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Saint Augustine
Just War in the 21st Century - War in the Twenty-first Century
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War in the Twenty-first Century
To begin to understand Blair’s justification of Iraq in 2003 it is necessary to comprehend the moral implications of the almost aggressive internationalism he advocated at the conclusion of the twentieth century. In April 1999, as NATO bombarded Yugoslavia with the intention of forcing Slobodan Milosevic to stop his soldiers’ attacks on Albanian Kosovars, Blair set out his internationalist credentials:

Globalisation has transformed our economies and our working practices. But globalisation is not just economic. It is also a political and security phenomenon. We live in a world where isolationism has ceased to have a reason to exist. By necessity we have to co-operate with each other across nations ... We are all internationalists now, whether we like it or not.38

Blair did not simply want to increase global trade or cultural exchanges and he did not seek to expand migration or make travel across borders easier. He sought to expand the concepts of globalisation and internationalism to include the strengthening or reforming of international institutions so that the rights of oppressed peoples could be protected: by force where necessary. He continued:

Many of our domestic problems are caused on the other side of the world...These problems can only be addressed by international co-operation ... We cannot turn our backs on conflicts and the violation of human rights within other countries if we want still to be secure ... We need new rules for international co-operation and new ways of organising our international institutions.

Blair’s internationalism was presented in terms that prioritised the protection and even enforcement of individual human rights. On one level he could be commended for adopting an ethical position that prioritises concern for the vulnerable and downtrodden of the world. Such an attitude reflects the biblical injunction: ‘Love your neighbour’.40 During his time as Prime Minister Blair’s advisors sought to play down any impact his Christian beliefs may have had on his decision making for fear of causing outrage or offence. Yet throughout his tenure he worshipped in church regularly and was attended regularly by a personal chaplain. Shortly after his resignation as Prime Minister he converted to Roman Catholicism. More recently Blair acknowledged: ‘I believe, as someone of Faith, that religious faith has a great role to play in an individual's life.’41 Despite this, he probably did not invoke internationalism as an expression of his own religious belief and practice but he did draw upon a moral discourse – the responsibility for the strong to look out for the weak and vulnerable – that has ancient Christian connections and general acceptance in secular society. The difficulty of adopting such an approach is that it contradicted the rights of states to exist free from external interference: rights which, according to international law enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, should be considered inviolate.42

Despite the constraints set out in international law, Blair suggested new rules that could govern intervention in other states:

So how do we decide when and whether to intervene. I think we need to bear in mind five major considerations: First, are we sure of our case? … Second, have we exhausted all diplomatic options? ...Third, on the basis of a practical assessment of the situation, are there military operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake? Fourth, are we prepared for the long term? ... And finally, do we have national interests involved?43

The five criteria for military intervention that Blair set out correspond remarkably with the jus ad bellum criteria that had characterised the just war tradition for centuries: just cause, last resort, reasonable chance of success, proportionality and right intention.44 However, no matter how commendable or otherwise Blair’s internationalist aspirations were, he could only achieve his aims if he ignored, changed or somehow circumvented international law. This, in turn, posed a significant dilemma for Blair when it came to justifying the UK’s involvement in the 2003 Iraq invasion.

One of the reasons the US/UK-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 caused so much controversy around the world is that it was not explicitly authorised by the UN Security Council. It was not authorised because three permanent members of Security Council, and some others, were not satisfied that there was sufficient cause to justify such action at the time it was taken: the only legal basis for war in the UN Charter being national self-defence. Saddam Hussein had failed to comply with numerous UN Security Council resolutions over many years and he was not co-operating with UN weapons inspectors. However, it could not be shown conclusively (and events subsequently proved opponents of the invasion correct) that he posed a significant threat to the UK, the US or even his neighbours.

In addition, many people remained unconvinced that the intentions of the UK and US matched up to what was being said in public by senior government officials. The publicly stated intentions of the UK and US leadership included the following: to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and make the world safer; regime change; getting rid of Saddam Hussein; promoting democracy in Iraq; and keeping the people of Iraq safe from Saddam’s brutality. Even granting that Blair and Bush were genuine in their concern for oppressed Iraqis in 2002/3, neither they nor previous administrations in the UK or US had shown the same degree of concern in 1988 when the worst of the atrocities took place: the chemical bombing of Iraqi Kurds in Halabja. Adding to the complexity of the issue of intention was Iraq’s location above one of the biggest oil deposits in the world. As a result the accusation of ulterior motives was, and still is, levelled against the Americans, the British and their allies.

Although Blair used ancient and widely accepted Western just war ideas in his proposed new interventionism in 1999, the world by and large remained sceptical. Despite his apparently well-intentioned plea and the seemingly sound moral arguments that it was based upon, other Western states failed to rally behind him. In addition, in many non-Western states Blair’s ideas were interpreted as a new form of Imperialism. This scepticism was subsequently borne out in relation to Iraq when Blair failed to satisfy a number of the conditions he himself had proposed in 1999:

First, are we sure of our case? … Second, have we exhausted all diplomatic options? ...Third, on the basis of a practical assessment of the situation, are there military operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake? Fourth, are we prepared for the long term? ... And finally, do we have national interests involved?45

Had Blair followed his own guidelines here for military intervention he would have had to either cancel or postpone the UK’s involvement in the March 2003 invasion. Regardless of the outcome of the ongoing Chilcot Inquiry into the 2003 Iraq War, history is unlikely to be kind to Blair. This will not be a consequence of the failure of just war ideas in the twenty-first century: it will be a consequence of Blair’s failure to satisfactorily apply just war principles that he had previously advocated.

