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Has modern warfare changed the nature of battlefield ethics and made a Just War impossible?

2015 December 1
by Paul Vallely

War has changed in recent decades. Once it was about opposing armies facing off across a battlefield. But in the “war on terror” one side attacks with airstrikes and drones which can be operated by an Air Force lieutenant in Nevada, putting in a 9-5 shift before going home for dinner with his wife and kids. And the other side responds by chopping the heads off journalists and aid workers – and are now threatening to do the same to a taxi driver from Salford whose only crime was to deliver nappies and baby food to refugees in a far-off land.

Welcome to a new and thorny thicket in the military moral maze.

Notions of what is proper behaviour in battle have evolved over 3000 years. The ancient Indian text, the Mahabharata, sets out strict guidelines of civilised combat. Cicero, in Ancient Rome, had clear views on what should justify taking up the sword in the first place – vengeance, honour and self-defence were approved motives. But war has never been merely a monstrous aberration in which all morality is set aside. It must have its own set of ethical constraints.

The classical idea of a Just War goes back to the 4th century religious thinker Augustine of Hippo. For war to be licit, he said, it must be declared by a competent legal authority – a ruler not a private individual. And it must have a just cause – to recover something stolen or to punish evil. Injustice was a greater evil than war.

In later centuries other philosophers elaborated the rules. The Middle Ages’ leading thinker Thomas Aquinas insisted there had to be “right intention” behind the just cause, ruling out grabs for power or land (or, indeed, oil) masquerading as the righting of wrong. In the 16th century the fathers of international law – the theologian de Vitoria, who criticised the King of Spain’s plundering of the Americas, his colleague Suarez and the Dutch jurist Grotius – added that a just war must be fought by proportional means, must always be a last resort and must have a realistic chances of success.

But all of this was in a world in which war was seen as the combat of opposing armies. Yet in the Second World War against Nazism, which was generally taken to meet all the key ethical benchmarks of a Just War, the British bombed Dresden with high civilian casualties and no military purpose beyond breaking the will of the enemy – an illicit purpose in international morality and law. The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima entirely targeted civilians; it was militarily decisive but morally outrageous.

The world began to think differently about the ethics of war. Nuclear bombs maintained peace throughout the Cold War with the threat of “mutually assured destruction” to cities of civilians on both sides. It seemed to work in practice but it was morally indefensible to many ethicists. It turned civilians into combatants, defying one of the key Just War imperatives – that only soldiers should be killed. Terrorism puts that approach into practice more graphically – as the tragic case of the jihadist hostage Alan Henning, the taxi driver from Salford, reveals.

The sheer terror of nuclear weapons led many ethicists to suggest that a Just War was no longer possible. War was, Pope John Paul II said, “always a defeat for humanity”. For many pacifism became the default position. All war was now immoral.

But changes in warfare undermine that thinking. The extent of that transformation has been spelled out by one of Britain’s top soldiers, General Sir Rupert Smith, who served in Northern Ireland, the first Gulf War and Bosnia before becoming Deputy Commander of NATO. Smith, in his book The Utility of Force, uses the phrase “industrial war” to describe old-style conflicts between states with formal armies and recognisable events called battles.

But this has been replaced by what Smith calls “wars between peoples”. These abandon conventional military strategies, tanks and big guns, uniforms and even nationalities. This is the asymmetric war we see on our tv sets whenever an Army patrol is filmed moving through streets filled with women shopping and children on their way to school.

In the old wars the aim was to smash the opposing army. In the new the aim is to break the will of your opponent, or change his intentions, to create new conditions in which your strategic objective is achieved. That is pretty much what the US did in the Cold War, a conflict which was won without open war. When fighting does break out, in this new paradigm, the best military forces in the world can win every fire-fight and still lose the war. American air strikes against the so-called Islamic State (IS) will not succeed on their own.

So the aim in Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza, Ireland or wherever, is to defeat the enemy without alienating the civilians among whom the enemy moves and takes cover. Massive military responses can even be counter-productive. The Israelis found that, Smith says, when heavy use of armour inflamed the situation during the Intifada. It is a lesson which, modern Gaza shows, they failed to learn.

Looking to the use of drones in Afghanistan, Smith adds acerbically, “bombing the hell out of a wedding party doesn’t help” when the task is to root out and neutralise the enemy. “Fights and battles must be won but winning must be done in such a way that it enhances [rather than diminishing] the sense of security of the local population,” the general says. On the other side the fanatics understand this; they have made the calculation that the Sunni population of Iraq and Syria sees even IS brutal bigotry as a lesser threat than the murderous sectarian menace of Baghdad’s Shia militias or the Damascus government.

The other side of the coin in this asymmetric warfare is that grassroots operators, like the fanatics of IS, cannot counter the high-technology of US airstrikes. But they can kidnap hostages and cut their heads off, perhaps in an attempt to provoke Washington to send in American troops the zealots can try to kill.

