Risk-transfer militarism, small massacres and the historic legitimacy of war
June 22, 2005 8:45 PM   Subscribe

In this paper, I will first consider the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as the latest examples of the new Western way of war, and analyse their casualties alongside those of previous campaigns in the Gulf and Kosovo. I shall identify the new type as “risk-transfer war,” a central feature of which is a “militarism of small massacres.” I shall argue that this new type thus offers only a partial answer to the problems, for the legitimacy of warfare, caused by the systematic targeting of civilians in earlier “degenerate war.” Despite a closer approximation to “just war” criteria, the application of which the new mode I shall discuss, inequalities of risk between Western military personnel and civilians in the zone of war revive the question of legitimacy in a new form. The paper then suggests that in our concern for relatively small numbers of civilian casualties, we may be applying to war standards from which it has historically been exempt. In this context, I shall conclude by proposing that the contradictions of the new Western way of war reinforce a 'historical pacifist' position towards the general legitimacy of warfare.

Risk-transfer Militarism and the Legitimacy of War after Iraq
From JustWarTheory.com, which has its own blog.
posted by y2karl (18 comments total)
Martin Shaw, author of Risk-Transfer Militarism, has also written Dialectics of War: An Essay on the Social Theory of Total War and Peace.

See also The Roots of War by Barbara Ehrenreich.

An online book on the topic is Brian Martin's Uprooting War.
posted by y2karl at 8:47 PM on June 22, 2005

Interesting. I'm not sure I agree with all of the assumptions or conclusions, but thanks for the post.
posted by loquax at 9:46 PM on June 22, 2005

This thesis regarding lopside risk seems somewhat ahistorical. The normal casualty ratio for Western vs. non-Western battles is roughly 1:30, respectively.

See Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power by Victor Davis Hanson, which specifically discusses the casualty ratios.
posted by warbaby at 10:34 PM on June 22, 2005

I didn't RTFA, but that lead-in seems to me to be implying we'd be better off going with a "kill em all and let god sort em out" mentality, with regards to war. Am I missing something?
posted by nightchrome at 10:49 PM on June 22, 2005

I'm kinda confused, too. Usually y2karl posts anti war/justification for war posts.
Reading this, I didn't really get that. It seems to be stating that we are becomming more selective in the killing when we want to, but that being selective won't win you the war anymore.
posted by Balisong at 10:59 PM on June 22, 2005

Those are strange readings. The article is intended to point to a renewal of pacifist case in the face of those developments in Western warfare which appeared to respond to earlier critiques of war in itself.

warbaby, Hanson loves Big Theories with broad historical sweep, in which details may often be forced into the background. His big distinction between the Western way of war and all others is critiqued by John Lynn in 'Battle; A History of Combat and Culture', Westview Press 2003.
posted by TimothyMason at 11:11 PM on June 22, 2005

I'm having trouble making sense of some of his central observations like, "...inequalities of risk between Western military personnel and civilians in the zone of war revive the question of legitimacy." Inequalities of risk?? So.... if we issue tanks and flak jackets and ordinance to the locals, and THEN kill them, that would make it legitimate??

Methinks the professor has an agenda ("War, it seems, is not the prerogative of international criminals, but the first resort of the righteous"), and when he looks at history through his particular OpinionFilter, this paper details what he sees.
posted by JParker at 12:12 AM on June 23, 2005

I kind of agree with the idea that we should go all out if we are going to go to war.

All the vets I talk to say the same thing, reducing civilian death is a good thing, but severely hinders your ability to win the war.

The conclusion, if the situation is not dire enough to stomach massive civilian casualties the situation is probably not worth going to war over in the first place.

The minimal civilian deaths just make war more sanitized and easy on the conscience, therefore we are more likely to go to war more often.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 2:14 AM on June 23, 2005

I kind of agree with the idea that we should go all out if we are going to go to war.

That's a very far reaching statement. Are you sure you really mean it? A lot of people think we should take prisoners, shouldn't torture people to gain information about the enemy, etc. Are you sure you're not one of them?

Assuming you do accept some limits (and please don't let me put words in your mouth), then would you consider that killing civilians indiscriminately in the hope that you get some enemy combatants might be something that isn't totally desirable? How many deaths of innocent people (people who aren't trying to kill a soldier) would you say is reasonable to protect one soldier? As many as it takes?

if the situation is not dire enough to stomach massive civilian casualties the situation is probably not worth going to war over in the first place.

