Counterview: Do Humane Rules Of War Make It Easier To Start Wars?

If you want a good summary of the conflict in Syria, check out (“9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask“) by Washington Post foreign affairs blogger Max Fisher. If you’ve mostly ignored the civil war going on in Syria, this article will fill in many of the blanks.

But there is one point in this article I would like to isolate on. It’s question number 8 which asks, “Come on, what’s the big deal with chemical weapons? Assad kills 100,000 people with bullets and bombs but we’re freaked out over 1,000 who maybe died from poisonous gas? That seems silly.” I’m not sure I would frame the question using words like “silly” but I do ask the same basic question. I do think the use of chemical weapons is a big deal, but I also think the same of conventional weapons. So I question why we use language like “horrified” when we find out Assad gassed his own people when he has already slaughtered 100,000 with conventional weapons.

Fisher writes about the distinction between chemical and conventional weapons as a “norm” of war that everyone has agreed to. He says war has existed for a long time, but the idea that we could regulate war is a modern idea, only existing in the past century. And he says chemical weapons are part of that regulation of war, that chemical weapons are less of a tool of war and more of a terror tactic to aimlessly kill civilians. And I agree that’s the case. Chemical weapons are less about getting an upper-hand in a military conflict on the battlefield, and more about a dictator sending a message to the masses that he is in charge, and using a high degree of unimaginable terror in the process. And trust me, I understand that distinction, and if I thought military strikes could end the use of that terror, maybe, just maybe I could be convinced of the merits of such a strike. But even if all of this is true, the question remains, why does the use of chemical weapons make military action necessary, particularly if we have no reason to believe those strikes will change the course of a barbaric regime? Fisher says the reason is that we no longer have the “norm” of war long-established nearly a century ago. Assad has violated that norm, and therefore the U.S. is compelled to act to re-establish that norm. I’m unconvinced.

I wrote about this last week in an article titled (“Counterview: Syria Chemical Weapon Use. Does It Change Anything?“). In that article I said, “Rarely if ever do we see limbs scattered across a road, or a person with their head blown off. They usually don’t show that on TV.” I’m not a huge proponent of seeing carnage on TV. But maybe if we weren’t so detached from war, we would rise up as a nation in disgust and demand our leaders listen to us, and stop getting us involved in the conflicts of other nations. “But what they do show [on TV] is the suffering caused by an ailment with no obvious external injuries. So we can see the pain, we can see the anguish just before they cut to a shot showing rows of bodies.” We are more likely to see the effects of chemical weapons on TV because there are no visible external injuries. We see people dying or dead but otherwise their bodies are whole, and we are alarmed and repelled by those images.

So back to that “norm” of war, or in other words, the rules each country agree to before they engage in an armed conflict. Here’s my counterview. While I understand the idea behind a “norm” or a rule of war, I think such rules mostly serve to perpetuate war. In the case of chemical weapons, our immediate reaction of shock and disgust serves to temper our reaction to warfare by conventional means. If we do not display the same level of anger for use of conventional weapons that we do for use of chemical weapons, then this “norm” of war has the unintended consequence of giving us a bogeyman to focus our attention on, when the focus should be on war itself. Violence is not an answer. Violence in response to violence usually ends up with more violence. In the 21st century with 7 billion people on this planet, we need to stop thinking we can solve our problems with war. We need to stop thinking there are “norms” within armed conflicts that make war justifiable.

Can you conduct a war humanely? It sounds ridiculous when you ask it that way, right? — I do not dismiss the great humanitarian efforts to soften the effects of war, to establish “norms” that all sides agree to. But we cannot remove from the equation that by believing we can regulate war, it offers us greater credence for starting wars based on those established “norms.”


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