NB: This video has graphic images of killing. Viewers should exercise discretion. You Tube recommends that the video is not viewed by anyone under the age of 18.
I’ve been away for a couple of weeks and so have not been able to respond to the wikileaks ‘Collateral murder‘ video.1 Like many others I was initially struck by the way the video exemplifies the contemporary intersection of video-gaming, spectacle and warfare. Indeed, the uncanny resonance of the footage with the ‘Death from above’ mission in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare seem to invite the viewer to draw uncomfortable parallels.
However, my colleague Kyle Grayson has an excellent commentary on ‘Collateral Murder’ that raises some other points that prompted me to think further about what this footage might tell us about the contemporary intersection of war and society.
Kyle’s point – that Rules of Engagement (ROEs) and laws of war are ways of legitimating, not proscribing, the killing of civilians under certain circumstances is an important one. The point about ROEs or laws of war is that they accept – very openly – that civilians will be killed in war. These rules/laws are ways of legitimating that killing under rubrics of proportionality – specifically, that if the risk of killing civilians or damaging their property is less than the military importance of the objective that this targeting/activity can achieve then that death or damage is perceived to be legitimate. It takes little imagination to see that a fair amount of ‘collateral damage’ will be legitimate according to these rules/laws of war. Indeed, Martin Shaw has argued that the legitimation of collateral damage under rules/laws of proportionality, could be said to give rise to a form of war in which the massacre of civilians is an integral part – lamented, of course, but legitimated by the ROEs.
Kyle also makes the important point that focusing on the ROEs means that the focus is on how we fight rather than why we fight. I think this is an important point and Kyle is right to link that to an assemblage of political tactics that successfully depoliticises warfare by maintaining this focus on how, rather than why, we fight. Kyle shows how opponents of war who focus on ROEs (or on the way in which a war is fought) are failing to shift the spotlight onto the really important question: why we are engaged in war at all. Holding militaries to account for violations of ROEs/laws of war – while necessary – is, on its own, a very blunted form of oposition.
I would make several further observations along this line:
- The first is that on the whole, focusing on the legality of actions in war fails to comprehend what ROEs and laws of war are for. We should not, of course, diminish the importance of ROEs/laws of war for curbing the excesses of organised force (indeed, laws surrounding the legitimate use of armed force have been vital in holding perpetrators of appalling crimes in places as diverse as Abu Ghraib and Bosnia to account). That said, ROEs/laws of war do not proscribe war, they legitimate it. These laws evolve over time to ensure that war can be fought within the normative horizons of contemporary society. As such the laws exist in order to make it possible for force to be applied by militaries in ways that society will not find abhorrent. Asking militaries to abide by ROEs/laws of war is thus not a mechanism for contesting war. Indeed, it is an acceptance of war – albeit within bounds set by societal norms. As of the present time although aggression was prosecuted at Nuremberg, no legal proscription applies to war per se.
- Given this, it seems odd that so much of recent anti-war discourse has revolved around applying law to war. The militaries of advanced industrial states are well versed in applying that law and are happy to utilise it to justify targeting and other actions. Violations are treated as aberrations (just as crime is treated as a break from the social norm, and thus unrelated to society’s dynamics). Moreover, much of the legal precedent being invoked (such as the prosecution of aggression at Nuremberg) applies to a system of states predicated on interstate violence. Putting aside for a moment the problem of equating contemporary military action and that of the Axis powers in World War 2, this means that anti-war discourses invoking such laws are tacitly arguing for the acceptance of an inter-state system in which violence is treated as endemic, albeit limited by legal frameworks. It might be better to invoke values that undermine the very idea of the state, its supposed monopoly on force and the territoriality that gives rise to its bellicosity.
- There is a further problem with the application of law to warfare in this way: it is evidence of the manner in which warfare in the contemporary era is becoming normalised as an everyday occurrence. Just as western societies have increasingly turned to law to regulate everyday politics, now they turn to law to regulate war. I don’t doubt that war is slowly suffusing everyday life. Indeed, I have argued that this is leading to an urbanisation of security. However, I see no reason to play a role in the further normalisation of the idea that war is an everyday activity.
- This raises the question of the nature of war. If it is exceptional, not normal, how are we to treat it, to contest it. Here, I have to say I disagree slightly with Kyle. I don’t accept that one can simply assume that war should be simply treated as aberrant. This is a common trope in contestations of organised force. However, it seems to me this misses the complex and mutually constitutive imbrication of war and society. This is an imbrication noted, of course, by Foucault in his lectures collected and published in English as Society must be Defended. This is of course difficult terrain. The last thing I would want to do is valorise war. However, it seems necessary to note that organised force is integral to modern society. Simply arguing for the end of war fails to note this imbrication. To follow Foucault, contesting and ending war would require a radical reworking of social relations in order to undo that mutually constitutive imbrication. It would also fail to answer the question of how the intolerable should be faced (here one might think about how one would face an ethically abhorrent entity such as the Taliban without force, which is not the same as saying that the current course of action is acceptable). What would society look like that treated such an ethical demand without resort to force? This is a more complex question than the legal proscription of organised force.
Overall, this last point leads me to reassert something that I originally borrowed from Justin Rosenberg – specifically, that the failure of opponents of war to grasp the problem of the mutually constitutive imbrication of (as Waltz would put it) man, the state and war, means that realist theories still maintain their hegemony on thinking about the contemporary global political condition.2 Displacing realist theories of interstate violence would require examining the mutually constitutive relation of war and modern society and thinking in more complex terms (than simply proscribing one of those terms) about how that relation might be contested.