Saturday, December 26, 2020

Asymmetric Killing


Anand Gopal, in a fascinating review in The New Yorker (Dec. 21, 2020) of Neil Renic's new book "
Asymmetric Killing: Risk Avoidance, Just War and the Warrior Ethos" (Oxford 2020) claims that  bombing coordinated from control rooms thousands of miles away violates the ethos of humane warfare.

The core principle of humane warfare is that fighters may kill one another at any time, except those that are hors de combat and they must not target civilians.  But if a belligerant doesn't pose a danger because s/he is thousands of miles away from the enemy, is the belligerant any different from a civilian?

Focussing on the battle in Raqqa, the American led coalition in Syria dropped approximately 10,000 bombs on Raqqa in four months in 2017, destroying 80% of the city of a population of 300,000.  Not one American was killed.  The US claimed that a fleet of lawyers scrutinized the strikes to make sure that they were not indiscriminate and followed the legal rules of warfare.

The US no longer engages in terror bombing such as the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and then Korea and Vietnam; since the first Gulf War, the US follows the legal rules of warfare.  But Gopal points out, the savage, indiscriminate takeover of Aleppo by Russian and Syrian forces rendered Aleppo as flattened as the US-led forces rendered Raqqa, with their precision bombing.

Human rights groups accuse the US of committing war crimes, including in the Raqqa battle, but the US responds that what it does is legal under international law.  Neil Renic submits that there is a "profound discord between what is lawful on the battlefield and what is moral."  What has gone missing, Renic argues, is the old martial virtue of courage, that was so central to the idea of good soldiering that weapons lacking in valor sparked objections from the ranks.  A British airman from World War II wrote that he was a fighter pilot but  never a bomber pilot, for it "would have given me no sense of achievement to drop bombs on German cities."  The elimination of risk has changed the nature of war and the fact that Raqqa is as much a ruin as Aleppo leads to the conclusion that the current laws on what is legal in warfare need to be revised.

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