Riskless in Libya: The Ethical Peril of Zero-Casualty Warfare

27 Jun

…(drum kick)… Yet another new face and mind for The Disorder Of Things. A warm blogospheric welcome to Antoine Bousquet (that’s Dr Bousquet to you), Lecturer in International Politics at Birkbeck. Best known as the author of The Scientific Way Of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity (due for review here shortly), Antoine has also published on complexity theory and the science/practice of war more generally.


As the military intervention in Libya enters its fourth month of operations, the tensions within the coalition of NATO countries and partners are perceptibly growing with the lack of any tangible progress towards a resolution of the crisis and the recent reporting of civilian casualties. Without prejudging of the final outcome, one cannot help but see in these developments a further echo between the present war – sorry, intervention – and the Kosovo conflict of 1999. Admittedly this time mandated by a UN Security Council resolution, the action in Libya (a.k.a. Operation Unified Protector) is indeed the latest practical exercise of the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, now encapsulated within the wider principle of the responsibility to protect (R2P). Many of the issues and debates raised by that original intervention thus remain as relevant today as they did then.

Although much attention has been focused on the competing claims of universal human rights and inalienable state sovereignty, I want to suggest here that any intervention proposing to act in the name of the former cannot be assessed solely in terms of the inherent merit of such a venture but must just as importantly be examined in view of the means deployed to attain the stated ends. Indeed a marked feature of humanitarian interventions of which Libya is merely the latest instantiation has been the particular form typically taken by military operations, namely that of “riskless” or “zero-casualty” war.

By riskless war I understand the planning and execution of military operations such as to prioritise the minimisation of any threat to the lives of the military personnel engaged in armed conflict. In Libya as in Kosovo, this has manifested itself by the initial ruling out of any ground troops and the resort to aerial strikes in combination with local proxy forces. Mindful of a perceived “bodybag syndrome”, Western politicians and military leaders seem to have fully internalised a drive towards zero risk as an operational constraint innate to the conduct of humanitarian interventions. While public opinion appears content to tolerate higher, if still relatively low by historical standards, numbers of military casualties where national interests are felt to be at stake (as evidenced by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), interventions justified essentially on humanitarian grounds are deemed to be characterised by an acute aversion to casualties. In this respect, the withdrawal of American troops from their UN-mandated mission in Somalia that followed the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu in which 18 US soldiers were killed remains to this day the most commonly cited example of the vulnerability of humanitarian interventions to military casualties.

The very notion that wars can be waged and won with a minimal threat to the lives of military personnel is itself a product of the early nineties and particularly the astonishingly one-sided outcome of the Gulf War. While many had expected a significant human toll to be paid by the Coalition, the United Sates ended up incurring only 148 combat deaths (35 of those through so-called “friendly-fire” incidents) out of an engagement of forces totalling 697,000. Much of this was attributed to the new potential of air power unleashed by the development of precision-guided munitions and advances in information gathering and processing. Even though in fact only nine percent of the total tonnage expended on Iraqi forces in that conflict had been precision guided, these weapons were perceived to have been disproportionately effective and to have charted the path future warfare would take. Thus the influential futurologists Alvin and Heidi Toffler could proclaim in their 1993 book War and Anti-War that in the information age “one of the foremost objectives in the development of new weaponry should be the reduction or total elimination of human risk.” The ghost of Vietnam finally exorcised (“By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!” jubilated Bush Snr) and in a post-Cold War free of superpower rivalry and ideological division, this revolution in military affairs promised to be the muscle-ripped arm of a New World Order that could safeguard liberalism and human rights for all without any of the blood sacrifice such a mission would have previously entailed.

The 1999 Kosovo war would eventually be heralded as the grand realisation of such a vision, a conflict in which the intervening coalition suffered no combat losses and ethnic cleansing was halted (a nice enough story so long as one does not pay too much attention to either verifying the initial claims of military effectiveness or examining the longer term legacy of the war). Twelve years on and action over Libya is being directly compared in some quarters (here and here) with Kosovo as another instance of an indisputably noble intervention to prevent an imminent humanitarian disaster. But with the invocation of Kosovo and whatever aura of a “good war” it still possesses, we are also witnessing the resurfacing of all the contradictions and tensions that original conflict was shot through with.

