In a powerful article in today’s Guardian, Simon Jenkins argues that ‘air launched bombs and long-distance shells’ should be declared illegal under the 1983 Geneva convention. He argues:
The tragedy in Gaza surely marks the time when the world declares air-launched bombs and long-distance shells to be illegal under the 1983 Geneva convention. They should be on a par with chemical munitions, white phosphorous, cluster bombs and delayed-action land mines. They pose a threat to non-combatants that should be intolerable even in the miserable context of war.
It is barely conceivable that the most accurate weapon of war, an infantryman, would deliberately enter a house and massacre unarmed women and children as they have their dinner. As a result, mercifully few do. When such cold-blooded murder is committed, from the 1968 My Lai killings in Vietnam to those now coming to light in Iraq, we are appalled, and inquiries, trials and disciplinary procedures follow.
Those killing from the air need have no sight of the carnage they unleash. They are placed at both a geographical and a moral distance, with a licence allowed no soldier on the ground.
In the complex politics of war, these weapons are like torture. They numb moral sensibility and do harm beyond all justification of victory. They should be abolished. If we wish to kill other people for whatever reason, we should use only weapons that kill the right ones.
The article has provoked huge debate on the Guardian Comment Is Free site. It reminded me of Sven Lindqvist’s History of Bombing, a book I read a couple of years ago. It’s highly unusual, designed like a labyrinth with several possible ways in and through the argument.
The nub of his argument begins by posing the question, “What is permissible in war? When is one allowed to wage war against savages and barbarians?” Lindqvist’s answer is “always.” So, then, “What is permissible in wars against savages and barbarians?” And the answer to that, he says, is “anything.” Therefore, cast your enemy as the barbarian, make your public believe it, and you may do anything you choose.
Lindqvist sets out a history of aerial bombing, exploring the issues raised by the bombing of Iraq (in the 1920s) Guernica, Dresden, Hiroshima, etc., as well as reviewing relevant developments in international law.
- You can read extracts from the book on Linqvist’s website.
- Precision, what precision? Richard Norton-Taylor on civilian deaths from airstrikes in Afghanistan – Guardian, September 2008