Terrorists know that atrocity will outrage a democracy and steel it to fight; but they also know that continued relentless atrocities can eventually sap a democratic public’s will to continue that fight. That is why President Obama wants to minimise US casualties by having the on-the-ground fighting against IS done by local people, with high-tech support comes from America.

So how do the principles of Just War obtain in this new more chaotic world? The idea of “just cause” still applies with its appeal to the punishment of evil and defence of the common good. But “right intention” is not so clear when the rhetoric of values is but a thin disguise for factional interests.

Weasel words abound in a world where Russian troops don civilian clothes and pretend to be pro-Moscow Ukrainians. Or where President Obama says there will be “no US boots on the ground” in Iraq when he has ordered 1,100 American soldiers back to Iraq since June as “trainers” and “advisers” and is about to send in 475 more. Or where the gap is so wide between Israel’s stated aims and actions in Gaza. Or where the UnIslamic State routinely violates many of the key principles of Islam.

Then there is the lack of clarity over “lawful authority”. Alongside the arrival of a default pacifism among many leading churchmen there has developed a sense that no one country can be trusted to constitute a “lawful authority”. Only an international body like the United Nations can be that.  Pope Francis echoed this idea last month when he suggested that military action against IS was licit but that the decision could not be taken by a single country.

Yet there are problems of partiality within the UN too, especially its Security Council, where nations talk about the common good but press their own national interests. Rowan Williams has suggested that the UN should pass decisions on military interventions to an independent body of international lawyers. That is attractive but unlikely at present. So US presidents rely on “coalitions of the willing” to indicate international support for their war on terror; Obama appears to be more successful on that this week than George Bush was in his time.

The fourth classic Just War yardstick – insisting the response should be proportionate to the threat – is more problematic. The principle still touches the pulse of public common sense, which is why Israel lost international sympathy with its pulverisation of Gaza. But working out what is a proportionate response – when Hamas is firing low-grade rockets into Israel – is a difficult and delicate balancing act. In asymmetric warfare the mighty are often put on the back foot.

Some propose a hardline response to this. Alan Dershowitz, a professor of law at Harvard, wants to redress the disadvantage under which democracies labour. So he has suggested the torture of terrorists is now ethically permissible. He attacks what he calls “dead baby syndrome” whereby insurgents use children for cover knowing that if the enemy kills them it will suffer a propaganda defeat. He has talked of a “continuum of civilianality” which further erodes the traditional distinction between combatant and civilian.

Public morality has not embraced the idea that, as in Gaza, it is acceptable for an army to bomb a house in which it knows women and children are sheltering. Yet, in more general terms, the military and moral imperatives coincide on this issue. In previous eras, from Roman times to the American Civil War, it was common practice for armies to punish the civilian population for guerrilla activity in their midst. But in modern war, says Smith, “dominance in firepower has been supplanted by the need for dominance in information”. Winning hearts and minds is often more important than winning the combat. Theologians and generals are now as one on that.

It is the two final Just War criteria which are most problematic in asymmetric modern warfare – that military interventions must always be a last resort and must always have a realistic chances of success.

The obligation to conduct war justly arises, in part, from the mutual risk of personal harm to those who wage it. Technology has altered the balance of this mutuality. High-tech military solutions can tempt politicians to act prematurely because the risk of casualties to their own side is minimised. What ought to be a last resort is deployed much earlier. But, though robotic weapons systems, air strikes and artillery bombardments lower the risk to the troops of powerful nations, they inevitably greatly increase the number of civilian dead. Moreover, drones launched by remote can anesthetize our collective conscience and make their use easier. And the young soldiers who are pushing the buttons today will be the decision-making generals tomorrow.

Modern conflict also muddles what we understand by having “a reasonable chance of success”. Recent history – in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Gaza – show that the chances of a definitive successful outcome is very low. Military force no longer decides the outcome; at best it creates the conditions which force the opponent to change his mind and force him to some settlement. As General Sir Rupert Smith puts it: “In these modern operations, the outcome is not meant to be definitive – and therefore the operation has to be sustained, open-ended.” A “reasonable chance of success” requires politicians and strategists to have in mind a framework for peace long before the fighting begins. The opposite happens in practice, with wars stumbling from one crisis to another – and the definition of “success” being altered to accommodate the reality on the ground, rather than the other way round. Force then becomes an end rather than a means.

So where lies justice in our modern wars? We clearly have to rethink the rules to reflect our changed reality. But in doing that we must not throw away the ethical constraints of the classical tradition. We must not sacrifice our openness to self-criticism by becoming trapped in a self-referential morality. Democracies may be at a disadvantage when it comes to terrorism. But we will be even more disadvantaged if we throw away the values on which democracy rests in our determination to win.


21 September 2014


Paul Vallely is visiting professor in public ethics at the University of Chester



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