Morality of special forces killing during an operation?


Is it only permissible for a soldier or other military personnel to kill enemy combatants during a just war? If not, does that mean it is a sin for special forces (like the Navy Seals), to kill during an operation? What if someone is a sniper and kills enemy combatants that are not a direct threat to him at the moment? I have read the article about the just war doctrine on Catholic Answers.


How do you know if any given war is a “just war”?

The Vatican doesn’t provide declarations about such things. Any given soldier is working under the assumption that his government is acting justly - the soldier assumes he (she) is fighting in a just war.

I guess the question more applies to when a soldier does not believe it to be a just war. In which case I presume he/she should conscientiously object.

In (a just) war, the threat posed by the enemy combatant need not be immediate or directed to yourself in order for the killing to be justified. In war, you are acting not merely for yourself, but on behalf of your army, your nation, and anyone (eg local civilians) you are trying to protect in your efforts, and as such your right to act in self defense is extended to all these too.


The thing is, unheard of secretive operations are not classified as “wars”. So how could the operation of hunting Bin Laden be classified as just, in the just war doctrine? I understand he was a threat and he had to be stopped. The question I am trying to get answered is whether it is justified for a special forces team to conduct operations in which killing is involved, but it is not a “war”. So it can’t really fall under the just war doctrine if it is not a war in the first place. Think of the mission to save Captain Phillips, what about the true story of “Lone Survivor”? What about the true story of “Black Hawk Down”?


I want to correct myself on this first post, where I started off the second sentence “If not”, should instead be “If so”.


The War on Terror is just, and bin Laden was ground zero for that. But in the wake of ISIS and Khorosan, he’s old news.


If you have a problem with the military conducting missions to save lives, do you also have a problem with police officers killing someone who is harming another person? Think of a bank robber holding hostages and the police use a sniper to kill the robber. To me, that would be just. Just like killing bin laden was just. :shrug: Saving Captain Phillips was a good thing. Was the Navy supposed to let pirates do whatever they wanted? Kill the crew and take their ship?
I could go on, but I see nothing wrong with the military missions you spoke of.


Every major country has formed special forces groups, with some being trained in the US or any country where such training does not pose a risk. It is a sad fact, but individuals, which may include people in government, soldiers and even civilians, who are classified as a threat to national security, may become targets. Threat Assessment is not a casual thing. Those who collect intelligence that proves to be reliable, advise certain people, including the President. Intelligence gets sorted, it gets talked about, different ways of handling a “problem” are discussed. No one is told to go in on a hunch. Special forces are the best of the best, and with no disrespect meant to any other members of the armed forces, if you don’t make the cut, you’re out.

It was different when two groups of uniformed soldiers faced each other. Now the enemy often wears street clothes like others in his country. His weapons include Improvised Explosive Devices. These men are given orders that are legitimate to fight the current threat, which goes under the umbrella name ‘terrorism.’ They also rescue, for example, Americans being held by others. In some cases, to avoid capture, they will open fire on anyone who gets in their way.



Yes, Johnny, it is morally permissible to kill.

Remember: U.S. military personnel are often the only thing standing between civilians and horrific death, by interposing their own lives for ours.

Note also that US military personnel are now being advised to take down references to their military service on social media, because merely being a member of the military makes one a target of terrorists, and terrorists actively target members of the military.

Johnny, one thing I encourage you to learn and think on is how truly complex and frightening morality can be, especially in the context of armed conflict, and, more importantly, how all morality, and life and death, can turn on snap decisions. People in the military, much more than other areas, don’t have the luxury of debating fine points of a just war doctrine as they sip cola at their computers in their warm houses – they are confronted with immediate crises, where death and suffering is at every turn, crises that civilians can’t fathom.

Further, these soldiers are often young (not so much older than you, in fact; the average age of a US combat soldier in Vietnam was 19); far from home; often far from help; under enormous emotional strain you and I cannot fathom, including the strain of seeing friends maimed or killed; and they live and act under threat of gruesome death should they make the wrong choices.

And here you are, asking if things they do might be sinful.

I’m not trying to make you feel bad; really. I’m just trying to put what they do in perspective. I pray for daily for all US soldiers everywhere; and that they stay safe. We all should do as much. I’ll give them the benefit of a few hundred thousand doubts, as to what they do.


I want to join the military and possibly be a police officer, it’s not that I am against the military saving lives nor did I state that what they did was wrong, I am curious and want to know because of the strict conditions for a “just war”. Okay?


I did not mean to come across as being so against those things which I stated. I am trying to find out because of the just war doctrine that the Church teaches. From what I remember Our Lady of Fatima said that almost everyone who fought in WWI went to hell. The reason I wonder if it is sinful is because my soul is my main concern. I want to join the military, so I want to know if I can be right with God at the same time.


Not everyone in the military is in combat, if that is what you are worried about. You can speak with a recruiter about things like that. My husband won’t ever see combat in the rating he is in. Heck, he has been in the navy for 5 years and hasn’t been on a ship! Lol. And he won’t if he continues with the same platform, since the birds are too big for carriers.
There is a lot you can do serving your country that doesn’t put you in a combat role. :slight_smile:


I plan on commisioning as an officer in the Marine Corps. I thank your husband for his service:thumbsup:. My question still remains unaswered though. That is this: If it is only acceptable for soldiers to kill enemy combatants in a just war (meaning the war meets all the criteria needed as listed in the CCC to be a just war), what do we say when it comes to operations conducted by special forces that involve killing enemy combatants when there is no war at all? Police officers are not involved in wars as the military is, police officers have a duty to protect the citizens of the community, and if they have to resort to their firearm then so be it. There is no just war doctrine for police officers, there is for the military though.


