Fall - 2012 JustWar1

Published on December 18th, 2012


Aspects of Asymmetrical Warfare – A Primer for Just War Theory

By Sebastian L. Klein

This short article will not attempt to take any stance on trying to justify either side of the conflict at hand, but should be seen as more of a short introduction to the ethical questions presented when waging asymmetrical warfare. 

The recent attacks and escalating conflict between Israel and Gaza has once again raised questions concerning the proportionality of warfare – a vital constituent in the theory and philosophy of just warfare. Historically, the theories and theorists referring to just warfare have often been directly cognizant with what is known as a “symmetrical” form of war. Questions that have been leveled during the ongoing crisis seem to be missing a vital point in how most battles in a modern day battleground have evolved into what is known as “asymmetrical” forms of warfare. This is not an original direction of warfare, but what is new is the global importance this form of conflict has acquired in the past decade since the September eleventh attacks on the USA.

Just warfare theorists have generally proposed that the rules of war should apply to all equally, regardless of asymmetry between belligerents. However, the meta-ethical conditions involved in certain aspects of modern warfare keeps generating the same questions:  “Is Israel justified in bringing its military force to bear upon Hamas and Gaza as to deter rocket fire and loss of its own civilian population?” and “is Hamas justified in firing missiles against an Israeli civilian population to achieve its own goals?”

Say what one will about the morals and the disproportionate amount of media attention surrounding the events taking place – the reality of the matter is that the conflict between Hamas and Israel persistently engage our societies interest and requires us to garner a proper understanding of the various governments rational  and a better knowledge of just war theory, as to be better prepared to engage in the discussion on how to justify warfare within a modern context.

Throughout the twentieth century we have seen the development of a series of commonly agreed upon treaties effectively limiting grounds and cause for countries to declare war on each other. Today we adhere to international law to justify armed conflict, but the history of man justifying the use of warfare is as old as war itself. However, it is within the context of the Catholic Middle Ages that we see the development of these thoughts into the strands we base our contemporary reasonings of war and its regulations on.

Just warfare became historically divided into two strands of thought by medieval philosophers and theologians such as St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Francisco De Vittoria :  Jus ad Bellum (the right of war) and Jus in Bello (the rights in war). During the European Renaissance and our modern period of history, philosophers like Kant, Locke and Hobbes furthered these thoughts. This eventually led Prof. Brian Orend to developed a third strand, namely Jus Post Bellum (the rights after war). These three aspects are what today form our modern conceptions on just war theory.

As the conflict between Hamas and Israel represents an asymmetrical and can hardly be called fair in any meaning of the sense, an important question is raced within the traditions of Jus in Bello, namely does the rules of what is justified to do in wartime still count for the military disadvantaged party, or does that change when one opponent is faced with overwhelming odds?

The rules of Jus in Bello are there to give immunity to those civilians who do not partake in armed conflict, they exist primarily to protect. But in asymmetrical conflicts the borderlines of combatant and non-combatant are readily being blurred.

In his article “The Ethics of Asymmetry” David Rodin states the following question: do the weaker of belligerents in a conflict that is decidedly unmatched in form of military power and technology only target military targets and fight by the rules? If so, such a tactic would surely spell defeat, and it would be impossible to gain any victory. Therefore the weaker of the two parties turns to asymmetrical, unconventional forms of warfare as to gain some leverage. Attacking the civilian population to sow terror and discord is one of the most popular forms of this form of warfare.

However, when the weaker of the two chooses to pursue the path of asymmetry as to stand a better chance of winning, it finds itself in the unlucky position that it has to give up its stance on effectively pursuing a just war. As mentioned, the rules of war are there to protect non-combatants from being harmed, but when one is forced into the territory of asymmetrical warfare targeting civilians suddenly becomes a viable tactic. The troubling fact of this course of action shows us that the weaker party is almost by default denied a “fair” fight, as it has to trade its moral integrity for a chance to “level the playing field” against a stronger opponent.

This is the underlying problem of the issue at hand, and one that has been grasped and contended with for a long time. If one follows the general theory of jus ad bellum and jus in bello, there is no way to trade off on or the other. You cannot wage a just war that isn’t just in its form. If a war is to be fought unjustly, then according to the theory of just warfare it shouldn’t be fought at all.

This is of course the most reasonable answer, but not one that effectively applies to the realities of the situation between Israel and Palestine.

Rodin gives another response in viewing how to incorporate both a certain fairness of warfare while avoiding to slacken the elements of Jus in Bello. By strengthening the regulations and constraints for Jus in Bello on the strongest party invested in the conflict, one can regulate with far higher certainty that a proposed target which might have civilian functions is legitimate, and that it can take “exceptionally rigorous” steps to minimize civilian casualty and collateral.

War subjects belligerent parties to massive trauma, and is therefore subject to great risks of subjective illusions of who has justice on their side. Moreover, there is no objective mechanisms in place in the world today that can determine true justice of waging war. If viewing historical records one will readily see cognitive dissonance form in individuals and the way reflect on the morality of their wartime actions, decide they have just cause for their actions, and carry out – from an objective perspective – morally culpably ones.

In understanding how theories on just warfare apply to real-time, asymmetrical conflicts we can hopefully gain a deeper understanding of why various states in conflict act the way they do. And it will be easier for us as both spectators and vocal participants during wartime to reflect on the acts of the belligerent parties before berating or championing a “just cause” for warfare.


Further Reading:

Mattox, John M. (2006). Saint Augustine and the Theory of Just War. London: Continuum.

Smit, Wim (2005). Just War and Terrorism: The End of the Just War Concept? Leuven: Peeters.

Rodin, David & Richard Sorabji (2006). The Ethics of War: Shared Problems in Different Traditions. Aldershot: Ashgate.


*Cover photo by Russel Trow, plane photo by Brian Snelson, grave photo by Michaem Thielmeier, civil war volunteer photo by Marion Doss



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