The Strategist

Barbarism and the Smell of Cordite

30 May, 2016    ·   5045

Vice Admiral (Retd) Vijay Shankar weighs in on the absence of ‘feelings’ that has pushed morality out of the frame and ushered a dystopian vision of warfare

Vijay Shankar
Vijay Shankar
Vice Admiral (Retd.)

Aggregation of power is never more apparent than when there is dramatic increase in state controlled power-activism. Equally impactful is the growing disregard for moral principles when power (political, corporate or military) is exercised. The wars and repression in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Yemen, Xinxiang and Tibet are continuous reminders of the nexus between state policy and savagery on the field despite the messianic goal of delivering freedom to the “downtrodden.”

Historically, whether it was the Kremlin’s control over its satellites, Japan’s atrocities in Manchuria, fascist Italy’s carnage in North Africa, China’s subjugation of Tibet or Pakistan’s genocide in the erstwhile East Pakistan; the pattern of state policy unleashing barbarism is familiar. What is not fully recognised is the manner in which technology serves to intensify violence exponentially, on all sides. Unfortunately, the advance of science and technology in the last century and indeed over the epochs has not gone with any comparable advance in human understanding of conflict and how best to mitigate the physical gore of warfare. Instead, the increase of knowledge has repeatedly intruded to generate new forms of atrocities on scales that are unprecedented.

At the state level, the idea of killing machines controlled from great distances executing their missions with chilling precision with neither the palpability of a human in combat nor an ethical code of restraint is most unsettling. Experience from the ‘drone war’ currently being waged in Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan presages the advent of far more lethal systems employing advanced hypersonic remotely operated weapons at hair trigger notice, bringing to the fore all of our techno-moral anxieties. The recent testimony of Brandon Bryant, a former US pilot and ‘predator’ drone operator, at the UN and in the German Parliament leaves a slithering sense that screens and sensors have stolen from reality human feelings, replacing it with a one-sided dystopian view of conflict. The drone operator stated, “... And I watched him bleed out of his femoral artery. And [sic] he’s rolling on the ground, and I can—I imagined his last moments. I didn’t know what to feel. I just knew that I had ended something that I had no right to end.”

Bertrand Russell in his 1915 essay titled “The Ethics of War” suggested that the “fundamental facts in this, as in all ethical questions, are feelings.” However, contemporary mores of conflict gives first propriety to instant success with low or no casualty return. This places power in a position of primacy and in the process relegates ethics to abstraction. In its station is a self-ordained faultlessness of cause, making justification of killing a juridical issue played by the rules of the powerful. In the process, legitimising the extermination of as many as modern armaments makes possible, becomes a foregone conclusion. Whatever became of “the smell of cordite?” Is all now simulacra?

The real issue is the absence of an accepted and well complied rule book (notwithstanding the Geneva and Hague Conventions), opening the question as to why it is that right or wrong is determined solely on the power status of a nation, thereby absolving states of the consequences of their actions. Clearly extrapolating a law and order approach internal to a state in matters of international relations is not only in transgression of the idea of sovereignty but brings with it the natural abhorrence of a super cop. Unfortunately, national interests, corporate fortunes, political insincerity and primordial prejudices besides the ideal propel international relations. The reality is that leadership is wedded to antiquated beliefs to make policy, while instruments to implement are driven by technologies that have long outpaced these beliefs (in terms of their destructive potential and the ability to generate an illusion that the very same beliefs can be clinically realised). This would also appear to be the strategic crisis of these times.

To advocate democracy by war as is being done today in Afghanistan, West Asia and elsewhere through recent history, is only to repeat, on a vast scale and with far more tragic results, the error of those who have sought it hitherto by covert means, the terrorist’s bomb or through ideological indoctrination. Contemporary geopolitics exemplifies the predicament.

Pacifists have long suggested that there is no reason why settlement of all disputes by the UN cannot be undertaken. Their plea that this great trial of our times has worked itself out towards only one conclusion and that is global disaster and suggested that “when the passions of hate and self-assertion have given place to compassion with the universal misery, nations will perhaps realise that they have fought in blindness and delusion, and that the way of mercy is the way of happiness for all” (Bertrand Russell). Actually, very little stands in the way of such romanticism other than nationalism, religion and the pride of leadership who wish to remain uncontrolled by anything higher than sovereign will. In truth, these are all formidable human traits; they are also at the root of violent struggles that trend towards a one-sided faultlessness of cause. Brandon Bryant’s testimony was an articulation of the absence of ‘feelings’ that pushed morality out of the frame and ushered a dystopian vision of warfare.

Ethics in warfare is a complex and often intriguing subject. Killing, at the individual level, has long been taboo with most civilisations; and yet when the scale of proportions is expanded to the state level, there appears historically an attempt to define just cause, just conduct and in more recent times, a morality in post-war settlement. The Christian tradition that exerted to propagate such a perspective saw for both jus ad bellum and jus in bello an awkward and often partisan arbiter, the Catholic Church. Yet, what perhaps provides a more elegant and convincing standpoint are the dialogues between Lord Krishna and the warrior prince Arjuna in the Indian epic Mahabharata.

The discussions begin with the right to war and the criteria that make for a righteous one; the various gradations that postulated proportionality, just means and morality in the conduct of operations were central to the discourse while equality of combatants, their fair treatment and honour in war termination were of essence if victory were to be considered ethical. But then the problem has always been and remains: how, who or what will intercede on the side of the just? Particularly so when exceptional virtuosity is the right of the victor.

Not to labour the point, a quarter of a century ago on 20 December 1989, President George HW Bush launched Operation Just Cause, sending troops and combat aircrafts into Panama to execute a warrant of arrest against its leader Manuel Noriega (noisily condemned by the UN). A one-time CIA asset and close ally, he faced charges of drug trafficking. The country was invaded; its dictator incarcerated, brought to trial and sentenced in the US. The operation set a trend for power activism in the 1990s and the first two decades of the new millennium. The dictum seemed to be a quick, surgical and internationally unsanctioned ‘in’ followed by regime change and a clean exit. Obviously the surgical ‘in’ was a point of view, it invariably left in its wake non-combatant casualties numbering in the thousands.

Before falling into the trap of reducing international relations and it’s sometimes sequel of conflict to a “morality melodrama,” it has to be recognised that humankind in its endeavour to come to grips with trans-national violence has arrived at a stage when the (general) use of force has been legally proscribed. But there remain conditions. And it is within these conditions of self-defence, right of intervention, pre-emptive protection of interests and indeed, the use of comprehensive force that nations bring to bear the weight of unbridled nationalism. It is also under these conditions that veto-wielding Ayatollahs of the UN flourish. This then, is the rub, how can power be subsumed to a larger goal of collective accord? The short answer is that it cannot as long as the idea of nation states lies at the heart of the international system allowing states to internally promote centralisation of power and externally present a Janus-faced approach to moral principles.

Contemporary global order is unmistakably swayed by power, an expedient-slant to morality, and a distinct readiness to use barbaric force as long as the smell of cordite remained sequestered. This perhaps is the lamentable ‘bulletin’ of the day.