Unless one is a pacifist who opposes all wars on principle and is willing to live with the consequences, one is faced with the difficult problem of deciding when wars are justified and when they are not. The search for criteria for ‘just wars’ has evolved over time but while much of that effort has focused on finding legal rules, modern warfare has exposed the need for moral rules that go deeper. In a review of a new book Asymmetric Killing: Risk Avoidance, Just War, and the Warrior Ethos by Neil Remic, Anand Gopal writes about the criteria that had been in place.
We have been conditioned to judge the merit of today’s wars by their conduct. The United Nations upholds norms of warfare that, among other things, prohibit such acts as torture, rape, and hostage-taking. Human-rights groups and international lawyers tend to designate a war “humane” when belligerents have avoided harming civilians as much as possible.
But now modern remote controlled warfare that leaves one side immune from any casualties has changed the calculus. Gopal starts out by looking at what happened to the city of Raqqa as a result of sustained aerial bombardment by the US .
For four months in 2017, an American-led coalition in Syria dropped some ten thousand bombs on Raqqa, the densely populated capital of the Islamic State. Nearly eighty per cent of the city, which has a population of three hundred thousand, was destroyed. I visited shortly after ISIS relinquished control, and found the scale of the devastation difficult to comprehend: the skeletal silhouettes of collapsed apartment buildings, the charred schools, the gaping craters. Clotheslines were webbed between stray standing pillars, evidence that survivors were somehow living among the ruins. Nobody knows how many thousands of residents died, or how many are now homeless or confined to a wheelchair. What is certain is that the decimation of Raqqa is unlike anything seen in an American conflict since the Second World War.
And yet, the US did not suffer even a single casualty because it had no one on the battlefield and its adversary was in no position to strike back. Remic says that because of things like this, the old standards of what constitutes a just war are no longer valid.
He argues that, when assessing the humanity of a war, we should look not only to the fate of civilians but also to whether combatants have exposed themselves to risk on the battlefield. Renic suggests that when one side fully removes itself from danger—even if it goes to considerable lengths to protect civilians—it violates the ethos of humane warfare.
The core principle of humane warfare is that fighters may kill one another at any time, excepting those who are rendered hors de combat, and must avoid targeting civilians… What really matters, then, is the type of danger that someone in a battle zone presents. The moment that a person picks up a weapon, whether donning a uniform or not, he or she poses a direct and immediate danger. This is the crucial distinction between armed personnel and civilians.
But what if the belligerents themselves don’t pose a direct and immediate danger? Renic argues that in such theatres as Pakistan, where Americans deploy remote-controlled drones to kill their enemies while rarely stepping foot on the battlefield, insurgents on the ground cannot fight back—meaning that, in terms of the threat that they constitute, they are no different from civilians. It would then be just as wrong, Renic suggests, to unleash a Hellfire missile on a group of pickup-riding insurgents as it would be to annihilate a pickup-riding family en route to a picnic.
The problem with legal rules is that many countries find them fairly easy to avoid technically breaching them even while unleashing massive carnage that results in civilian deaths. As Gopal writes about Raqqa, “The U.S. razed an entire city, killing thousands in the process, without committing a single obvious war crime.”
The essence of this legal code is that militaries cannot intentionally kill civilians.
A second pillar of the legal code is the rule of proportionality: states can kill civilians if they are aiming for a military target, as long as the loss of civilian life is proportional to the military advantage they gain by the attack. What this means is anyone’s guess: how do you measure “military advantage” against human lives?
When counter-insurgency doctrine was in vogue during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, American forces sought to win “hearts and minds” by embedding in population centers. For an Afghan, few sights stirred as much dread as a column of beige armored Humvees snaking through a crowded market. If a suicide bomber attacked the Humvees, Americans would rightly condemn him for his disregard for the surrounding civilians—even if he had the force of the law, in the guise of proportionality, behind him.
It is clear that governments have realized that as long as they can avoid their own soldiers getting killed or injured, their populations will ignore or overlook never-ending engagement in wars that will result, despite technical adherence to the laws of war, in the inevitable deaths of large numbers of civilians. They will avoid taking the necessary steps to avoid civilian casualties if doing so poses any risk at all to their own personnel.
How many civilian deaths in Raqqa were avoidable? In Tokhar, it was possible to reconstruct the evidence, but often it is not. Without transparency in the targeting process, the military usually has the final word. Yet there is one way we can intuitively know when an armed force has an alternative to causing civilian suffering. When U.S. forces are faced with a pair of ISIS gunmen on the roof of an apartment building, they can call in a five-hundred-pound laser-guided bomb—or they can approach the enemy on foot, braving enemy fire, and secure the building through old-fashioned battle. In the past, armies have sometimes chosen the harder path: during the Second World War, when Allied French pilots carried out bombing raids on Vichy territory—part of their homeland—they flew at lower altitudes, in order to avoid striking civilians, even though it increased the chances that they’d be shot down. For the U.S. military, however, the rules are blind to the question of risk. The law doesn’t consider whether an armed force could have avoided unnecessary civilian suffering by exposing itself to greater danger. For Neil Renic, wars waged exclusively through drones, therefore, point to the “profound discord between what is lawful on the battlefield and what is moral.”
Because of this new risk-free form of warfare for countries that have advanced munitions, the old military virtues of courage and honor are no longer emphasized because there is none when you are pushing a button from thousands of miles away to kill people and destroy things. In former days, aerial bombardment and even sniping were disparaged by other ground combatants because they were considered so risk-free to the perpetrator. Those scruples are long gone and with it the idea that any war can be morally just wars on an individual level may also have disappeared.
What we need is the end to wars or, if unavoidable, fewer and shorter wars. Period. Unfortunately these ‘cost free’ wars (at least in terms of casualties of the people in countries that have these remote killing devices) are only pushing things in the opposite direction, since the public seems to be willing to ignore conflicts as long as ‘our’ side does not suffer any casualties, as can be seen in the many forever wars that the US is currently engaged in.