Over at Lawfare, I’ve posted a new review of three academic books on combatants, civilians, and POWs, if you’re interested in fairly technical academic writing on laws of war issues. My conclusion about the principle of humanitarianism that two of the three books take as essentially overriding is below the fold:
But [Civilian or Combatant‘s] conclusion is nothing if not categorical:
“In humanitarian law there are no good sides or bad sides, no political agenda, and no higher good; the sole purpose is to protect civilians and even combatants from the foolishness of war.”
It is true that within international humanitarian law, there are no good sides or bad sides. But that is not because there are never, in principle, good or bad sides. The IHL enterprise partakes deliberately of a suspension of public judgment as to sides, causes, and reasons for fighting, for the highly specific and frankly morally limited purpose of humanitarian relief in the immediate moment. But that’s where the truth of this statement ends. For one thing, the declaration of “no political agenda” is belied by the closing phrase–“the foolishness of war”–which is a political judgment that war is “foolishness.” That is morally only sometimes true–and sometimes it is not true at all. More broadly, it is a fantastic conceit and egoism of the humanitarian community that its value of humanitarianism is somehow “higher” than any other, including the value that one side might have against the other in a conflict; just cause still matters. Oftentimes wars have no sense, no justice on any side; but oftentimes they do. Impartiality is not a higher value than partiality in a just cause; this is a moral foundation lost to van Engeland’s assumption of the superior virtue of impartial humanitarianism.
[Anicee] van Engeland is unfortunately not alone in this. The humanitarian community has operated for decades now mostly from the assumption that its angelic stance of studied neutrality is the highest and most admirable moral position to assume with respect to armed conflict. It is not. We are not better off in a world in which everyone wants to be the ICRC and no one wants to be Churchill. Indeed, all things being equal, deliberate refusal to make judgments about the rights and wrongs, or wrongs and wrongs, of armed conflict is flight from moral responsibility, not recourse to a higher value.
The utilitarian imperative of delivery of aid indeed requires and justifies a suspension of public judgment as to rights and wrongs in war–even as to things about which we might think it ordinarily both a right and even a duty to make private, and public, judgment. Humanitarianism’s refusal to judge is morally justified by humanitarian imperatives. Nonetheless, as a form of judgment, it must finally be reckoned an impoverished ethic.