Engaging with an Unjust Occupier: Cooperation and Collaboration

To recapitulate briefly, occupied civilians are not under an obligation to unjust Occupier, and to one another, to comply with all of Occupier’s directives. May they engage with its forces? I use the term ‘engage’ to refer both to the mere act of entering into transactions and relationships (widely understood) with members of the occupying forces in their private capacity, the act of actively cooperating with them in their public capacity, and the act of engaging with them in a role-based, [1]

though not public, capacity. Examples of the former include selling them goods such as food and tobacco, serving them in cafes, having sex with them (whether prostitutional or not), and so on. Examples of the latter include cooperating with them when they act in such a way as to protect and enforce just laws in force or when they enact legislation which helps promote conditions for civic life. Examples of role-based interaction include the case of a doctor from the occupied community who has to decide whether or not to treat a badly wounded occupying combatant.

It might be that, in the long term, cooperating with an unjust Occupier and thereby helping to entrench its rule would be morally worse, at the bar of the fundamental rights of occupied civilians, than resisting it. On the other hand, cooperating now might help further some just end. The point applies to ordinary civilians (in so far as they are expected to respect Occupier’s directives) but also, and in fact perhaps more so, to officials from the displaced regime who have remained in post. Suppose that some occupying combatants have committed exactions against civilians before going AWOL, and that Occupier, though unjustly in situ, is determined to bring them to trial. Suppose further that it needs the help of indigenous police officers to track them down. Obdurate refusal to collaborate would seem wrong in this case. Must public officials resign in order not to be tainted with the shameful mark of collaboration? I do not think so. Quite apart from the fact that they might jeopardize their and their family’s main source of income in so doing, not all aspects of public life within the occupied territory can and will fall within the remit of Occupier’s concerns. Laws in place still need to be enforced (subject to their being just), common criminals still warrant arresting, and local taxes still need to be raised. Discharging those tasks requires some degree of cooperation with Occupier—cooperation which might well be permissible.36

I say ‘might’ for this really is a genuinely complex issue—the sharp end, perhaps, of the ethics of occupation. I lack the space in this chapter to offer a full account of permissible and impermissible cooperation with the enemy. As a first, rough cut, however, it seems to me that the following considerations have a bearing on our moral assessment of what B’s public officials may or may not do. For a start, there is a difference between actively participating in Occupier’s wrongful ends (as when

36 For a useful typology and illuminating normative account of different kinds of collaboration, cooperation, connivance, and collusion with wrongdoers, see R. E. Goodin and C. Lepora, On Complicity and Compromise (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). For an interesting historical account of resistance and collaboration in the Second World War, which draws on a typology that is similar to though pre-dates Goodin’s and Lepora’s, see W. Rings, Living with the Enemy—Collaboration and Resistance in Hitler’s Europe 1939—1945 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1982). For the torturously difficult case of Jewish community leaders who cooperated with the Nazis by selecting fellow Jews for deportation (on the grounds that they would cause less harm overall than if the Nazis operated such selection themselves), see Kamm, The Moral Target, ch. 5. For a study of the different ways in which French officials reached accommodation with the Germans during the Second World War (from simple cooperation over logistical matters such as road safety to collaboration with racist policies), see R. Gildea, Marianne in Chains—Daily Life in the Heart of France during the German Occupation (New York: Picador, 2002). It should not be forgotten, of course, that the Channel Islands were occupied by German troops, and that islanders too had to find ways of living with the enemy. Their predicament is vividly described in M. Bunting, The Model Occupation—The Channel Islands under German Rule, 2nd edn. (London: Pimlico, 2004).

French, Belgian, or Dutch police officers actively and willingly assisted the local Gestapo in rounding up Jews), and cooperation with Occupier’s officials towards rightful ends without participating in its wrongful ends (such as ensuring that common murderers be apprehended and punished). The latter course of action, even if it were deemed impermissible, clearly would not be as wrong as the former, and this even though one knows that in so cooperating, one facilitates Occupier’s wrongful ends. In addition, whether cooperation of that kind is morally permitted partly depends on the extent to which, if at all, one may give priority to the short-term interests of one’s compatriots, whom one helps by remaining in post, over their long-term interest in Occupier’s military defeat. When Occupier is concurrently engaged in a conflict elsewhere, the permissibility of cooperation also depends on the extent to which, if at all, one may give priority to the interests of one’s compatriots over the interests of C’s members in not being subject to Occupier’s ongoing unjust war against their country. Finally, it also partly depends on the relative moral weight one should attach to refraining from helping one’s compatriots by resigning one’s post and thereby not facilitating Occupier’s wrongful attacks on third parties, as against helping one’s fellow residents and thereby contributing to those third parties’ predicament. Even if harming (or contributing to harming) is morally worse other things roughly equal than refraining from helping, the reverse might well be true when other things are considerably unequal—for example, when one’s contribution to a harm is exceedingly marginal in absolute terms and exceedingly smaller than one’s contribution to a benefit, or when one stands in a special relationship with the beneficiaries of one’s willingness to remain in post.

