The mad passions of men

Nightfall at a battlefield in Gettysburg, 1863. LeGrand Wilson, a Confederate surgeon, looks upon the dead and wounded, and reels from the enormity of the carnage. ‘This was my first experience on the battle-field after the fighting,’ he writes, ‘and it was horrible beyond description.’

Wilson then reflects: ‘If every human being could have witnessed the result of the mad passions of men as I saw it that night, war would cease, and there would never be another battle.’

But of course, the ‘mad passions of men’ continue to fuel wars. Except that we got better at inflicting damage from a distance, removing ourselves from the darkly intimate embrace of the wounded enemy, never to gaze at his familiar face.

The two World Wars in the first half of the 20th century so drastically changed warfare in this respect, that civilising restraints were formulated in its aftermath. They were codified as international humanitarian law. It was not intended to prevent war (you couldn’t), or to keep nations from defending themselves or protect populations (you must). Rather, it was an important reassertion of our humanity and dignity especially under the brutalising conditions of war.

I would concede that we still struggle to make this assertion operational, even with the establishment of the International Criminal Court (which deals with violations after the fact).

But it should disturb us that civilian casualties continue to be dismissed as mere collateral against martial objectives – that indeed, achieving military objectives is seen to outweigh the risk of unnecessary, civilian death.

International humanitarian law repudiates this very idea. I repudiate it because I believe that human life is sacred. I repudiate it because it is too high a moral cost to pay and diminishes even the righteous.  I repudiate it even if my enemy doesn’t because if that difference doesn’t lie between us then I will have already lost.

Yet both articles that I’ve written on the US armed drones program (here and here) have drawn comments that seem to endorse covert, ‘asymmetrical’ warfare on the basis that it’s better than other methods (carpet bombing and napalm are examples provided). Commenters also point out that terrorists themselves do not distinguish between civilian and combatants, and in fact target innocents. What would I have the US do – I get asked – sit back and hope that merely gathering intelligence will keep Americans safe?

Of course I recognise that wars are murky, and especially this one – the ‘war on terror’ whose inception was misguided and ill-planned and now being fought on too many fronts. It would be ridiculous for me to deny that the US is entitled to protect itself from terrorist threat, and it may be the case that weaponised drones are the most feasible strategy. There are claims that they are disrupting terrorist networks.

However, these may be short-term achievements, given the probable radicalisation of another generation of young Muslims.

Moreover, as former director of national intelligence Dennis Blair points out (NYT link), they are dangerously seductive: ‘low cost, no US casualties, gives the appearance of toughness’ – with no certainty over the long term impact on national interests.

Meanwhile, remotely piloted, missile-bearing drones have significantly removed impediments to bellicose foreign policy, even though the prospect of civilian casualties and the risks to our own personnel are important impediments to have.

The intrinsic value of human life, the rule of law and due process, the reparation for victims – these are not peripheral. They keep us from debasing ourselves completely when we fight each other, if we must fight.

When armed drones (as well as anticipated AI or advanced robotics-based defence technology), removes these impediments, then we are left in very dark territory indeed.

It’s not supposed to be easy for the good guys to kill people.



Categories: War and Peace

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