dangerous new style of war
By Dinah Po Kempner
to Alternative Reader Index
AMERICANS ARE innovators, and we have invented a new
style of war. Now we want new rules as well. This is critical as war with Iraq
looms and major world powers convene in closed session at Harvard University to
discuss reinterpreting the Geneva Conventions and the laws of war that provide
some minimal protection to noncombatants.
Recent American wars have projected overwhelming and advanced technological
resources against weak enemies with horrific records of human rights abuse. The
central questions are not whether we shall win but whether it will take two
weeks or eight months and how many body bags the public will endure before
support turns against intervention.
The laws of war, however, evolved in a different context, when more-balanced
contests of one state against another in which outcome was uncertain and
reciprocity - the expectation that your foe will apply the same standards to you
as you to him - held sway. It is no surprise, then, that the planners of
US-style war find the standard interpretations of international law a hindrance
and an irrelevancy and wish to make exceptions for US purposes. The problem is,
everyone likes to claim exceptions, and the holes Americans might punch in the
laws of war could wind up demolishing the entire edifice, with
Some American cultural values that shape the new war paradigm are not
universally appreciated, such as efficiency and a fascination with gadgetry.
Others, such as a native commitment to human rights and a genuine aversion to
causing greater harm to another people than is necessary, are admirable.
These values influence the preference for short wars, fought with overwhelming
firepower, that minimize the amount of time that US boots will need to be on the
ground. The thinking goes that the longer the war lasts, the more opportunity
the enemy will have to adapt, and the more casualties - including civilian
casualties - will pile up. Better to swiftly and decisively crush the enemy's
will to fight.
This explains the US view that it is acceptable to attack civilian morale in the
form of nonmilitary targets whose destruction can undermine public support for
war: turning the lights off in Belgrade or Baghdad, targeting the enemy's
industrialist supporters, destroying civilian propaganda outlets or symbols of
the regime such as monuments or civilian administration. All are off-limits
under international law, which limits attacks to targets that make a direct
contribution to military action.
The way Americans approach the issue of civilian casualties is different as
well. The law forbids attacks where the cost to civilian lives and property will
be excessive in relation to the direct and concrete military advantage of
achieving a particular target. Americans, and to some degree the British, wish
to equate the idea of an ''attack'' with an entire campaign, an overall military
objective, or even a political objective such as ''regime change.'' But
estimating the acceptable level of civilian death in relation to ultimate
victory would swallow up the notion of proportionality entirely. Such logic
would justify an enemy carpet-bombing Washington to produce shock and swift
Finally, scrupulous adherence to the Geneva Conventions in the treatment of
captured enemy combatants seems less compelling when fighting unscrupulous
forces. Americans may feel skeptical about giving Taliban prisoners POW status
when we doubt they would show us the same consideration.
Why, in the end, do these rules, framed in other times for other battles, still
matter? The fact that Switzerland, upon the objection of some states, refused to
admit the media or civil society groups to the meeting at Harvard should raise
The bedrock assumptions of the new mode of war are unproven. It has not been
shown that short, overwhelming military interventions produce fewer casualties
than other sorts of interventions. The military usually does not analyze the
civilian after-effects of its choice of targets and methods, leaving it to
reporters and humanitarians to measure the actual suffering brought by a given
But most important is that global leaders lead by example, and the example of
exceptionalism destroys all constraints. Civilians the world over would suffer
the consequences of military forces that were less adept, less scrupulous, and
less responsive to democratic outrage. Those militaries may attack civilian
objects, ignore massive civilian loss, and mistreat prisoners, all in the name
of expediting their campaigns, no doubt for some cause they deem worthy.
It is ironic that at the moment the United States, by virtue of its military
prowess, can most afford to set the highest standard in armed conflict, it is
backing away from time-honored laws that impose the constraints of humanity upon
(Dinah PoKempner is general counsel at Human Rights Watch.)
January 29, 2003.
Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.
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