Moving on from ad bellum concerns to in bello challenges, the final section of this article now examines some of the ethical difficulties facing US, UK and other NATO combatants in their long campaign against a highly motivated insurgent enemy in Afghanistan. Alongside Iraq, the war in Afghanistan has defined the early years of the twenty-first century for the British and allied armed forces. UK forces entered Afghanistan as part of a collective NATO response to the attacks on the United States in September 2001. These attacks, in turn, were planned by Al-Qaeda cells that had been allowed to freely operate training camps by the Taliban regime at that time, at least partly motivated by an extreme, anti-Western version of Islam.

Militarily, the might of the US, UK and other NATO forces that entered Afghanistan in 2001/2 was overwhelming. As with the subsequent invasion of Iraq, the conventional war was won in a matter of weeks. In both Iraq and Afghanistan short, sharp conventional wars gave way to lengthy counter-insurgency wars against highly motivated enemies who were, and are, determined to remove what they see as occupying powers from their lands. All of the military advantages provided by aerial reconnaissance, precision guided missiles and other high-powered airborne weapons, tanks and heavy armour, count for very little against an enemy that is hard to find and expert at laying well hidden and highly effective roadside bombs. In Afghanistan, more than 1800 coalition military personnel have been killed to date, with numbers continuing to rise. Complicating the matter further for the allied combatant in 2010 is the uncertain nature of the mission in Afghanistan. If the initial invasion was a reaction to the 9/11 attacks on the US and a denial of training grounds to Al-Qaeda, recent reasons given by the UK and US governments for continued engagement in Afghanistan include: support of a fledgling democracy; making Europe safe from terrorist attack; promotion of human rights, especially for women and girls; reduction of the export of heroin; and advancement of regional stability. In the midst of this political uncertainty members of the British armed forces are asked to expose themselves to considerable risk.

So what is the relevance, if any, of just war principles to British combatants serving in a campaign that looks increasingly unwinnable, against the backdrop of public opinion that is increasingly opposed to their ongoing involvement and a government whose support appears fragile, time-limited and cash poor? The first answer to this question can be found in the written guidance on the law of armed conflict that is issued to every combatant:

All personnel must be aware of the basic rules of the law of armed conflict, including the practical application of the principles of military necessity, proportionality, distinction and humanity ... [And] Comply with the law of armed conflict and with Service law.46

These instructions provide explicit guidance on how combatants emerge as just in the conduct of war: ‘Comply with the law of armed conflict’.47 Such legal requirements include the responsibilities of combatants set out in the Geneva Conventions to which the UK is a signatory. I want to consider two aspects of this instruction: the means by which such compliance is achieved and the just war discourses that this instruction draws upon. The Geneva Conventions stipulate that combatants should be taught the law of armed conflict as part of the requirements of international humanitarian law. Conformity to the Geneva Conventions should, according to the guidance provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross, be enforced through military instruction based on military manuals and informed by ‘military pedagogy’: ‘in exactly the same way as the preparation for combat’.48 A number of supplementary instructional methods are specified: ‘lectures, films, slides, audio-visual methods, war games including questions and answers etc’.49 The British armed forces, like many others around the world, use such techniques to ensure that their combatants are familiar with the law and know how to act in conformity to it. As a result, the soldier emerges as just through adherence to the law, reinforced by disciplined repetition and training.

The aspects of law with which combatants must be concerned include: ‘the practical application of the principles of military necessity, proportionality, distinction and humanity’.50 These principles can all be found in the just war tradition and their meanings have remained reasonably stable over the centuries. However, closer examination of one of these factors will be sufficient to show how the ideas that underpin just war have changed. Take, for example, ‘military necessity’. For Augustine, 1600 years ago, the just warrior would only carry out such actions on the battlefield as are required by ‘stern necessity'.51 However, it is not the execution of ‘necessary’ actions in war that constituted Augustine’s soldier as ethical. Augustine’s primary concern was for the soul of the Christian, in this context the soldier. He encouraged the Christian to live a good life on earth with the aim of achieving eternal life in the heavenly City of God. In contrast, British Rules of Engagement no longer have a religious basis: they are based on the requirements of secular law. While modern notions of necessity, proportionality, distinction and humanity owe their heritage to Christian just war writers over the centuries in the West, their current framework is non-religious and law oriented.

It is easy to demand that combatants exercise proportionality and discrimination when they are engaged in war fighting, but the nature of war so far in the twenty-first century has made this increasingly difficult. In Afghanistan, like Iraq, it is almost impossible to tell friend or foe because of a lack of military uniforms. The insurgents are civilians, members of Afghan society, and they launch attacks on NATO forces from amongst their fellow civilians. Yet soldiers are still required to distinguish between legitimate targets and innocent bystanders. Furthermore, such tactics by Taliban or Al-Qaeda fighters can only be successful if UK and other NATO personnel are restrained in their responses and not indiscriminate in reprisal attacks. Those who choose to delay, even slightly, before returning fire, dropping a bomb or launching a missile, in order to protect the innocent, may well increase the risk to themselves. However, that is what just war and international humanitarian law demands: combatants should accept additional risk to reduce the danger to non-combatants. It is notable that when Gen. McCrystal assumed command of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan in 2009 he made it a strategic priority to reduce the number of Afghan civilians killed as ‘collateral damage’ as part of the ‘hearts-and-minds’ campaign, a principle reinforced by his successor, Gen. Petraeus.

Last Updated on Thursday, 17 February 2011 14:46