Mary Dejevsky: Let's fight future wars by other means

Who will dare suggest that the old rules of warfare should be abandoned
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The Independent Online

In Brussels yesterday, European Union foreign ministers "strongly condemned" the use of forged EU passports in the assassination of a Hamas commander in Dubai last month. And in the Commons, the Foreign Office minister, Chris Bryant, denied that "any part" of the British government knew anything about the killing. Conspicuously absent from either statement, however, was any condemnation of the murder itself. If this is not complicity, it comes pretty close.

Nor, whoever did the deed, is Mahmoud al-Mabhouh the only individual whose death or disappearance was clearly welcome to at least one country, while being met with indifference by the wider world. Earlier this month a senior Taliban leader, said to be the operational commander in Afghanistan, was arrested in Karachi after a joint operation between Pakistan's intelligence and the CIA.

Last month a leading Iranian physicist was killed by a bomb in Tehran. Early foreign reports spoke of his opposition sympathies and blamed the Iranian authorities, but he was the third leading Iranian scientist to die or disappear mysteriously in as many years. The Iranians blamed Israel's intelligence service, Mossad, and/or the CIA – as they would have, wouldn't they? But were they wrong? Then think back to 1996, when when the then Chechen leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, was killed by a Russian missile after his location was given away by his mobile phone. From all these killings someone, or rather some country, stood to benefit.

State-sponsored killing or kidnapping is, of course, nothing new. What is new is the sophistication of the methods, and specifically the use of hi-tech intelligence which permits targeting. The "wet jobs" of the past, which saw secret agents hunt down and dispatch "enemies", were called that for a reason: they could be messy and leave unwelcome tracks. Increasingly, there are cleaner, neater – or, in the modern jargon, "smarter" – ways of doing things. The decision to use such methods or not is essentially political and moral.

It is 30 years ago now, but I am just about old enough to remember the public outcry unleashed by the development of the neutron bomb. The unique selling point, as it were, of this weapon was that it was designed to kill people, while leaving buildings and other defences intact. And while all weapons destroy – which is, after all, what they are for – the visceral objection to this one weapon derived from the precedence it seemed to give to saving property over living human beings. Deep down, people seemed to feel that there were rules to waging war and that a weapon such as this broke them.

Something similar applies these days to the use of unmanned drones and high-altitude bombing. The unease reflects not only the fact that the slightest error can cause many civilian casualties, but because the killing is depersonalised. That a country so equipped can inflict such damage without putting its own people at any risk seems somehow to break the rules.

In fact, warfare has long been hedged about with rules, written and unwritten. And each successive conflict produces a new set intended to prevent what were judged to be the most heinous excesses of the last. It is not just generals drafting their tactics and requirements for future wars who can be accused of fighting the last one, but politicians and lawyers as well.

The Nuremberg trials set the standard for today. Since then, war crimes have been defined and redefined to fit new circumstances. The only constant is that it is the victors who not only write the history, but determine what constitutes a war crime, fill out the charge sheet and appoint the judges. The late Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, is by no means the only defendant to question the justice of it.

I wonder now, though, whether the rules that the Western world – for it is the Western world – has generally accepted for the best part of a century may not be running out of steam. I wonder, too, whether a time might not come when it is accepted that conflicts are pursued by quite other means, so that war as we have known it, with the colossal loss of life and destruction it brings, is consigned to a more brutal past.

But who will dare to suggest that the price of abandoning the old rules – and finding some new ones – might be worth it? Today's industrialised nations, our own country included, are used to being on the winning side when they resort to military force. We have (by far) the technical advantage; our troops are mostly professional, not conscripted, and the territory we fight on is not our own. With the last generation of civilians to experience real war on the home front dying out, few know the extent of the horror it entails.

If you are at all curious to find out about what it might be like on the losing side, try to see the recent German film, Anonyma: A Woman in Berlin, based on the diaries of a young journalist who lived through the Nazi capitulation. Is there no better way than this mass destruction, humiliation and violation to settle territorial and ideological conflicts? Is there nothing technology or "smarter" ideas can do to prevent such cataclysms in future?

If it were a choice between all-out war on your homeland and acquiescing in "targeted" killings, which would you opt for? If the choice was between launching missiles and drones from afar, or seeing off your kith and kin to fight, which would you choose? If you could choose to secure territory by killing enemy fighters or paying them for safe passage, what would you do? And if your enemy were just a little less hi-tech than you, would you hesitate to disable their infrastructure by disabling their computers?

You can argue that there are circumstances – self-defence, say – where there is no alternative to force of arms, even if you would generally prefer, as I would, to leave other countries to solve their own problems. But if, say, an unidentified hit squad, travelling on EU passports, had erased Osama bin Laden in the weeks after 9/11, would you have condemned it as illegal or unjust?

In planning the defences of the future, a great deal is spoken about asymmetry in warfare, which means the capacity of just a few individuals to threaten our security. But the technical asymmetry is on our side. Should we perhaps be less apologetic about using it?