Monday, August 07, 2006

David Warren questions just war doctrine in asymmetric warfare

David Warren, here, questions whether just war doctrine can survive contact with 'asymmetric warfare' which is itself a form of warfare designed to take advantage of just war doctrine. The essential question, which Warren does not quite frame, is whether the noncombatant immunity doctrine can survive in a world without reciprocity and without reprisal. Increasingly, I think the answer is probably no. More about this later. But I do not think that there will be a jus in bello in the way in which we recognize it today - universal, equally applicable to all parties, the same standards, etc. - in, oh say, a hundred years. Perhaps the words will all still be on paper, but I don't think fighting parties will act that way and the disconnect between the law, the monitor-referees (the ICRC, the media NGOS like HRW, the international tribunals) will simply widen although no one will quite admit it, although maybe by then they will. Two maxims come to mind:

First, reward behavior and you will get more of it.

Second, the best is the enemy of the good, and perfection the greatest enemy of all.

From Warren:

The way Israel is now fighting -- and the U.S. and allies are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan -- must be reconsidered. The enemy is himself quite indifferent to civilian suffering, as he shows by using his own people as pawns. He consciously uses our own, Western, moral reticence against us.

By openly stating that we will, under no circumstances, attack targets where civilians are present, we "hand the foe a blueprint of our acts, incite him to step over our carefully drawn line, encourage his vice and incur our own defeat." (I am quoting a priest who has considered the broader implications of the Catholic just war doctrine.)

Even "just war" acknowledges that, as in medicine, real mercy can sometimes require ruthlessness. We have forgotten this in the West. If we want to save civilians, over the longer run, we must resolve to call the enemy's bluff. Show him by our actions that hiding behind baby carriages will not save him. For the enemy will only stop using "human shields" when they cease to serve his purposes.

More on this later. But I must say that the NGOs, the UN claptrap officialdom, the ICRC, have frankly been unwilling even to discuss the possibilities that this raises, preferring to fall back on an increasingly disconnected positive law. What does it mean when the law is positive in its application only for one side?

(Update, Cathy Young raises some of the same questions, here.)

1 comment:

Mark G. said...

These issues aren't as unprecedented as many seem to think. I know I'm not telling you anything new, but for the sake of your readers: The idea of ruthlessness in war as a moral good goes back at least to Francis Lieber, who wrote in General Orders No. 100, the guidance for Union field armies issued in April 1863, "The more vigorously wars are pursued the better it is for humanity. Sharp wars are brief."

Similarly, General Orders No. 100 did not permit enemy guerrillas to use the moral camouflage of the civilian, and they could be shot of hand when captured. And although G.O. 100 did not specifically authorize it, it was common practice among Union field commanders to hold the civilian population responsible for guerrilla activity in their midst. In other words, the principles of retaliation and reprisal were understood and regularly practiced, the idea being to punish, not reward, the enemy, and to force the enemy to conform to the laws and customs of war.

The key problem in my mind is the IDF's use of air strikes and artillery bombardments as its preferred mode of engagement. As long as Hezbollah or other groups employ civilians as shields, an irreducible number of civilians will be killed no matter what you do. But surely the principle of double effect must be preserved -- that the killing of civilians is neither the objective, nor a means to the objective, and recognizing the evil involved in killing civilians, a combatant will take serious steps to minimize such killing, accepting costs to itself. (The formulation, as I'm sure you know, is paraphrased from Michael Walzer's definition in Just and Unjust Wars.)

If the IDF is to take the principle of double effect seriously, it cannot rely on a campaign based mainly on air strike and artillery bombardments. These husband the lives of IDF soldiers but inevitably they greatly increase the number of civilian dead. No: the appropriate tactic is to close with and destroy the enemy with ground forces equipped with weapons that maximize their chance to direct fire toward combatants and away from noncombatants, and operating under rules of engagement that insist civilian deaths must be kept to a minimum. If more IDF soldiers die as a result, that is as it should be. In war, the combatants are the ones who must chiefly run the risks, not the civilian incapable of defending himself.

There is one further thing I want to say, basically in the form of a question: Is the proscription on the killing of civilians principally utilitarian in nature or is it a matter of a moral imperative -- that there are certain things in war that are never morally justifiable? And which of these stances -- the utilitarian argument or the one based on outright proscription -- is more likely to be taken seriously by soldiers in the field?