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Droning on about drones (III) – War: from property to people

Published on 11 August 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

I’ve pointed out previously that “war” covers two very different kinds of affray: raids and conquest. This distinction is fundamental – yet it is hardly mentioned in international fora dealing with international and humanitarian law.

Raids have probably been the first kind of fights between groups.[1] Raids were localized attacks aimed at “the other’s” movable property (mostly wealth – food and animals – as well as women). The scope of the conflict ranged from an individual’s cattle rustling through revenge killings[2] to plundering “expeditions.” Raids were probably linked to perceived need – which rhymes with greed. Raids were sudden and unannounced, and basically opportunistic or even spontaneous and were not strategic, i.e. “political.” Jus in bello never applied to raids. If caught, raiders were strung up, and that was it.

Nomadism first created long-distance raiding. Nomads were the kings of raids, for they could abscond afterwards beyond the reach of the revenge party of settled people. For this reason nomads and settled people never got on with each other. Sedentary people were in terror of nomads. Nomads were stigmatized as “outcast”, for they refused to abide by the settled peoples’ laws. The idea that there could be “law” between the settled and the nomads – a common jus ad bellum – would have been met with bewilderment on both sides. The only way settled communities could get a grip on nomads was through bribery and commerce – one strategy blending into the other. “International law” was not a viable strategy. As pragmatic as ever, the Chinese built walls to keep Nomads out – the walls also proved useful in backing the retreating nomads weighed down with booty against the Wall and finishing them off.

Let’s leave raiding for a while – I’ll revert to it in the next blog.

Wars, on the other hand, are deliberate[3] strategic affairs demanding formally organized vertical decision structures, and are aimed at conquest.[4] Wars are political acts. In the past, wars were mostly fights between extractive elites – aka as “robber barons.” The object was control of productive territory. Non-combatants were, on the whole, indifferent – they were resigned to yielding all surpluses (above subsistence) in taxes to the barons ruling them, irrespective of their provenance.

Barons were eager for conquest. Both baronial sides, however, aimed at surviving battle and enjoying the fruits of war. Rules emerged to try and control damage.

· Each side developed its own jus ad bellum – propritiatory rituals meant to get the Gods[5] on one’s side (Jus Feciale) – reassurance against unexpected loss.

· Once hostilities had broken out, both sides had a common interest in limiting losses – dead bodies no longer feast (and a maimed victor is easy prey to the opportunist bystander). Jus in bello emerged among the warring parties.

· Jus belli provided the rules for closure after the fight. These rules were universals: “winner takes all”, “deportation”, or “slavery is replacement for slaughter”. Non-combatants knew what to expect.

Both élites had an interest in limiting the each other’s carnage: turn the gore of battle into a ritualized grandstanding ballet. Transform the butchery into a martial art. All sorts of chivalric rules were developed to enhance previsibility of outcome (only attack from the front, never he rear!) and determine a pecking order of valor.

Some elites even went as far as accepting a “judgment of God” – the fight between champions in lieu of battle. Pars pro toto: the Horaces and Curacies are a good example of the outcome of war hinging on the duel of three against three.

In well-established evolutionary fashion, parasitism morphed into commensalism, or even unintended symbiosis. Aggressive elites co-opted local barons they had subjected – indirect rule arose (first among the Romans, then in the Western empires of the XIXth century).

Note that in the beginning neither the foot-folk nor the non-combatants were the object of jus in bello.[6] It was noblesse oblige among nobles – and the “cabinet wars” of the XVIIIth century were the heyday of this development. Both sides implicitly agreed that the foot-folk better obey blindly or stay out of the fray – no lurid, if effective, action like disemboweling the knight’s horse, please! A collateral effect of grandstanding was sparing (somewhat[7]) non-combatants. After all, one did not want to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs. Here the distinction between “combatant” and “non-combatant” made eminent sense, though it may have been observed in the breach only (it has always been difficult to limit the passion of war).

The West carried this model to the rest of the world – colonial wars ensued, and empires emerged. The last to attempt at a war of conquest were the Japanese in China – but they were recapitulating imperial wars the West had waged a century before. The Asian Co-Prosperity Zone was distinctly passé.

Then things got muddled as the focus of war moved from territory to people. As extractive elites morphed into nations, imperial conquest and exploitation by conquest – be it slavery, serfdom, or autocracy – no longer worked. Modern states realized that it was necessary to change “peoples’ minds” so as to have them willingly deliver the golden eggs (the ruled also began to become uppity). Coercion replaced conquest. Wars of religion were precursors of this trend: the war focused on “peoples’ minds.” The knee-jerk reaction was terror: 1/3 of Germany died in war, executions, exactions, and disease during the 30-year War.[8]

Actually, the drift toward coercion took place in two stages. In a first (social Darwinist) round, the winner tried to humiliate the loser, so as to crush the “self-confidence of the nation” and ensure lasting preponderance.[9] This did not seem to work: after being humiliated in 1870, France came back fighting in WWI. The next war aim was: “regime change” – imposing a local regime favorable to the winner Napoleon dreamt of a European confederacy.

