying to demolish the dikes in an unlawful and unethical endeavor to flood hundreds of acres of farmland and starving the civilian population. Although American military planners considered destroying the dikes, they eventually opted against a concerted assault on the river defense system. Targeting the dikes was evidently focused on tactical practicality rather than proportionality, with expected limits in bomb effectiveness and political expediency, rather than moral concerns, determining factors. In reality, in response to North Vietnamese criticism, President Richard M. Nixon said that the US military could have demolished the dikes if it had chosen to. In the end, typhoon damage, not military activity, caused the severe flooding caused by breaches in the Red River dikes in 1972. Separate from this debate was the United States’ use of deadly herbicides like Agent Orange and Agent Blue in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, which defoliated millions of acres of forest cover, crops, and other plants.

In 1976, the Protocol I Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 took another step forward in the doctrine of proportionality when it stated that combatants should not “attack, destroy, remove, or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies, and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of the specific purification of the specific purification of the specific purification of the specific purification of the specific purification of the specific purification of the specific purification of Protocol I, as described by the United States Army in its Operational Law Handbook twenty-four years later, “does not use the usual weighing of need against the quantity of anticipated destruction.” Rather, it sets this threshold as an absolute limit on what may be destroyed.”

As it stands now, the idea of proportionate violence in legal conflict is most frequently used with that very dismal meaning in mind—that belligerents may inflict as much damage as they see necessary within the limits of “permissible destruction.” MHQ

Soldiers: A Global History of the Fighting Man, 1800–1945 (Stackpole Books, 2018) and The Infamous Dakota War Trials of 1862: Revenge, Military Law, and the Judgment of History (The Infamous Dakota War Trials of 1862: Revenge, Military Law, and the Judgment of History (The Infamous Dakota War Trials of 1862: Revenge, Military Law, and the Judgment of History (Stackpole Books (McFarland, 2016).

With the headline: Laws of War | Matters of Proportion, this essay appears in the Summer 2021 edition (Vol. 33, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History.


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The “legitimate military objectives may include ” is a question that many people ask. The answer to the question lies in what society has considered a legitimate target throughout history.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a valid military target?

A: Non-military targets are not valid. Military targets include military bases, weapons depots, ammunition stores, and installations that house or produce war materials such as components of nuclear reactors.

Can civilians be targeted in war?

What is a non military target?

A: A non military target is an entity that the United States Department of Defense has not declared as a legitimate enemy. This includes countries such as North Korea Russia and China.

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