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Did war burst its boundaries?

Send us a hint
PHOTO: Erakogu

When in Washington D.C. one often takes a tour of the city’s monuments. On a recent trip, I was told it takes a long time until the municipality decides on where and how a memorial is built.

The World War I Memorial is still in its project phase. The World War II memorial is just 12 years old. Close by one finds an impressively realistic Korean War Veterans’ Memorial and further down, also covering an extensive ground, the Vietnam War Veterans’ Memorial… Walking along this cluster of history gets one thinking. If ever built, what would the Afghanistan or the Iraq War Memorials look like? How about the memorial marking the end of the War on Terror? I imagined hovering drones targeting far off compounds… The playful thought was in fact a serious challenge to our boundaries of understanding. War itself has challenged its boundaries.

Firstly, we understand war to be a state of exception. A condition when what is unacceptable in times of peace becomes temporarily accepted. This leads to the expectation of an End, an outcome. What would be a clear sign that the war against terrorist threats is over? Perhaps the 9/11 Memorial, the first representation of remembrance of the victims of the War on Terror, is also the memorial of its veterans. But it only marks its beginning. Truth be told, the War on Terror has no end in sight.

Considering this overlap of ‘victims’ and ‘veterans’ of a new type of war leads to a second challenge: the line between combatants and civilians is more blurred than ever. Also, is a terrorist a murderer and to be treated as such, or is he (or she) a prisoner of war and thus falls in a different category of rights, regulated by the Geneva Conventions? On this question, common sense might incline us to consider the first option, but this decision challenges the legal legitimacy of ‘war like’ responses to terrorist attacks. (e.g.the 2011 drone killing of the US citizen, Al Qaeda leader, Anwar Awlaki, justified by the Department of State as a ‘lawful act of war’). There is a need for a reassessment of the legal boundaries of war.

Thirdly, a war involves having legitimate targets of violence. This is true for individuals, as more regular persons have to transition in a warrior like status to terminate the lives of others, as it is true for societies, who have to accept the legitimacy of a threat of their own security in order to engage in warfare. In a recent Gallup survey, European nations ranked lowest in their willingness to take up arms, scoring between 15% in the Netherlands and 18% in Germany to 47% in Poland and 55% in Sweden. Besides an unusual 74% in Finland, Europeans do not validate the existence of possible targets. The US ranks on this scale at 44%.  This translates into the slow increase of defence spending and modernisation of armed forces. When peace is taken for granted, accepting the likeliness of waging warfare is difficult. For this purpose, transparent and realistic communication between political elites and the communities for which they are responsible is paramount.

A fourth challenge: war has become increasingly personalised. Stepping away from traditional mass gunfire, the military gets more face time with their enemy. The use of drones requires individual surveillance, gathering of knowledge and targeting of specific individuals. In addition, finding authors of terrorist attacks is more a police investigation of individuals than a military operation. Continuing to invest in the weapons, face recognition systems and intelligence gathering schemes that support this form of individualised warfare requires the rules to limit it. Having a future of autonomous drones that rove over a combat zone to target enemies which some experts claim is not that far on the horizon, challenges the traditional definition of weaponry and new categories have to be devised. And so is allowing increased permeability of the private sphere for information gathering.

Fifthly, the novelty of cyber war adds to the issues of the ‘proportionality’ of the response. The Wales NATO Summit Declaration in 2014 acknowledged that ‘cyber defence is part of NATO's core task of collective defence. A decision as to when a cyber-attack would lead to the invocation of Art. 5 would be taken by the North Atlantic Council on a case-by-case basis’. (Art. 72) In other words, until a cyber-attack leads to the loss of human life, retaliation using NATO capabilities is hardly an option.

Such basic points about the shifting boundaries of waging warfare instruct further decision making on the need for the adaptation of international law and the best way to spend on defence. Realistically figuring out the new patterns of war, without undermining historically based certainties with wishful thinking or compromising on fundamental values, leads to increased readiness. As disorderly and seemingly impossible to regulate the new security environment may appear, an ongoing ‘react now, ask questions later’ attitude only gives a new, global meaning to the phrase Wild West…

Local View is a section under which authors dwelling in world capitals expound their understanding of hottest local and global events. At the moment, Veronica Anghel is concluding her Doctoral thesis on Romanian political parties and government. Prior to that, she served as foreign affairs adviser to President of Romania.

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