On Modern Warfare

The following is a long quote of Talal Asad, in Formations of The Secular. Christianity, Islam, Modernity, Stanford University Press: 2003, p 116-118. The key-sentence is this: “Human life is sacred, but only in particular contexts that the state defines.” Possibly, this is banal, or can be thought of as banal, but it pushes one to think “beyond states.” I think that this move is intellectually neccesary, if not politically feasible at this point in time.

I re-read Asad in the aftermath of the latest flood of pictures about the horrors of warfare in Syria (or what once was Syria), in an attempt to understand something beyond that inevtiable feeling of numbness and apathy. How much is too much? Who decides how much is too much? For whom? Why do we think in terms of states, when states fail as frameworks, that safeguard human dignity?  I am not sure, right now, if there is any “use” in these questions, as I am not even sure anymore in all of this intellectual reasoning being something more than self-referential exercises of thought, that do not change a thing. My point in posting/quoting this is simply to have people engage in a more “profound” thinking about state-violence, about the linkage of states and violence, and the violences that can be unleashed by “formations of the secular.” So here is the quote:

“The military historian John Keegan wrote of the new practices of “deliberate cruelty” over two decades ago when he described some of the weaponry employed in twentieth-century warfare: “Weapons have never been kind to human flesh, but the directing principle behind their design has usually not been that of maximizing the pain and damage they can cause. Before the invention of explosives, the limits of muscle power in itself constrained their hurtfullness; but even for some time thereafter moral inhibitions, fueled by a sense of the unfairness of adding mechanical and chemical increments to man’s power to hurt his brother, served to restrain barbarities of design. Some of these inhibitions – against the use of poison gas and explosive bullets – were codified and given international force by the Hague-Conventions of 1899; but the rise of ‘thing-killing’ as opposed to man-killing weapons – heavy artillery is an example – which by their side-effects inflicted gross suffering and disfigurement, invalidated these restraints. As a result restraints were cast to the winds, and it is now a desired effect of many man-killing weapons that they inflict wounds as terrible and terrifying as possible. The claymore mine, for instance, is filled with metal cubs…, the cluster bomb with jagged metal fragments, in both cases because that shape of projectile tears and fractures more extensively than a smooth-bodied one. The HEAT and HESH rounds fired by anti-tank guns are designed to fill the interior of armoured vehicles with showers of metal splinters or streams of molten metal, so disabling the tank by disabling its crew. And napalm, disliked tor ethical reasons even by many tough minded soldiers, contains an ingredient which increases the adhesion of the burning petrol to human skin surfaces. Military surgeons, so successful over the past century in resuscitating wounded soldiers and repairing wounds of growing severity, have thus now meet a challenge of wounding agents deliberately conceived to defeat their skills.”[1] (Incidentally, the mushrooming or “dum-dum” bullet, invented in British India in 1897, is reported to have been “so vicious, for it tore great holes in the flesh, that Europeans through tit too cruel to inflict upon one another, and used it only against Asians and Africans.”[2])

One might add to this that the manufacture, possession, and deployment of weapons of mass destruction (chemical, biological, and nuclear) must be counted as instances of declared governmental readiness to inflict cruel death upon civilian populations even when these weapons are not actually used. In brief, cruel modern technologies of destruction are integral to modern warfare, and modern warfare is an activity essential to the security and power of the modern state, on which the welfare and identity of its citizens depends. In war, the modern state demands from its citizens not only that they kill and maim others but also that they themselves suffer cruel pain and death. Human life is sacred, but only in particular contexts that the state defines.

So how can the calculated cruelties of modern battle be reconciled with the modern sensibility regarding pain? Precisely by treating pain as a quantifiable essence. As in state torture, an attempt can be made to measure the physical suffering inflicted in modern warfare in accordance with the proportionality of means to ends. That is the principle supported by the Geneva Convention. The principle states that the human destruction inflicted should not outweigh the strategic advantage gained. Only necessary punishment of noncombatants should be used. But given the aim of ultimate victory the notion of “military necessity” can be extended indefinitely. Any measure that is intended as contribution to that aim, no matter how much suffering it creates, may be justified in terms of “military necessity.” The standard of acceptability in such cases is set by public opinion, and that standard varies as the matter moves in response to contingent circumstances (for example, who the enemy is, how the war is going).”


Francisco Goya, Las mujeres dan valor (The women are courageous), plate IV of series “Los desastros de la guerra” (The disasters of war), 1st edition Madrid: Real Academia de Bellas Artes San Fernando 1863

[1] J. Keegan, The Face of Battle, Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1978, pp. 329-330.

[2] Daniel Headrick, “The Tools of Imperialism: Technology and the Expansion of European Colonial Empires in the Nineteenth Century,” Journal of Modern History, vol. 51, 1979, p. 256.

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