Tuesday, July 25, 2006


Against (the rejection of the concept of) war crimes

Via Lenin, I see that Ken MacLeod has made some (hardly unprecedented, but forcefully expressed) criticims of the whole field of "just war theory" and "the attempt to civilise warfare" or, as he also puts it, "to make war an accepted part of civilised life, which is to institutionalise war and thus to perpetuate it". He also says that if he "were to criticise Hizbollah's rocketing of Israel...it would only be on the grounds of its futility, if that could be shown."

Well, I don't agree: I'm pretty keen on the rigorous application of (non-utilitarian/consequentialist) moral and legal standards (jus in bello) to all participants in warfare, and I don't think discarding all criteria but victory is a good idea. But since I don't think I have very much to say that isn't well expressed in Michael Walzer's book, I'll restrict myself to pointing out that MacLeod's claim that just war theory

tells us that to aim a bomb at an enemy soldier and kill a hundred civilians is - if the necessity is there - legitimate collateral damage...

isn't actually true. Certainly the principle of "double effect" can be formulated in very dubious ways, and applied in disgusting ways by apologists for all sorts of crimes and criminals. But it can also be formulated in a way compatible with our being "responsible for the foreseeable consequences of our wilful acts." I doubt, for example, that an action aimed at very few combattants that (predictably) killed very many civilians could be justified according to the much maligned categories of "military necessity" or "proportionality", nor the requirement that combatants take risks and accept costs in order to avoid doing harm to non-combatants.

I wonder what Ken's attitude towards the atomic massacres at Hiroshima and Nagasaki is - for that matter the non-nuclear firebombing of Tokyo, or of the German cities? I see them as abominable war crimes which have never been officially acknowledged - but if I read him correctly he is in no position to think that, unless he sees them as either "futile", or part of wars that were themselves unjust, criminal etc.

(See also this Jonathan Edelstein post on the utility of legal restrictions on the methods of warfare.)

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