The focus of war shifted subtly from the battlefield to the “will of the nation.” Cowering non-combatants (and their productive capacity) became just as important as winning battles. Wars meant destruction by all means possible of the nation’s ability to wage war – and the targets were non-combatants. WWII saw an orgy of strategic and other bombing.[10] After 60% of housing had been destroyed, Germany “changed its mind” in 1945.

Nuclear weapons were the “great equalizer”. Suddenly the country who did not suffer strategic bombing or harm to its productive structures in WWII took the lead in demanding the separation of combatants – where it wielded preponderance – from non-combatants – where it felt vulnerable. Bombing civilians was “out”. Enter international humanitarian law.

Moral high-mindedness did not stop the hegemon killing half a million Vietnamese in the attempt to convince them of the need for regime change (plus all the human losses in Laos and Cambodia). “Regime change” by military means remained the war aim even after Vietnam, and coercion still primarily targeted non-combatants.

It was “trickle-up”, however. Non-combatants were to force their own government into surrender. From mass destruction, the trend moved toward “shock and awe” – military might would spill over into the civilian world and yield readiness to change the regime. A naïve belief in the necessity of democracy, once the regime had been toppled, was assumed to assist. Economic sanctions against the people was the bloodless policy to the same end: induce “regime change.” I may be jaundiced, but I see little difference between bombing or starving people into submission. 500’000 children died thanks to sanctions against Saddam. Why is killing in this way “legit”, when bombing is not? Anyway, “shock and awe” did not work, or the people did not remain cowered for long.

Over the centuries, the target of war policies shifted from conquest of territory to “conquest” of people. Wars now aimed at changing “people’s minds” – conquering territory became a collateral activity. The terror of war was the instrument. Nuclear weapons and the emerging complexity of modern societies made mass terror too costly an instrument for “change people’s minds”. War as a political instrument is dead[11] – imagine changing the minds of 1.3 million Chinese by war. The Romans could “plunder, slaughter, and steal: this they falsely name Empire, and where they make a wasteland, they call it peace.” (Tacitus – Agricola).In the modern world, this kind of war is pointless. As a politicali act, war no longer seems possible.

What is left are the infinite ways of “war by blunder”.[12] And, of course, civil conflict.

The XXIst century may see the “end of political wars”– but what about raids? For this you need to join me in the next blog.

[1] Since I’m sure of being misunderstood, here the explicit disclaimer. That localized raids took place is undisputed. Whether raids were in any way defining human societies – the Deep Roots theory of violence – is anyone’s guess. See https://bit.ly/18o69K3

[2] The “principle of substitutability” ensured that tit-for-tat killings could go on forever. If A from clan β killed B from clan γ, revenge need not be directed strictly against A, but against any member of β. The circle would grow over time, and there was always room for one more killing. See:

[3] A clear distinction should be drawn between the political decision to go to war and warrior behavior in battle.

[4] Please note: there is no inevitability in this statement. These were wars of choice. Nor is Malthusianism – competition over resources – implied, notwithstanding Azar GAT (2006): War in civilization. Oxford University Press, Oxford. See also: John HORGAN (2011): The end of war. McSweeney’s Books, San Francisco, Cal.

[5] The Romans, ever superstitious, developed complex rituals to secure the goodwill of their Gods. Just to play it safe, after winning the war they incorporated the Gods of the losing side into their own Pantheon – after all, these Gods had been partial to the Romans by letting them win. See: May BEARD – John NORTH – Simon PRICE (1999): Religions of Rome. Voll. 1-2. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

[6] Throughout Antiquity, the bystanders of the losing side were either killed or enslaved. So much for sparing “non-combatants”! The unassailable logic was that, well, the losers have been spared their life, and ought to work for it.

[7] This picture is simplistic. Troops foraged in foreign territory. Sieges took place, with glacial slowness. The focus of war were not the non-combatants, however.

[8] Klaus BUSSMANN – Heinz SCHILLING (1998): 1648: War and peace in Europe. Bruckmann, Münich. 2 Voll.

[9] See: Wolfgang SCHIVELBUSCH (2003): The culture of defeat. On national trauma, mourning, and recovery. Granta Books, London

[10] Interestingly enough, the only great power of WWII, which did not practice strategic bombing was the one set on world domination: the USSR. Stalin had the best long-range bombers. He did not deploy them, possibly because he expected revolution to bring about regime change, and he wanted to spare the productive capacity. See Viktor SUVOROV (2008): The chief culprit. Stalin’s grand design to start World War II. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis.

[11] Wars over resources are being touted. Sustained extraction of resources demands control of territory and people living around the resources, or on the way to destination. Pliant regimes are therefore needed.

[12] Whether this danger demands the expense of military establishments the world over is best left for another day.

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