‘Prohibited’ and ‘Acceptable’ Weapons and Targets in War

In my last two posts on Syria on these pages–here and here–I’ve tried to express my discomfort at the threat made by the US to launch cruise missile strikes in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. In them, I was trying to make a distinction which I did not clearly articulate, one whose provenance goes back to the debates over nuclear deterrence at the time of the Cold War, or to be more precise, the 1950s, when the threat of mutually assured destruction was first made manifest:

[T]he crucial distinction in the theory and practice of war [is] not between prohibited and acceptable weapons but between prohibited and acceptable targets. [From: Michael WalzerJust and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illuminations, 3rd ed., Basic Books, New York, 2000, pp. 276]

Indeed, insofar as a ‘prohibited’ weapon is to be viewed as such, it is because its effects are likely to be–or have been–disproportionately borne by ‘prohibited’ targets i.e., non-combatants, civilians, innocents, bystanders, call them what you will.  The use of a tactical nuclear weapon, say in the Second World War, on a battlefield, perhaps against massed infantry or armored formations, or out at sea, against a massive fleet of warships, would have provoked considerably less angst than its actual use against the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did. (Despite Paul Fussell‘s–sometimes ad-hominem–dismissal of critics of the decision to use the bomb, there are good arguments to suggest it was a criminal act c.f the Walzer reference provided above, and especially the discussion on pages 263-268.)

This distinction, once established, now lets me make more explicit the incoherence in our attitudes toward war and weapons that I had suggested in my earlier posts on this topic. Drawing a so-called ‘red line’ around the use of chemical weapons seems arbitrary and hypocritical when those that have charged themselves with the enforcement of a supposed norm against such use are:

a) confused about the right norm to be observed;

b) guilty of violating the appropriate norm themselves.

A ‘limited’ US cruise missile attack on Syria–one committed to no other objectives other than the preservation of the ‘red line’–then, would have been problematic on both these counts. It would have flirted with the implicit claim that the slaughter of civilians is acceptable, or tolerated, so long as it is carried out by conventional weapons;  it would have established that the US, which is guilty of violating the norm against killing noncombatants in its drone strikes in Yemen and Afghanistan, was taking upon itself the responsibility to enforce its confused reading of it elsewhere.

In response to the cries of ‘What do you want us to do while civilians–prohibited targets–are being gassed?’, I’d suggest that in this case–this Syria, with its warring parties, at this point in time–all options short of armed retaliation be explored first, especially when such an action is likely to cause further loss of life, destabilize the region and perhaps invite retaliation by Assad, using conventional weapons this time, against the same non-combatants. (My post at The Washington Spectator alluded to some of these possibilities.)

Note: I realize that recent diplomatic maneuvers involving Russia have made a US attack less likely, but the threat has not completely receded, which suggests this discussion is still relevant.

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