Discerning morally permissible cooperation from morally prohibited collaboration with an unjust Occupier is no easy task—and certainly harder, in fact, than those who have not lived under a military occupation have generally supposed. That said, the horrors of Nazi occupation of Europe and of Japan’s occupation of China prior to and during the Second World War, ought not to blind us to the fact that occupiers, however unjust their occupation, sometimes also and at the same time act rightly, and in a way which warrants formal assistance. Nor should it blind us to the thought that, however condemnatory we might be of formal collaboration with occupying forces, it remains nevertheless morally permissible, at least sometimes, to engage with them in a private capacity. In fact, unless occupying forces are rigidly kept apart from occupied civilians, the latter have no choice but to engage with them (down the street, in shops, etc.) and it would not be apposite to condemn them for doing something which they cannot avoid doing. Nor would it be apposite always to condemn them for giving in either to the threat of coercion, or to the simple need to earn a living, or both. It is one thing for a publican to refuse to serve an uncouth customer, but quite another to turn away a gun-yielding combatant. It is one thing to shut down one’s business for fear of having to transact with the enemy when one has other sources of income, but quite another to do so when that is the only way to feed one’s family. It is one thing for a doctor not to make oneself actively available to occupying forces; it is quite another for her actively to refuse to treat a wounded enemy occupier who presents himself, in great pain, to her surgery.

Those sketchy points raise two further issues. First, occupied civilians engage with occupying forces through both commercial transactions and altruistic exchanges. In some contexts, a commercial transaction is more appropriate than an altruistic exchange, in so far as it puts occupied civilians and occupying combatants on an equal footing; in other contexts, the reverse might be true. Suppose that you have a choice between selling or giving some good to occupying combatants— say a turkey at Christmas time. Selling implies transacting on a footing of equality but still getting something from the enemy. Giving enables you, perhaps, not to place yourself on their level, and in so doing to reverse, albeit for a very brief time, the unequal relationship of occupier/occupied. That said, if your business is to sell turkeys, you probably should sell, not give, for in doing the latter you would be doing those combatants a favour which turkey-sellers do not normally do. But if you simply happen to keep turkeys for your own consumption, perhaps you should give, not sell—as you would indeed normally do for people who have been staying in your house. Generally put, whether you may give or sell a particular good to someone who is, ex hypothesi a wrongdoer (not merely vis-a-vis you but also vis-a-vis others) partly depends on the nature of your relationship with that person. This might well explain why the French by and large did not frown upon prostitutes who took on German combatants as clients, but strongly objected to non-commercial sexual relationships with the enemy—so strongly in fact as to inflict, post-war, harsh, humiliating punishments on French women suspected of having taken German lovers.

Second, for all that occupied civilians and occupying combatants stand in a broadly unequal relationship, they coexist under the shadow of death, alive to the very real possibility that, sooner or later, they might be locked again in a lethal conflict. That too brings with it its unfair share of dilemmatic moments. Suppose that the enemy soldier who has been billetted in your house breaks down in your courtyard at 10 a.m. having heard news of his parents’ death in aerial bombings. Should you show him compassion? Well, it depends. If you saw him the day before harrass your neighbours at checkpoint or take a suspected Resistant to the local torture centre—maybe not. But if he has so far behaved impeccably and courteously—in your kitchen, on the street, at the local shops—perhaps you should show him compassion. At any rate, it would not be morally inappropriate to do so. All the same, you would not wrong him by detonating a mine, several hours later, at the exact moment the military convoy on which you know him to be is passing by. To be sure, if you know at 10 a.m. that you will attempt to kill him later that night, you might think it hypocritically wrong to show him compassion—and yet struggle to hold on to your resolve in the face of his obvious distress. But then again, you might not give in, and you might be justified in not feeling so torn apart if you have good reasons to believe that for all his polite reserve towards you and your family he would not hesitate to kill you upon ordered to do so by his superiors. Those considerations are shaped partly by the moral status of the Occupation itself, but also by the highly textured context within which interpersonal relationships between occupying individual combatants and occupied individual civilians unfold. The judgements which occupied civilians must make when engaging with occupying forces in their daily life bring to light the fact that occupying combatants are not simply enemies who (in the case at hand) have no claim to issue directives on us, consume our resources and make use of our infrastructure— indeed, whom we may sometimes justifiably kill: they are fellow human beings whom it is sometimes appropriate to treat as such. The point might seem naively obvious, yet it does bear stressing, if only as a reminder of the emotional resonance of our moral decisions and the moral valence of our emotional reactions.

  • [1] However, and again by implication, individuals who are subject to a just occupation are under aduty to help A prosecute just wars abroad, subject to the no-undue-sacrifice proviso.
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