How should we think about sophisticated weapons? I raise the question following the recent agreement to ban cluster bombs and an article in yesterday's Times about the AGM-114N Hellfire II missile, which the British army is apparently deploying in Afghanistan.
"Apache attack helicopters have fired the thermobaric weapons against fighters in buildings and caves, to create a pressure wave which sucks the air out of victims, shreds their internal organs and crushes their bodies." says the report and this weapon has raised the ire of Human Rights Groups.
Is this a legitimate protest? This is how the report describes its destructive action:
"it is unlikely anyone targeted by the missile would know much about it. The laser-guided missile has a warhead packed with fluorinated aluminium powder surrounding a small charge."
"When it hits the target, the charge disperses the aluminium powder throughout the target building. The cloud then ignites, causing a massive secondary blast that tears throughout any enclosed space."
"The blast creates a vacuum which draws air and debris back in, creating pressure of up to 430lb per sq in. The more heavily the building is protected, the more concentrated the blast."
"The cloud of burning aluminium powder means victims often die from asphyxiation before the pressure shreds their organs."
It certainly sounds brutal but the whole point of the weapon is to limit the damage done to non-combatants.
Just consider the ways of waging war around the world in the last 100 years.
Laying land mines all over Africa and Asia to be trodden on by children playing football long after the war is forgotten.
Dropping cluster bombs that kill people over a wide area, but leave unexploded bomblets that children pick up and play with.
Dropping thermonuclear devices on large cities leaving a radioactive legacy that causes cancer in future generations.
Herding people of a certain racial group into labor camps and letting them starve until a relieving army finds piles of rotting unburied corpses with an occasional person still left alive buried amongst them.
Sending poison gas to blow in the wind to kill your enemy or if not kill, leave him a respriatory cripple for decades to come.
Rounding up men of a certain religion and taking them outside their village, making them dig their own graves and shooting them in the back of the head. Then returning to the village and raping the women.
Hijacking airliners full of passengers and flying them into tall buildings full of office workers.
Herding people of a different racial group into refugee camps - then watching the camps for anyone who forages for food and water - if they do you shoot the men and rape the women. Soon only women venture out because rape is the lesser evil.
Strapping explosives to your torso and detonating them during the morning rush hour in bus or underground train.
Dropping huge bombs filled with high explosive on the general area that you think your enemy exists.
Dropping petroleum on an area and setting fire to it to destroy the vegetation your enemy is hiding in, and not particularly caring if it burns your enemy as well.
Identifying people of a different tribal group and attacking them with machetes, killing and maiming thousands.
Pictures portraying the victims of any or all of these weapons offend all who look upon them.
I think we can all agree that war is hell. Gandhi advocated meeting force with passive resistance. It was reasonably successful in India where his enemy had a conscience. A very similar strategy was adopted by the Jews in German occupied Europe with rather less success.
War is regarded as legitimate if it is waged in self defence or on behalf of a nation that has been attacked. The first Iraq war was thought to be legal since Kuwait had been invaded and its government enlisted the world's support against Saddam. World War II was similarly legitimate as Britain and France went to the aid of Poland, though interestingly not to the aid of Czechoslovakia, the Saarland or Austria, presumably on the grounds that these were the legitimate concerns of the German state - it was an internal matter.
Since the Peace of Westphalia which ended the Thirty years war in 1648 it has become accepted practice that nations do not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. Widespread improvements in communication have meant that the internal affairs of nations cannot be kept secret and there is international indignation at these 'internal affairs'. What's to be done? The United Nations is stymied. The internal affairs of China or not beyond criticism and that nation can be relied upon to veto any Security Council resolution that has implications for its own human rights record. The United States has invoked the formula of 'coalition of the willing'. Such a formula has been used to fight on behalf of Moslems in Bosnia and Kosovo, and for some Moslems against other Moslems in Iraq and Afghanistan, but not to settle civil wars in Sudan or Zimbabwe, probably because they have had their fingers burnt already.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have become asymmetric. Unable to defeat the American army by conventional means insurgents, who in effect comprise the opposition to the elected government, have resorted to a guerrilla war using suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices, hostage taking, assassination and the like. Such a tactic is difficult to counter, as the Germans found to their cost in World War II. The counter-terrorism tactics of the Nazis, included shooting ten villagers for every German killed, torture, attacking the families of 'freedom fighters' and obliterating whole villages, have been rightly condemned. However, it is unfortunately the case that the safety of the many is bound to imply limits to human rights.
One common tactic in asymmetric warfare is concealment among the ordinary population. This can be with or without the consent of that population. This tactic is common in Gaza and was used by Hezbollah in Lebanon. As a tactic it is outlawed by the Geneva convention, which in turn lays no blame for civilian casualties caused by retaliation against such an enemy. In real life, those who perpetrate this crime are seldom brought to book and the civilian casualties are a great propaganda weapon.
The AGM-114N Hellfire II missile is a counter-terrorism weapon. It is designed to kill combatants who are hiding in caves or buildings. It is a very effective killing machine. It does nor leave bomblets to maim future generations of children and no radioactivity is involved. It kills quickly and is much less likely than high explosives to leave behind injured and suffering victims. However, it will kill civillians if they are being used as human shields.
I am afraid that once insurgents involve civillians by firing and sheltering among them, nothing will spare the civillians from retaliation. If firing on an enemy hidden among civilians were outlawed, it would be a gift to any and every terrorist. Of course every effort must be made to preserve civilian life, but we have to accept that it is not always possible. Even attempts to disable everyone in a building can go seriously wrong as the Russians have found.
My preference would be for all wars to cease. It would be better if all disputes could be settled by negotiation, or failing that by a court of law. Alas, the nature of mankind does not allow it. Some have suggested that doctors by nature of their profession should be pacifists. I am not convinced. I would restrain the evil-doer by non-violent means if possible, but when it is not possible violence becomes necessary. The violent man seeks an advantage from the reluctance of the many to be violent.
When violence is certain, it is better to have an efficient weapon of war than an inefficient one.