“Asymmetric warfare” and ethics

by Chris Bertram on July 10, 2006

Steven Poole, our guest-blogger from last week, has this to say about “asymmetric warfare”:

bq. Asymmetric warfare’ is the term employed by the US military for fighting people who don’t line up properly to be shot at: on the one side you have battalions of American infantry, marines, tanks and aircraft; and on the other you have terrorists, or guerrillas, or militants, or insurgents. [“Read the whole thing”:http://unspeak.net/C226827506/E20060611135824/index.html , as they say. cb]

Of course the reason people don’t line up to be shot at, wearing proper uniforms, distinguishing themselves from the civilian population, and so on, is that it would be suicidal so to do. And here lies a real difficulty for conventional just war theory. If recourse to war is sometimes just — and just war theory says it is — but it may only be justly fought within the jus in bello restrictions, then it looks as if an important means to pursue justice is open to the strong alone and not to the weak. Faced with a professional army equipped with powerful weaponry, people who want to fight back have no chance unless they melt into the civilian population and adopt unconventional tactics. If those tactics are morally impermissible because of the risks they impose on non-combatants, then it looks as if armed resistance to severe injustice perpetrated by the well-equipped and powerful is also prohibited. And that looks crazy.

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