War Against the Laws of War

The value of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the additional `Protocols' of 1977 is impossible to overestimate. In simple human terms, millions of people are alive today because these norms enabled the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Together, the conventions and protocols form what is misleadingly called international humanitarian law (IHL), but which in fact regulate war--seeking to limit its effects, regardless of the rights and wrongs involved, and to restrict its methods, even in battles undertaken in a just cause.

For example, many states now believe that the prohibition on intentionally targeting civilians is binding, and they act on that basis by actually limiting their battlefield tactics. Consider the transformation of American military behavior from the Vietnam era, when commanders spoke of destroying villages "in order to save them," to its operations in Kosovo and Afghanistan, where military lawyers and even ICRC officials were consulted on what targets could be bombed.

This progress, which gained a further institutional foothold with the establishment of the International Criminal Court last July, led many to believe that the triumph of international law is no longer a utopian hope but a practical prospect. The vision remains attractive, but in its moral seductiveness lies profound moral and intellectual danger.

It is worth recalling Walter Benjamin's observation that "every document of civilization is simultaneously a document of barbarism." Florence Nightingale understood this when she declined to join the ICRC's founder, Henri Dunant, in the 1860s. She argued that to set limits on war, as the ICRC devotes itself to doing, is also to make war more morally palatable to those who wage them and those who fight them.