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The Following text has been used in class for a reading comprehension exercise,
and to stimulate discussion and writing.
What do you think?
The rules of war
by ALAIN GRESH
During the recent war with Serbia the French academic, Pierre
Hassner, pointed to the risk of a brutalisation of public opinion
in Western countries. Respectable citizens, he warned, might remain
attached to the value of individual human life, and thus continue
to demand "zero casualties" for their own troops. At the same time,
though, they would be increasingly prepared to inflict civilian
casualties on adversaries and tolerate large numbers of victims
among populations the West was seeking to protect (1). Cornelio
Sommaruga, president of the International Committee of the Red
Cross, had exactly this in mind when he dismissed the concept of
"humanitarian war" as a caricature in which "one side is
humanitarian and the other diabolical". It could lead to
discrimination between "good victims" on the "humanitarian" side
and "bad victims" among those who opposed "humanitarian
Ever since the adoption of the Geneva Conventions for the
Protection of Victims of War on 12 August 1949, and the two
additional protocols on 8 June 1977, the international community
has accepted constraints on all parties to a conflict, irrespective
of the legitimacy of their cause. Article 48 of Additional Protocol
I states as a "basic rule" that "in order to ensure respect for and
protection of the civilian population and civilian objects, the
Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the
civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and
military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations
only against military objectives."
It is not always easy to draw the line between civilian objects and
military targets, between a justifiable desire to protect the lives
of one's troops and the wish to avoid civilian casualties. A former
French prime minister, Pierre Mendès France, once explained how,
during the second world war, concern about civilian casualties
forced him and other pilots of the Free French Forces to resort to
skip bombing, which, because it was carried out at very low
altitude, carried the greatest risk for the pilot but allowed for
much more accurate targeting (3).
During the war against Serbia, high-altitude bombing, the use of
fragmentation bombs and the choice of such targets as television
stations, bridges and power stations led both the American
organisation, Human Rights Watch, and the International Committee
of the Red Cross to question whether Nato was respecting the Geneva
Conventions, especially Article 57 of Additional Protocol I, which
stipulates that "in the conduct of military operations, constant
care shall be taken to spare the civilian population, civilians and
This is an important issue, but there are other aspects to the
relationship between war, law and morality. The technological gap
between the United States and the rest of the world is now so great
that the two major wars of the 1990s - Iraq and Serbia - can be
compared to the colonial expeditions of the last quarter of the
19th century. Then, the odds were already stacked heavily in favour
of Europe by a technological revolution that had given it the
repeater rifle and the machine gun. The results were seen during
the reconquest of the Sudan in 1898, which pitted the British
against the troops of the late Mahdi, a political and religious
leader who had driven them out a few years earlier. Sven Lindqvist
has pointed out that the decisive battle of Omdurman was fought in
the name of civilisation, but nobody in Europe asked how it came
about that 11,000 Sudanese were killed while the British lost only
48 men. Nor did anyone question why almost none of the 16,000
Sudanese wounded survived (4).
American philosopher Michael Walzer has observed that "pigeon
shooting is not a fight between combatants. When the world is
irretrievably divided into those who drop bombs and those they fall
on, the situation becomes morally problematic" (5). Why hesitate to
launch hostilities, why give diplomacy every chance, if the cost of
war is so low?
In our enlightened times, the West no longer executes prisoners and
it even tries to keep the enemy's civilian casualties down, since
the media impact of a blunder can be devastating. But isn't this
just shifting cruelty to another level? "And what kind of humanism
expresses its reluctance to suffer military casualties by
devastating the civilian economy of its adversary for decades to
come?" the former US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, asked
with regard to the war in Serbia (6). According to a Unicef report,
the damage inflicted on Iraq and the refusal to lift the embargo
have doubled the country's infant mortality rate in ten years.
Aptly dubbed "Drop today, kill tomorrow", the use of fragmentation
bombs and the other techniques that constitute the new way of
waging war defy the spirit of the Geneva Conventions and the rule
Two and a half thousand years ago the Athenians justified their
intention to subjugate the island of Melos in terms that might well
have been used by Nato generals: "As the world goes, right is only
in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they
can and the weak suffer what they must" (7).
(1) Critique internationale, Paris, No. 4, summer 1999.
(2) International Herald Tribune, Paris, 12 August 1999.
(3) Quoted by Michael Walzer in Just and unjust wars : a moral
argument with historical illustrations, Basic Books, New York,
(4) Sven Lindqvist, Exterminate all the brutes, translated from the
Swedish by Joan Tate, Granta, London, 1997.
(5) Preface to French edition of Michael Walzer, op. cit., Guerres
justes et injustes, Belin, Paris, 1999.
(6) Newsweek, 31 May 1999.
(7) Thucydides, The Peloponesian War, Book V, section 89.
Translated by Barry Smerin
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED © 1999 Le Monde diplomatique
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