A Norm-Preserving Bombing

War waged to prevent the gratuitous, deliberately caused, cruel, inhuman loss of innocent life; a moral intervention, a just war. War waged to preserve an international norm, a collective sensibility of outrage and revulsion at the use of a weapon of mass destruction: a similarly moral intervention, a similarly just war?

These questions, obviously, are up for the asking because of the arguments put on display in the current wrangling over Syria. It has become clear that there are few to no military reasons for intervening in its civil war: a US bombing will not bring Assad down; it will not help the rebels win; it will not tilt the military advantage in any of the warring parties’ favor; it will not end the killing of innocent citizens; it could still cause the conflict to escalate, provoking Saudi Arabia and Iran to intervene on behalf of their respective proxies; it could, in sum, cause greater human misery than it prevents.

But it will, according to those who argue for it, help preserve a worldwide moral and normative guideline, that the use of certain kinds of weapons, even as part of that moral atrocity, that zone of ethical catastrophe we term ‘war’, is to be placed beyond the pale. Tyrants of the present and future, take heed; this world can be pushed around and many of your deeds will go unpunished. But there are some lines you will not, we will not let you, cross. This is not a world in which anything goes. Unthinking and untrammeled anarchy in the pursuit of your heinous objectives will eventually run into the solid, immovable opposition of some bedrock moral certainties, over which the world can come to some agreement, despite our disagreement about everything else. When the smoke and confusion caused by the endless suggestions of relativism has cleared, we, as a global community, will find ourselves confronted by a zone of ethical and legal agreement.

That is what that upcoming shower of cruise missiles is supposed to achieve.

There are many oddities here, all worthy of wonderful inspection. Why are chemical weapons so cruel, so worthy of condemnation, that a (literally) explosive reaction is called for, one which will in all probability cause some loss of life itself? What is the foundation of a norm that may exact, for its preservation, such a notable price? In my previous post on this subject, I had tentatively made the same inquiry and wondered in much the same fashion: why is a chemical weapon crueller, more heinous than a conventional weapon?

Interestingly enough, a chemical weapon, such as nerve gas, because of problems with delivery systems, might not be as deadly or efficient as might be thought. There is a tactical, not strategic, reason that they have not been used as often; they don’t work as well as their deployers might hope. When they have been used in war, they have not secured any decisive or overwhelming advantage for their principals; much of the smoke fired into ‘enemy’ trenches during the First World War drifted back towards ‘friendly’ lines. They do cause horrible deaths to those afflicted by them, but it is not clear these are any worse than those caused by conventional weapons. (The New York Times article I link to below shows a dead woman and baby after the 1988 Halabja gassings; I assure you, a baby hit by a grenade looks equally gruesome, its death was just as painful.)

But chemical weapons are somehow more insidious: they sneak up on you, they asphyxiate, they bury you alive standing. They are wily, creepy, clammy; the first international agreement against their use–in 1675, ‘when France and the Holy Roman Empire agreed in Strasbourg not to use poisoned bullets’–found, in an era of the bow, axe, sword and cleaver, poison too reprehensible for its sensibilities.  Our global niceties in this regard have not always been observed; as Steven Erlanger notes in the New York Times, their use in the Iran-Iraq war, a case of Muslim-on-Muslim violence, caused no outrage, no condemnation. But, as I said in my last post, we are a ‘fastidious species’; we like to keep our hands clean, we like to remind ourselves of our ‘humanity’ even as we persistently traffic with the inhuman.

So, is this norm worth preserving, even at the cost that might be likely: the escalating conflict, and all of the rest? There has been rare near unanimous consent  to sign and observe treaties that affirm it; this sense of broad agreement over the non-use of a weapon might be felt to be reason enough by some. The very rare of  use chemical weapons in war, remains, for me, a less impressive datum; it is not too implausible to suggest that if chemical weapons were more useful battlefield weapons their use would have been far more common and our norms about them would be rather more flexible. Perhaps an argument could be made that the first reason is sufficient. Perhaps. I don’t see it as yet, largely because of my failure to understand what grounds the norm against chemical weapons in a world populated by a moral community that does not seem similarly concerned with other equally terrible weapons and acts.

Furthermore, actions like the ones proposed by the US do not take place in a vacuum all of their own. The identity of our putative moral instructor–in this case, the US, and some coalition cobbled together to convey the impression of international solidarity–provides some context. The historical background, the location, the identities of the warring parties–the Iraq war, the Middle East, Sunni and Shia forces, each with their own backers respectively–provide more. These dispel some the supposed clarity about the intended norm-preserving objectives of the strike; it cannot but have more effects, more ramifications than that original narrow one.

I do not have a clear conclusion to draw here; but I do know that try as I might, I cannot shake the dissonance caused by the employment of deadly force–by a party that might justly be accused of bad faith and a poor recent record of ill-directed violence–to preserve a moral convention that does not seem to rest on particularly principled foundations.

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