After assassinating Soleimani, Trump went on Twitter to threaten a “disproportionate response” to any Iranian retaliation and to destroy Iranian cultural sites. Intentionally targeting cultural property violates the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. As such, Trump seems to have been threatening to commit a war crime. To be fair to Trump, he probably had no idea that doing so would be a war crime nor any idea that the United States signed the treaty. He is, by all accounts (other than his own), the most ignorant American president in history. Laying aside Trump’s ignorance of matters critical to his job, this threat does raise matters of philosophical interest.
Trump’s threat could be defended by noting that the United States military does allow for attacking cultural property when doing so is a matter of military necessity. This is certainly reasonable—no military could be expected to allow enemies to occupy and launch attacks from cultural property with impunity. The moral burden of the destruction of such property would weigh heaviest on those who turned it into a target, though those deciding to destroy or damage it would not be entirely blame free—they should attempt all reasonable alternatives.
In the case of Trump’s threat, there is clearly no military necessity in striking those targets. The cultural sites do not seem to have any military value nor do the Iranians seem to be posting military forces in or near them. And even if they had some value or targets were nearby, there would still be an abundance of military targets to hit.
It could be argued that Trump’s threat is justified because of its deterrence value. This takes us into the ethics of threats and a common issue in this area is whether it is wrong to threaten to do what would be wrong to do. One stock argument in favor of allowing such threats is utilitarian: if threating something that is wrong to do creates a greater good than not making such a threat, then it would be morally acceptable. In this case, if Trump threatening to commit a war crime deterred Iran from a severe retaliation and thus removed the need for the United States to retaliate in turn, then the threat could be morally justified. However, if the same result could have been achieved without such a threat, then the utilitarian argument would not justify it—this is because there would be better alternatives that would have yielded the same results.
There are also clear negative consequences to making such threats. The most obvious is the damage to the reputation of the United States. It is no coincidence that fictional villains make terrible threats to try to achieve their ends—doing so is villainous. For the United States to threaten war crimes is certainly not a good look and, more importantly, serves to degrade our moral standing in the world. After all, if we want to claim to be the good guys, we must earn that and this involves, at the very least, not acting like the bad guys. But why is the destruction of cultural property wrong?
Since terrorist groups, like ISIS, and terrorist states often aim to eradicate cultural property as part of their agenda, this suggests that there is something wrong with this practice. But this is hardly decisive proof. The proof rests in the fact that the aims of such attacks include the destruction of history and the eradication of culture. This destruction does obvious harm to the culture that owns the property—it is destroying part of the record and reality of who they are as a people and an attempt to erase them from the world and memory. But the harm goes beyond this: cultural property also belongs to all of humanity as part of our history and heritage as a species; to destroy the culture property of one people is to destroy the cultural property of all of us.
Culture property often endures far beyond the time of its creation, out lasting the politics, religion and ideology of that time. To destroy such things for the fleeting wants of the powerful to advance some short-lived agenda or satisfy some irregular passion would be to destroy something of enduring and significant value for something ephemeral and of far less worth. I will certainly acknowledge that there can be exceptions, perhaps the sort of crazy examples that philosophers delight in.
To the credit of Trump’s wranglers, Trump seems to have been informed that destroying cultural property is a war crime and he has asserted that he likes to follow the law. While this is obviously not true, walking back the threat of war crimes is certainly a positive thing.