The recent civilian casualties in particular should draw our attention to the flip-side of riskless war and impel us to consider whether the marked asymmetry in the valuing of human life it reveals is congruent with the purported ethical commitment to the defence of human rights. Acknowledging one of the recent reported incidents of civilian casualties during a bombing raid and invoking a “weapons system failure”, NATO insists as it usually does that “every mission is planned and executed with tremendous care to avoid civilian casualties.” Certainly the Western way of warfare has long departed from the deliberate mass targeting of civilian populations that characterised the strategic bombing of the Second World War. It is also clear that any military intervention justified through appeals to the moral obligation of protecting innocent lives can only bear so many civilian casualties before being fatally undermined by the contradiction between its stated goal and actual effects. And yet it is equally evident that the twin imperatives of minimising both military and civilian casualties cannot always be simultaneously achieved – indeed they are likely to be most of the time in direct conflict with each other. For one, the precision of targeting and reliability of intelligence are generally inversely related to the willingness to place assets in close proximity to potential targets. Similarly, the decision to rule out any ground troops prioritises the avoidance of military casualties over any assessment of the most effective means to the swiftest possible resolution of a humanitarian crisis. Even allowing for the vagaries and uncertainties inherent to the exercise of military force, there is therefore a widely understood trade-off between the risks incurred by military forces and those supported by the civilians in the name of which operations are being conducted.

In effect, for all of NATO’s professed efforts to avoid civilian casualties, the zero tolerance of military losses entails that the burden of risk is almost entirely placed on civilian populations. This has prompted Martin Shaw to speak of “risk-transfer war” as one of the defining traits of the contemporary Western way of warfare and according to which risks are systematically transferred from Western military forces onto civilians. As such:

Repeated small massacres are an understood feature of the new Western way of war. These are “accidental” in the sense that they are not specifically intended, and efforts are made to avoid them. But they are simultaneously programmed into the risk analysis of war. Civilians are still exposed to far greater risk than the West’s own military personnel.

Or as Patricia Owens puts it, “accidents don’t just happen” – while individual accidents may be unwanted and essentially unpredictable, their statistical occurrence is the determinable outcome of a set of operational choices and valuations of human life. If, following Ulrich Beck, we live today in a risk society in which politics is primarily concerned with the production and allocation of risk and where the power of individuals and social groups is to be measured less in terms of wealth than their ability to insulate themselves from risk, then the manner in which this society goes to war tells its own story about the global  distribution of power.

A would-be pragmatic response to the above might be that, regrettable as it may be, the aversion of Western public opinion to military casualties is a bare fact of international political life and the consequent shaping of military strategy it imposes is an acceptable price to pay as long as humanitarian interventions achieve their intended goals of protecting the human rights of the concerned populations. In other words, we should only judge the military means employed by the criterion of their overall contribution to the desired outcome. But this is already to presume that the legitimacy of such interventions is a settled question. While the norm of humanitarian intervention has strengthened rather than weakened since Kosovo, it nonetheless continues to rest on the highly contested philosophical ground on which the long-standing (and unlikely to be settled any time soon) dispute between various universalist and communitarian positions is played out. Not only can the means employed for humanitarian interventions therefore not be treated as simple instruments to a given end, one can even argue the entire ethical coherence of such interventions hinges upon them.

Writing on the Kosovo war but no less pertinent to the present Libyan conflict, Paul W. Kahn thus presents a powerful argument for the moral contradiction inherent to attempts to wage “riskless war in pursuit of human rights.” A credible and consistent claim for the moral urgency of action to combat injustice and enforce rights within a community other than our immediate one, all in the name of a common humanity, must surely be conditional on any consequent intervention enacting such a higher community. Such a claim cannot therefore sit comfortably with any asymmetric valuing of life. In the case of war, it must mean treating the civilians on behalf of whom we are intervening as we would our own civilians and with that demanding the same willingness to accept sacrifice that a society expects from its armed forces in its own defence. In Kahn’s words:

When we announce that we are willing to sacrifice for others with whom we have no bond other than a common understanding of justice, we intervene not as a moral enforcer but as a participant. We now make the oppression of others a part of our own history; the injustices that might have seemed distant become injustices against ourselves. We come to share a common history with the victims and together form a new community. […] Communities do not come with predetermined boundaries. States, for example, divide or join together as peoples come to see themselves differently. […] When we are willing to sacrifice on the field of battle, we actively remake the boundaries of communities. The expansion of the moral community of identification is at the foundation of justified intervention. […] Riskless war seems to be without costs, but it is only at the cost of sacrifice that we build a community, of whatever extent. Outside of our own community, the right to intervene, even in a good cause, is never clear.

The greatest ethical inconsistency of humanitarian intervention may therefore not be the oft-mentioned irregularity of its application but rather the unwillingness to pursue such interventions in a manner that makes concrete the claims of shared community invoked to legitimise them. In the final instance, here as in other matters, it is the medium that is the message.

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