Both the state and its adversaries must beware the seduction of war — and the delusion that killing can be civil.

“It is well that war is so terrible,” General Robert Lee said in December 1867, as he looked over the carnage on the battlefields of Fredericksburg, “otherwise we would grow too fond of it.” Nineteen hundred men had been killed in five days of bitter fighting; 15,000 were injured.

Last week, the world watched the last United States troops leave Iraq — at the end of a war that, unlike the American civil war, was monumental only in its stupidity. The Iraq war will be remembered for many things: among them, the grotesque toll and the hubris and deceit which engendered it.

Iraq ought also to be remembered, however, for the illusion on which it was founded: that a century of international effort had yielded a template for civilised warfare. The new-model armies which overthrew Saddam Hussein fought with technologies claimed to minimise civilian casualties. Their troops were rigorously schooled in international humanitarian law. Even if many liberals were angered by President George Bush's lies about Iraq's non-existent weapons of mass destruction, a good many backed him in the belief they were ridding the world of a despot — at little human cost.

Exposé after exposé has, however, shown the new civilised warfare is a lot like the old, barbarous warfare. Following a 2005 bombing in the Iraqi town of Haditha, U.S. troops were alleged to have killed civilians in cold blood — among them children. In 2009 alone, 33 separate allegations of torture and sexual abuse were brought against British soldiers. In one case, Iraqi prisoners were piled in a heap and subjected to electric shocks — while a soldier stood by laughing. Last year, journalist Anand Gopal revealed that western forces continued to torture suspects in field jails across the country — notwithstanding the exposure of Abu Ghraib.

Facts like these do not seem to have diminished the West's fondness for war. Iraq, the argument goes, was the wrong war fought the wrong way. Figures as disparate as Barack Obama, Nicholas Sarkozy and David Cameron, cheered on by large swathes of liberal opinion, have hailed the Libya campaign as an example of the right kind of war — but even though western bombs overthrew a despot at relatively little cost to life, it is unclear if the new regime will prove less murderous than its predecessor.

Legitimacy of war

Key to the problem is the idea that the legitimacy of war ought to be founded on its compliance with a way of warfare, not its political object. Programmes to subject war to law have saved millions of lives. They have also fostered the dangerous myth that warfare can serve noble causes in relatively bloodless ways. It would have been harder to defend the Libyan war if it had been clearly understood by publics that tens of thousands would die — not from high-technology western bombs, but from the militias they were dropped in support of.

In April 1863, President Abraham Lincoln — the commander in chief of General Lee's adversaries at Fredericksburg — issued General Order No. 100, laying down the human rights obligations of his troops. Even though elements of the code seem appalling today — it allowed, for example, the retaliatory execution of prisoners on the battlefield — the document elevated to law what had, until then, been a loose code of honour among fighting men.

The American civil war was the crucible in which the tactics and technologies of modern warfare were born; it is fitting that it was also the genesis of the first effort to civilise war. After the end of World War II, the world sought to put in place an ever-more stringent legal framework for warfare. In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights mandated that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” The Third Geneva Convention prohibited torturing prisoners of war. In 1987, the United Nations agreed that neither “a state of war [n]or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

For the first time in history, there was a global consensus on what kinds of warfare were legitimate. Efforts by international human rights organisations have, without doubt, used these laws to lessening tolerance for violence. Eric Hobsbawm, eminent historian, noted that 187 million people were “killed or allowed to die by human decision” from 1914-1991. Bethany Lacina and Nils Petter Gleditsch recently estimated that war-related violence in this century averaged 55,000 a year — half of their level in 1990-1999, and less than a third of the 180,000 per annum recorded during the Cold War, from 1950 to 1989.

It is also true, though, that this decline has been powered by the historically anomalous seven-decade long peace between the world's great powers — for which the destructive potential of nuclear weapons can take just as much credit as human enlightenment. The U.S. bombed civilians in Cambodia and Vietnam without compunction during the Cold War, killing hundreds of thousands. In Iraq or Afghanistan, with no great-power adversary backing its adversaries, it doesn't need to.

