No.29 Bellum Omnium Contra Omnes

According to the Red cross, armed conflict is “the logical outcome of an attempt of one group to protect or increase its political, social and economic welfare at the expense of another group”. It goes on to say “There is no need to be an expert or a prophet to predict that humanity is far from finished with it”.

Warfare is a “chameleon”, ever-changing, adapting, camouflaging itself. War escapes easy delineation. Our thoughts and our language itself seem incapable of conveying the reality we are facing. We may soon replace soldiers with machines, replace manned flight with drones and human operated weapons with automated weapon systems.

Those without such technology are turning their own people into human bombs and are targeting crowds of civilians rather than traditional military targets. We live in a world where the drone pilot faces off against the suicide bomber. Terrorist attacks instantly transform holiday resorts, cultural and commercial venues into fields of war.

The asymmetric response to increasingly remote military hardware is the invisible network, what the Red Cross describe as ‘rhizomes’, like underground root systems and stems which spread unseen, emerging to strike where no one expects them.

Even the notion of heroism, traditionally associated with obedience to a warrior’s code of honour, is either absent or has been perverted by those on both sides who portray cowardly murders as so many glorious victories. These evil acts are then proudly broadcast on YouTube and the evening news.

In our deeply divided world, the war front is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. War is always both omnipresent and absent.

The battlefield itself is moving into Cyberspace, ill-defined, without shape or borders. Yet war is still war, and continues still to show its old face. The nuclear threat remains a sword of Damocles hanging over humanity.

The fragmentation of warfare and the practice wherever possible of fighting on someone else’s soil has led some States to reinvest in conventional weapons. The medieval practice of besieging cities has returned to Syria and Yemen. “The civil wars in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo hardly involve new technology or heavy weapons, yet they are among today’s deadliest conflicts.”

150 years of effort to limit the effects of violence through international humanitarian law (IHL) is failing. Even the most basic rules are not applied. What followed the Cold War was the so-called age of “war amongst the people”. Many new conflicts arose against the backdrop of decolonization and polarization. The typical conflict is no longer “industrial war” between two opposing masses of troops, planes and tanks. War is mostly internal or between local armed groups against foreign powers.

Anti-colonial and revolutionary guerrilla tactics are essentially the same as those used by contemporary armed groups against local or multinational armed forces in “asymmetric” conflicts. The ‘West’ has found itself again and again bogged down in interventionist wars. Unlike traditional wars, some say that 90% of those dying in current wars are civilians.

The system implemented after the Second World War is collapsing as new military and economic relationships emerging in the context of climate change and shrinking natural resources. New alliances, activists and solidarity networks challenge the State’s omnipotence.

Millions of people are on the road or in makeshift boats, while rich countries close their borders. Radicals call for isolation from the rest of the world and, at the same time, for taking the fight to the enemy. The world seems to be entering a period of selfishness, of one-sided power grabs and of rallying around “identités meurtrières” (murderous identities).

In the past, a “state of war” was formally declared and became the central concern of an entire nation until peace was restored. Now it is taking a new form in Western States. At once unending and unexpressed, similar to the permanent war described in Orwell’s ‘1984’, it is brought to public attention only through sporadic attacks and ubiquitous security measures. Private contractors are employed instead of conscripting citizens. The desire for “perpetual peace” has given way to disillusionment and the idea of a “forever war”. Aerial bombardment is preferred to committing ground troops in operations overseas. This leads to the use of weapons and tactics, such as remote bombing or indirect fire, and a tacit acceptance of increased civilian casualties. However, the recurring polemics over the civilian losses that these attacks cause show that perceptions of the acceptability of civilian deaths among the general public are changing.

Developments in communications, social media, cyber techniques, robotics and laser and nanotechnology portend not only new weapons, but also new tactics and new kinds of warfare. Some of these advances can lead to greater targeting accuracy and minimize civilian losses. Others, however, could unleash unprecedented tragedies – for example, through their indiscriminate impact.

As wars become smaller, more localised and more fragmented the days of few, major wars between large countries or blocks are giving way to many small conflicts and proxy wars between smaller countries and within countries.

This, is the equivalent in the modern world of what Thomas Hobbes meant by “the war of all against all” (Bellum omnium contra omnes). This is the essence of human existence in the state of nature, i.e. in the absence of civil society.

It was Hobbs who described life as ‘nasty, brutish and short’. Hobbes argued that there could be no morality in the state of nature because everyone would be fighting for individual survival. Moral notions have no place because everyone has an equal claim to everything. Without a government, no laws exist to regulate behaviour. Since no individual has the power to regulate human behaviour (on a large scale), any notions of justice or morality must arise from a social contract that all individuals adhere to. Without government, everyone’s equal claim to everything combined with the scarcity of resources leads everyone into the war of all against all: Everyone is the enemy of everyone else, and every individual must compete with others to gather enough resources to survive.

Hobbes proposed the establishment of an authoritarian state which had the power to control its subjects and establish a civilized society. In this authoritarian state, the ruler or governing body, known as the sovereign, the president or just plain ‘Trump’ (or ‘Putin’), has the ability to violate an array of individual rights to promote peace and prevent society from reverting back to the war of all against all.

Sound familiar?

Ref: EDITORIAL TACTICS, TECHNIQUES, TRAGEDIES: A HUMANITARIAN PERSPECTIVE ON THE CHANGING FACE OF WAR Vincent Bernard, Editor-in-Chief International Review of the Red Cross (2015).

Ref: War of All Against All, September 5th, 2010 by Kara in Dictionary, Moral Terms

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