Blogs > Cliopatria > Aziz Huq: Review of Hugo Slim's Killing Combatants: Method, Morality, and Madness in War

Aug 18, 2008 7:39 am

Aziz Huq: Review of Hugo Slim's Killing Combatants: Method, Morality, and Madness in War

“War is cruelty and you cannot refine it,” Gen. William Sherman proclaimed in self-justification to the civilian population of Atlanta a few days before taking the city. In Just and Unjust Wars, Michael Walzer doubted and resisted Sherman’s dicta, especially the refusal to refine or restrain. War may be hell, Walzer explained, but “[e]ven in hell, it is possible to be more or less humane, to fight with or without restraint.”

Killing Combatants: Method, Morality, and Madness in War, Hugo Slim provides a panoramic perspective to this debate. Some readers will decide that the book is not their cup of tea when, early in the second chapter, he sets forth his seven-part categorization of civilian suffering. To abandon the book, however, would be to miss out on an illuminating, if necessarily superficial tour of the costs of war.

To take Slim’s catalogue of horrors at face value, more wars have been fought in Sherman’s mould—less humanely rather than more. While most religious traditions, including all three of the great monotheisms, have longstanding traditions of just war, it has been in only the past 150 years that governments have made concerted, coordinated efforts to restrain themselves in advance. The 1863 Lieber Code, adopted by the Union army, and the First Geneva Convention of 1864, mark the modern advent of coordinated efforts to make war more humane, first by establishing minimal rules of humane conduct, and then by putting the force of (international) law behind those rules. Most recently, international tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and the International Criminal Court have added potent muscle to law.

But how much difference have these legal and institutional developments made? Matching or outpacing these developments, however, have been accelerating transformations of the technology of war. Consider December 6, 1935, when twelve Italian planes swooped down on the Ethiopian town to bomb houses and a Red Cross hospital. Less than eighteen months later, the bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica fell victim to the Fascists’ newly perfected technique of carpet bombing. Jeremiads about the dangers of terrorism foreshadowed nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons as preoccupations for the twentieth century. The more rules war accrues, the more ways people find to kill each other. In the match between enlightened legalism and technocratic brutalities, the seers rarely seem to have the upper hand
And then there are the landmarks of war that no amount of legal remediation seems to be able to change. Slim cites St. Augustine, in the City of God, bemoaning the “ancient and customary evil” of rape, as he comforts women raped by Alaric’s Goths during the sack of Rome. Then, in calm and clinical detail, he explains how rape remains a “typically very public” feature of twentieth century wars from the Japanese occupation of Nanking to the amorphous wars of Liberia and Sierra Leone. Rape, in Japan, the former Yugoslavia, and in innumerable African context, is moreover, not an accidental side-effect of war, but a deliberate policy aimed to harm combatants by attacking their weakest assets.

One of the most challenging and eye-opening sections of Slim’s analysis is his exploration of how war harms civilians beyond the direct range of bombs, bullets, and brutality. Addressing rape, he elaborates on the persisting social stigma, rejection, and even violence faced by women raped by enemy forces. (In a stunning, but telling, aside, he notes that no woman in Nanking ever acknowledged a child from a Japanese rape.)

Not only sex but space and nourishment can become weapons. Long before the practice of “hamletting” developed in the Vietnam War, armies would propel civilian populations into strategically advantageous positions. Sieges would exploit limitations of space and food. Today, refugee camps can become regrouping posts for chastened rebel groups. After the Rwandan genocide, the Rwandan government felt compelled to attack mainly Hutu refugee camps where the former genocidal forces were coalescing. In the same conflict, Slim notes, there is evidence that rapes were organized during the genocide so as to maximize the spread of AIDs. The result was four-fifths of women so victimized were HIV-positive after the conflict. Human imagination, it seems, admits of few limitations, especially when it comes to the generation of human pain and suffering.

What is a reader to make of 250 pages detailing the manifold paths of human suffering and the ideologies that license them? Slim closes the book with fifty somewhat limp pages on strategies for changing views about war. Drawing on Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner’s work and Malcolm Gladwell’s now tediously iconic notions of power points and tipping points, he sets forth a six-part framework of rhetorical and emotional strategies for changing minds. Whether this architecture will seed the worldwide grassroots movement of civilians, as Slim hopes, remains to be seen.
Rather, for most readers, Slim’s book frames a question about what the English philosopher Bernard Williams called “moral luck.” Contrary to the philosophical tradition associated with Kant, Williams argued that being moral often depended on being lucky—in where you were born, on whether you went hungry day to day, or as to the shape or your nose or the color of your skin. What Slim’s atrocity exhibit suggests is that for a significant proportion of humanity, now and through time, the want of luck has condemned them to a life in which brutality and remorseless is the coin of the realm. Few resist. Fewer yet do so successfully. To be a reader of Killing Civilians, rather than one of its subjects, however, is to be profoundly fortunate in the timing of one’s birth, the securing of an education, and the obtaining of leisure time. It is, perhaps, to be exceptional in the current of human history.

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