The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Saturday, May 08, 2004

The morality of war

The more conventions we get, the more attractive becomes the infamous tag inter arma silent leges.

There are various advantages to the formulation: psychological - the more terrible war is, the less like it is to be resorted to - and strategic - fighting a war on the horns of moral dilemmas is not conducive to winning.

More particularly, there is the practical matter of the awfulness of killing. If the seasoned Yid-baiters of the Einsatzgruppen found it mentally disturbing to kill Jews one by one, how much harder must it be without that animus?

One needs distance, actual and metaphorical, to make killing in cold blood palatable: technology depersonalises. The iconic image is of the cruise missile weaving its way through traffic downtown and slipping neatly into the Ministry of Defence back-door. No pictures available of the resulting mayhem inside.

No pictures available.

Iconic images from war movies - staple fare on British TV into the 1970s - include two in particular: the flamethrower taking care of the nest of snipers or machine-gun crew; and the enemy who pretends to be dead, and then, when our guys aren't looking, throws a hand-grenade.

And these images are specific: the enemy are gooks. Japanese, Korean, Chinese. Never German.

Needless to say, there were no bleeding hearts complaining about the discrimination - none that were taken notice of for a good long while, at least.

I've no idea whether this racial distinction in enemy perfidy and general sub-humanity between the Gerries and the Japs matches reality. Another iconic war movie image was the good German soldier - Wehrmacht, not SS [1], from whom one might expect a honourable treatment in captivity , and a lack of Jap-style perfidy. Not quite fighting by the Marquis of Queensberry's rules, but definitively not a savage.

A distinction is apparent in the fact (as I believe) that battles in the Pacific Theater were often fought on both sides without quarter being given [2], but those in North Africa, Italy and France were generally not.

But the suffering inflicted by the RAF [3] and USAAF on German civilians can scarcely be categorised as collateral. If an airman had been invited to pour kerosene over a baby and a throw a match on it, no doubt he would have refused indignantly. Like the gas chambers, the distance between the Lancaster or B-17 and its victims lent - if not enchantment, then disconnection.

Because the airmen didn't see the babies burn, they felt no guilt, so - in a very post-modern way - that translated into their not being guilty.

And, in the same way that, say, alcohol would never be allowed on public sale if it were now to be invented, aerial bombardment is grandfathered from the fancy-pants laws of war [4] (nothing wrong in bombing the Serbian TV station, for instance - April 1 2003).

Which brings us to Abu Ghraib. On one level - as discussed yesterday - the dubious morality of the histrionics is shown up by the fact that the whole thing only became live when there were photos.

On another, we have the yawning chasm between the crime of waging aggressive war perpetrated by the US and the UK [5] and the transgressions of the Abu Ghraib mob.

A nauseating story arc is clearly in preparation by USG and their witting and unwitting confederates which will attempt to use these unappealing people as a scapegoat for not only for US mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners, but, more widely, for US responsibility for a war gone wrong. They are tailor-made for the role of - in the famous phrase - The Ugly Americans. And, Nature favouring a binary system, they will naturally serve as a contrast with the rest of the American nation, good people who are doing their job and serving their country.

America will endure an uncomfortable colonic irrigation - and then, to use Tony Blair's favourite expression, will move on.

The photographs make all the difference. Not only do they make the Abu Ghraib story fly journalistically, they particularise and concretise the moral concerns about the war. The provide a displacement activity for ordinary folks uncomfortable with dealing with abstractions - they can by-pass the hard work of applying reason, and jump straight to emotions of empathy and disgust.

British readers will recall the TV news sitcom Drop The Dead Donkey (don't ask) where the sleazy reporter carried a teddy bear to sites of war or natural disaster; he would place the bear amongst, say the rubble of an earthquake, and his cameraman would pan across and linger lovingly on this poignant, suggestive image.

By this simple manoeuvre, he could give his piece pep and avoid the audience-killing hard grind of discussions of Balkan politics or corrupt enforcement of zoning regulations.

You can take the iconic photo of war trope too far: was the famous Nick Ut snap of the napalm-burnt Kim Phuc running naked from Trang Bang on June 8 1972 [6] instrumental in ending the war? I'm inclined to doubt it.

(Are Americans today more susceptible to images than in 1972?)

And what of presumptive candidate John Kerry? Does Abu Ghraib make it less likely that he'll go for pre-emptive, or preventative, war if, after November 2, he's in a position to exercise the option?

  1. A distinction made in The Great Escape, I think, amongst other movies.

  2. John Dower's 1986 book War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War I mentioned on March 30 2003 in that connection.

    War between the Germans and the Red Army might well have been fought on similar terms.

  3. Joke:
    What's the difference between Bomber Command and Dr Mengele? About 20,000 feet.
  4. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court provides a drutherful list of international crimes - it includes the crime of apartheid! - to the lottery to which the US, very sensibly, declined to submit its citizens.

  5. That same Rome Statute proudly proclaims (in Article 5(1)(d)) that the ICC has jurisdiction over
    The crime of aggression.
    But then shamelessly adds (Art 5(2)) that
    The Court shall exercise jurisdiction over the crime of aggression once a provision is adopted in accordance with articles 121 and 123 defining the crime and setting out the conditions under which the Court shall exercise jurisdiction with respect to this crime.
    Saint Tony Blair wanted to be able to bomb for Jesus without pesky pettifoggers suggesting he might be guilty of the same crime as a certain AH.

  6. A useful page.


What with the allegations of mistreatment of prisoners directed against British forces, we may see some interesting times with on the laws of war front. Used up till now mostly for victors' justice, we'll see how they're applied to the good guys.

Of course, any charges eventually brought may be for ordinary criminal offences, or offences against military discipline. The ICC is essentially a back-up jurisdiction which applies to a particular case only where national legal systems fail to deal with it, or deal with it inadequately. If, say, British servicemen were found guilty but given a slap on the wrist, the possibility of ICC action would be opened up.

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