Doesn't that depend on the value you place on the civilians to start with? If you don't place any value on them at all, then they're not really a consideration when it comes to going to war. If large civilian casualties are really hard to stomach one would assume that military policy would be to act to minimise them, the article suggests that this is not what is happening.
posted by biffa at 3:33 AM on June 23, 2005

Excellent article, and as a pacifist I wish people with actual influence on events would read and absorb it. (And I hope people interested in discussing it here will read it as well; it's not that long, and you really can't intuit what it says from y2karl's one-paragraph excerpt.) In case you're wondering about "risk-transfer," it refers to the transferring of risk from (US) soldiers to (enemy) civilians.
Walzer also provided the fly in the ointment when he pointed out that “Simply not to intend the death of civilians is too easy. … What we look for in such cases is some sign of a positive commitment to save civilian lives. Civilians have a right to something more. And if saving civilian lives means risking soldiers’ lives, that risk must be accepted.” In risk-transfer war, this is precisely what is avoided at all costs.
Great post.
posted by languagehat at 5:46 AM on June 23, 2005

In fact, the article suggests that the present rules of war, as followed by NATO and USA forces, are :
1. Minimize casualities among own forces.
2. Minimize casualities among civilians in so far as this is compatible with rule 1
3. Maximize casualities among enemy forces.
All three rules are followed fairly successfully; there are, according to the author, relatively few civilian casualities when recent wars are compared with those of the mid-century. And enemies are ruthlessly destroyed.

The problems lie in, first, the ordering of the priorities : should one's own soldiers have priority over civilians? There are good reasons for thinking they should not. And should enemy soldiers be subjected to full-scale slaughter, particularly when one's own soldiers take very few risks? Again, there are good reasons for thinking they should not.

In fact, the idea of the 'innocent civilian' (as opposed to the guilty conscript soldier?) is highly problematic.

On preview, languagehat has addressed the suppositions of those who do not see the article as being against war.
posted by TimothyMason at 5:54 AM on June 23, 2005

"Risk transfer militarism" could most probably be attributed to the rise in suicide attacks, like, say, the WTC on 9/11. It's my ketchup packet theory, push it down in one place and it will rise up in another.
posted by nofundy at 6:23 AM on June 23, 2005

We have truly come a long way from the foundation principal of our nation that we should not even permit our government to have the capability to wage offensive war*! At least they knew then that it would be hard to pull off. Sad really.

* Federalist Paper #34, Alexander Hamilton:

Admitting that we ought to try the novel and absurd experiment in politics of tying up the hands of government from offensive war founded upon reasons of state, yet certainly we ought not to disable it from guarding the community against the ambition or enmity of other nations.

posted by Pollomacho at 6:40 AM on June 23, 2005

nofundy, the best analogy I've come up with is attacking anthills with army boots. You can do a lot of stomping and kill a lot of ants, but unless you have just a massive, overwhelming number of guys in boots, you'll never, never get all of them. And they come back very quickly.

Our present low force commitment is exactly the wrong strategy against terrorists. We're running around, stomping antills, and boasting about it, but for SOME reason, we just keep getting bitten.....
posted by Malor at 6:50 AM on June 23, 2005

"Risk transfer militarism" could most probably be attributed to the rise in suicide attacks

It was already kicking with the big air-raids of WWII - fire-bombing of Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo, for example, and, of course, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While it could be argued -and Lynn, for one, does so - that the bombing of Japan was partly in response to the suicidal culture of the Japanese military, this doesn't work for the German bombings.
posted by TimothyMason at 7:23 AM on June 23, 2005

Hell, it was already kicking with Sherman's march through Georgia.
posted by languagehat at 12:30 PM on June 23, 2005

so this article lines up alongside Bill Maher's assessment that the United States fights wars in a cowardly fashion?

at the very least in a way that's terribly disingenous to the peoples the US is 'bringing democracy' to?

I agree with the assessment that if a war can't politically survive military casualties, there is no legitimate political justification for war, and pursuing the hell of armed conflict is probably only going to make what was a bad diplomatic situation worse.
posted by eustatic at 2:22 PM on June 23, 2005

I wonder how accurate his other civilian causalty estimates are -- epi studies published after this article estimate iraqs causalty count at an order of magnitude higher.
posted by nads at 9:01 PM on June 24, 2005

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