Johnny, your questions have been answered - just not to your satisfaction.

You say that “If it is only acceptable for soldiers to kill enemy combatants in a just war…what do we say when it comes to operations conducted by special forces that involve killing enemy combatants when there is no war at all?”
–If there are enemy combatants, there is a war; and
–The enemy combatants don’t wear pretty uniforms anymore; they look like noncombatants, and
–They hate all Americans and all Christians, and would like to kill all of both.

I must say, with the utmost respect: An officer in the Marine Corps? I wish you luck, and you will need it.

What I am about to say in all candor may hurt your feelings, and I don’t mean to (but if you plan on being a marine, tough): IMHO your scrupulosity is 100% incompatible with being a marine, and perhaps with any military service.

The military is based around a simple precept: ***FOLLOW ORDERS. *** Follow ALL orders; do not question them. Do not expect to discuss them. Follow them.

You will not quote the catechism. You will follow orders, unquestioningly.
You will not ask, “is this war just?” You will follow orders, unquestioningly.
You will not say, “I can’t do what you ordered because it’s unjust!” You will follow orders, unquestioningly.
You will not say, “you are ordering me to commit a mortal sin!” You will follow orders, unquestioningly.
Don’t try to tell the other Marines that their reading material in the barracks places them in mortal sin because it’s grave matter and they are doing it with full consent of the will.

If you don’t do the above, you will get killed, or get someone else killed.

Can your (scrupulous) conscience handle the foregoing? If you can’t handle the above – don’t join, it won’t work.

The Marines are tough, special people. As an example, the Army, Navy and Air Force JAG attorneys receive abbreviated training compared to other officers (or used to; my friend the Army Reserve JAG major told me his was abbreviated); the Marine JAG attorneys by contrast are Marines first, and are expected to be able to lead men in combat.

I have the utmost respect for all military, but the Marines are a special breed – and thank God we have them, every one.


The just war dictrine does not apply to only formally declared wars. It applies to any case in which one stops an unjust aggressor.

For all practical purposes the Bon Laden thing was part of the just war on terror. It was protecting the world from the unjust aggression and terrorism of that man.


I don’t need luck, I need your prayers. BTW, I don’t have to follow unlawful commands, meaning if I am ordered to kill innocent children and non combatants I can disobey without being courtmarhsaled. Infact I have a duty to disobey them of they are unlawful. By “reading materials” I assume you mean pornogrophy, if I know those under my command are looking at porn and I can do something about it then I will. Otherwise I really would be committing a mortal sin whether I was scrupulous or not.


Johnny, you’ve previously had issues over whether catholic colleges are catholic enough, and now you want to be a marine officer?!

You are already saying what orders you will and won’t follow.

That’s not the way the military is, and certainly not the way the marines are.

Young man, you’re not getting it. The military is not a church group or a debate club where you can discuss whether an order is just. You do as ordered, period. The military is designed to weed out those who can’t follow orders; who want to discuss things; who want to do their own thing, etc., and frankly I don’t blame them.

Seriously, have you ever actually spoken to a marine officer about what military life is like? About command structure? About chain of command? If not this is really academic, and internet research doesn’t count.


The “I was only following orders!” didn’t work at Nuremberg, and it won’t work when it comes to committing unlawful acts in the military. People DO get court-martialed for obeying unlawful orders.


So what would you do if you were ordered to go through a house and kill every woman child you see? What if you were told to help a plane fly over a city to drop an atomic bomb where you would be killing thousands and thousands of innocent civilians? What would you do if you were at My lai? One can join the military to stop unjust aggressors without having to obey unlawful commands, and as the above poster said, you are court marshaled for obeying unlawful commands. It is heroic to be a Navy Seal, but not heroic to kill innocent people. If someone refuses to obey an unlawful command and gets killed by his/her own people because of it, then that person is a martyr.


It’s interesting that the first thing the future marine does when questioned is to start implying all sorts of immoral acts by the U.S. Military. For the record, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima was justified; MaiLai was not.

My point - which I know will be lost it I’ll make it anyway - is that morality is very complex particularly in wartime, and war is very different now than in say World War II. Also. command structure exists because in large part it is necessary and if you can’t adhere to it the military doesn’t want you: lives will be lost if you can’t comply.

I also notice, john, that you apparently haven’t actually spoken to a marine officer - unless you just chose not to answer.

Bu I’ll ask another question anyway.

You’re a lieutenant in a combat zone. You see a 14 year old boy wearing a bulky coat run toward the mess tent during breakfast. The colonel shouts at you, “that’s a suicide vest the kid has on, shoot him!” Do you shoot? There’s no time to debate or check the catechism - make you choice now.

If your answer is anything other than “shoot,” you don’t belong in the military IMHO - the loves of every man in that mess tent are too important, and candidly unless you think you can handle that responsibility, you’d be better off not taking that responsibility if you think you’d do something other than open fire.


It’s not “follow all orders;” and signing up for the military does not mean one leaves one’s conscience and morality at the door.

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