The Moral Malaise

This is a guest post by Paul M

Here’s a curious fact:

The Geneva Conventions and customary international law allow soldiers to kill babies. Also old women & men, invalids, housewives and business executives. How can this be? Did the almost 200 countries ratifying the conventions just overlook this detail? Was the International Committee of the Red Cross worried it might otherwise take all the fun out of war?

The answer in both cases is almost certainly no, and the real answer is not hard to figure out. In all of human history there have been only two approaches toward mitigating the horrors of war. The first, ain’t-gonna-study-war-no-more, let’s-all-just-get-along approach has an illustrious pedigree stretching back at least two and a half thousand years and has been a resounding failure. Most people over middle-school age understand by now that if we all beat our swords into plowshares today, we would work out efficient ways to kill each other with plowshares tomorrow. The newer and more successful idea is the rules-of-war approach. It starts from the premise that wars are going to be fought, but that the carnage can at least be limited by putting certain acts and categories of people off-limits. It says that you may not conduct war by making targets of civilians, their means of survival, captives, the sick & injured and so on.

Why do we need laws for this? The obvious answer is to protect those who can’t protect themselves. The slightly less obvious one is, because targeting the helpless is a winning move. If you ever doubted it, think of the benefits to Hamas, quite apart from the windfall of having Israel shoulder the blame. Demoralizing the population, disrupting the economy, forcing the government to massively divert resources to shield its people and to go to extraordinary lengths to protect the people of its enemy, including forewarning enemy combatants of precisely where & when to expect an attack—what’s not to like?

If there wasn’t a major military advantage in killing and terrorizing civilians, or hiding behind them, there would be no need for laws against it because no one would do it. Why waste the ammo and the effort? For precisely this reason, the laws need to apply to all sides in a conflict or they will be discarded by all. With the best intentions in the world, who is going to stick to the letter of the law if their enemy is winning by throwing it all out the window? And that is why the laws allow the possibility of legally killing the innocent. If some thug hides behind his children to attack yours, you are permitted to do what must be done to defeat him and the responsibility for loss of innocent life must be his, not yours. What other tool is available to ensure compliance? A stern word from Catherine Ashton? Umpires? Roving squads of Quakers crying “Shame”? There is no other mechanism.

Understanding all this does not require great intellect and, judging by the latest Moral Maze, which SarahAB was kind enough to draw to our attention intellect doesn’t help. For 45 minutes, half the panel and witnesses—including an emeritus professor of the University of London and, God help us, an Anglican cleric—argued that the laws didn’t apply to their side because they were in the right, and the other side, if they were to be allowed to fight at all, must carry the blame for both sides’ sins. Every side in a war believes it is right in some sense of that word, whether it is fighting for justice, survival, liberation, glory or its god-appointed place of dominion over the unbelievers, so if you are going to absolve yourself from having to play by the Geneva Conventions, so am I and so is everyone else. Kiss humanitarian law goodbye.

Ted Honderich seemed to be trying to articulate a “principle of humanity”(!) which permits those anointed (by Honderich) as righteous to do anything they wish to those designated as untouchables. If ever there was a Nazi analogy crying out to be made, it’s here.

Giles Fraser’s killer argument was “What choice do they have—what alternative but to commit war crimes?” How about the Kurdish choice, of building a functioning state-in-waiting while trying not to give the impression that you’ll destroy the people next door as soon as you have access to real power? How about—and I know this has become ridiculously passé ever since Germany & Japan did it—admitting defeat and suing for terms? Which in this case would mean nothing more onerous than acknowledging that a Jewish state was going to be your neighbor for the foreseeable future and that you were no longer going to try and undo that.

Even Hugo Slim, one of the better witnesses, spoiled his testimony by offering a novel concept applied to no one but Israel: Once casualties pass some undefined point dependent on the public mood, there must be a halt. In other words, the less we like you, the less benefit of the law you’re entitled to. Which, put like that, at least has the merit of being an honest description of Israel’s treatment over the years.

And poor Mehdi Hasan disqualified himself from serious consideration the instant he declared that he didn’t understand what comprised a war crime.

Fraser & Honderich think they can use the Geneva Conventions as a weapon. Like children, they either don’t understand or don’t care that it would be a weapon they can’t control, press-ganged to their cause of the moment at the cost of throwing away its protections for the future. But they are not children. Professor Honderich and the Reverend Doctor Giles Fraser are standard bearers for the British thinking class or, if not quite that, at least play them on TV. Ultimately, The Moral Maze made me sad. Not so much for Israel which did, at least, have several strong defenders to speak out for it. Mostly it made me sad for the moral state of Britain, a country I love and used to admire and in which I still have family and friends. The serious modern project to tame war by means of humanitarian laws has been going on 150 to 200 years, with roots that extend back centuries, perhaps to the code of chivalry. All that progress is in the process of being destroyed, in the course of a single generation—my generation, I am disgusted to note—by moral cripples like Honderich & Fraser for their political cause du jour.