War Ethics for Dumdums (Bullets)

Posted by Sarah:

Before sports or electoral politics, there was war.  It is the primordial adversarial institution and only recently has there been a concentrated effort to legally establish permitted weapons, methods, and targets.  Yet, with common sayings like, “all’s fair in love and war,” and “war is hell,” it’s clear that these efforts have had only modest impact on “civilizing” war by bringing deliberate ethical standards to its conduct.

Unlike other adversarial institutions, such as sports and business, there no powerful global regulatory authority to make states play by the rules.  Instead, adherence to the rules of war depends, for the most part, on positive reciprocity and mutual self-respect. Deposed dictators and war criminals on the run may get dragged into international courts now. But powerful states have always been free to choose to forgo the rules – e.g., in situations where the enemy is at a distinct military disadvantage or where abrogation confers the only or best opportunity to defeat a superior enemy.

The US and its NATO allies have routinely been accused of flouting the rules of war in recent engagements. But we can find great powers selectively ignoring, or “gaming,” the rules of war for as long as there have been attempts to formalize such rule.

Consider how the British ignored the St. Petersburg Declaration (1868), which outlawed exploding “dum dum” bullets, in the Battle of Omdurman (1898) during the Mahdist War (also called the Anglo-Sudan War) between the Mahdist Sudanese and Egyptian/British forces.  The effectiveness of the dum dum bullets allowed the British to kill over 11,000 Dervishes, compared to only 47 British casualties.  The British justified their actions by arguing that the St. Petersburg Declaration only applied to signatories, which did not include the Dervishes.

As one Greek officer during the Balkan Wars reasoned, “When you have to deal with barbarians, you must behave like a barbarian yourself.  It is the only thing they understand.” Such logic implies that that the “barbarians” will not adhere to the rules of law and thus, “civilized” societies must adopt barbaric practices as well — otherwise it would be like fighting with one hand tied behind their back.  When one side refuses to comply with international agreements limiting weapons or tactics, abiding by a standard that was designed to be bilateral puts a state at a distinct disadvantage.

It is clear, however, in this battle, the Dervishes could not have used dum dum bullets, regardless of whether they were signatories to the St. Petersburg Declaration.  With no threat of retaliation, the British took advantage of a legal loophole to obliterate the enemy with the most effective weaponry at the time.

When the object is decisive victory with the lowest cost, were the British actions at the Battle of Omdurman “cheating” or immoral – or were they ethically acceptable?  If both sides have not agreed to adhere to the rules, are all actions morally permissible? What mechanisms mediating international relations exist or might be created to augment incentives to comply with ethical norms in conducting war, particularly when conflict is asymmetric, involving inferior or irregular combatants?

These are the kinds of questions I’ll be exploring in future posts on this blog.

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2 responses to “War Ethics for Dumdums (Bullets)

  1. Pingback: Link Ethically | Think Ethically

  2. Charles Blattberg

    How can we make states play by the rules when fighting wars? It seems to me that something’s not right about the question. Let’s rearrange the words a bit: When fighting wars by the rules how can we make states play? There, that’s better. No more realistic, but its heart is in the right place.

    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1723423

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