This much has also been made clear by Iraq and Afghanistan: when wars go badly, states and soldiers behave in much the same way as they have always done. “I've nearly been killed in ambushes,” Rodrigo Arias, a soldier based in Afghanistan's Kunar province, told Mr Gopal, “but the villagers don't tell us anything. But they usually know something.”

“I want to go home in one piece. If that means rounding people up, then round them up”. Mr. Arias could have been an Indian soldier in Kashmir, beating villagers during a cordon-and-search operation, or a Maoist in Malkangiri, murdering a suspected informer with a knife after a kangaroo trial.

“The language of war,” Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the architect of 9/11, observed during his interrogation, “is killing”. He was right.

In 1961, the French special forces officer, Roger Trinquier, published a meditation on his experience of France's brutal counter-insurgency campaigns in Indochina and Algeria — the kind of warfare that is typical today, rather than grand contestations between armies in a battlefield. La Guerre Moderne's shocked audiences by candidly addressing the central tactic of modern warfare, and its key tool: terror and torture.

For Lieutenant-Colonel Trinquier, the terrorists he fought were simply a kind of soldier, “like the aviator or the infantryman.” Even though the terrorist's victims might be defenceless innocents, Lieutenant-Colonel Trinquier observed, “during a period of history when the bombing of open cities is permitted, and when two Japanese cities were razed to hasten the end of the war in the Pacific, one cannot with good cause reproach him.”

This special kind of soldier, he argued, “cannot be treated as an ordinary criminal, nor like a prisoner taken on the battlefield.” “If the prisoner gives the information requested, the examination is quickly terminated; if not, specialists must force his secret from him,” he coldly concluded.

La Guerre Moderne was an anti-manifesto: a refutation of the foundational principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the years since 9/11, the onslaught on it has strengthened. Mirko Bagaric and Julie Clarke, in a provocative 2005 book, sought to provide a defence of torture. “Given the choice between inflicting a relatively small amount of harm on a wrongdoer,” they argued, “and saving an innocent person, it is verging on moral indecency to prefer the interests of a wrongdoer.”

In 2002, legal scholar Alan Dershowitz observed that “forms of torture are widespread among nations that have signed treaties prohibiting all torture”. “The current situation,” he went on, “is unacceptable: it tolerates torture without accountability and encourages hypocritical posturing.”

Flaws in argument

Little effort is needed to see the flaws in this line of argument: every despot, after all, has claimed to be using torture for high moral ends, and there's no presumptive way of determining who a wrong-doer deserving of torture might be. The bitter fact is, however, that the legal taboo against torture, built over a century-and-a-half, has done relatively little to change how wars are fought. This isn't a reason to discard taboo — but the reality ought to compel an honest conversation about what warfare is, not only what it ought to be.

There are wars that stand on firm ethical foundations, even though the victors engaged in war crimes: among them, the great war against fascism in 1939-1945; Vietnam's anti-colonial war in 1955-1975; and, arguably, India's 1971 intervention in Bangladesh. In these cases, the price of peace was demonstrably higher than the cost of war: no sensible person could argue that the deliberate bombing of German civilians, though horrific, was too high a price to pay for the defeat of fascism.

For India, in the midst of a murderous Maoist insurgency which could run for decades across our heartland, it is ever more urgent to honestly discuss when warfare becomes inevitable — and its price becomes worth paying. Indian public discourse engages in a routine, almost reflexive, condemnation of atrocities by both insurgents and the state forces. The discussion, however, has more often than not stopped at recounting what went wrong — rarely leaving this comfortable moral firmament to examine why things have gone wrong.

There are no easy answers to these questions, but an honest national conversation would be a good beginning. Iraq demonstrates the costs of making a decision to go to war casually. India cannot afford the luxury of making mistakes.

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