CCLKOW: Part 1 – In HADR Humanitarian Principles Mean Civilians Must Lead

Greetings CCLKOW readers. This week we bring you something different. Rather than a single post on a theme, today we present two sides of an issue for your consideration. In this case, we are discussing HADR, and more specifically the proper lead for this growing contingency. Below, The Faceless Bureaucrat argues the case for the civilian and public sectors, largely short of the armed forces. Against the demands of the circumstances, both tangible and otherwise, these actors are the ideal lead. The second piece, from me, will argue the opposite. It will be for the Twitter discussion to consider both perspectives and debate the merits of each. So, enjoy this blog, and then move on to the next one! (JSR)


While many (mostly Western) military forces may consider themselves the best candidates for conducting Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief missions around the world, I posit that, in circumstances short of Level 3 mega-disasters, they are not.  I base this argument on three main ideas:

1.  Military action is an extension of politics and is, therefore, at odds with humanitarian principles.

Humanitarianism is meant to address affected populations on the basis of need alone.  Military intervention is usually carried out to further a particular foreign policy goal, whether it be improving a country’s image on the world stage or winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of a particular society.  I am not saying military delivered or facilitated aid cannot do material good, but it cannot be seen as being purely altruistic, either.  The simple fact that international militaries respond to emergencies based on a set of strategic calculations means that they are not, by definition, humanitarian.

Furthermore, given that foreign militaries are political actors, sometimes their enormous technical capabilities are overshadowed by political considerations.  Following the Katmandu earthquake last year, for instance, USMC Osprey aircraft could not operate in many parts of the country, due to the sensitivities of Nepal’s neighbours. Hence, the humanitarian value of these aircraft was severely limited because of their political significance.

2.  The militarization of humanitarian aid has knock on ethical implications for the beneficiary population.

When a hungry or displaced population is ‘rescued’ by a military force, rather than by its own state apparatus (ideal) or another civilian entity (second-best), it perpetuates the notion that the military provides the best solution to difficult problems.  In most parts of the world, there is considerable effort  being made to de-militarise essential services (through DDR and SSR programmes, for instance) and to normalise the state’s ability to provide for its citizenry.  Much of this effort is erased if the cavalry (quite literally) comes over the horizon to save the day.

3.  There are alternate mechanisms that can and do work, most of the time.

While the military is capable of providing logistical services quickly and effectively at short notice and with global reach, the civilian humanitarian system (composed of host countries; the International Red Cross/Red Crescent system (ICRC, IFRC, and national societies); Agencies, Funds and Programmes of the UN system; and national and international NGOs) manages to provide a wide-range of humanitarian and disaster relief services to millions of people around the world without military assistance.  For instance, the World Food Programme (part of the UN family) is a world leader in humanitarian logistics, fielding an impressive Air Service with 70 cargo aircraft and operating a fleet of over 5000 trucks every day, in places like Somalia, Syria, and Central African Republic. The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs provides the necessary ‘command and control’ (to use a not 100% apt military term) mechanisms–such as planning, liaison, information management–to help make the myriad actors work effectively to support the affected states and their populations.

In mega-emergencies, military assistance is required and very much welcomed, but it, too, must be coordinated and subordinated to the needs of the affected people.  It should be as humanitarian as possible (given the political realities) and disappear when it is no longer needed.  Commercial providers, such as DHL, are also starting to play major roles in logistics provision in HA/DR scenarios.  While they are also not entirely humanitarian actors (and may engage in HA/DR missions for PR reasons) they can offer services that were once only available from military sources.

Yes, the humanitarian system is imperfect: it needs more money and requires reform, especially in the area of involving the people who are most affected (reform will be the subject of the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul later this year), but these problems cannot be neglected in favour of having some militaries ‘step up’ and then taking over these delicate operations.


CCLKOW: Why Warriors?

#CCLKOW readers, this week we bring you one of Kings of War’s own, The Faceless Bureaucrat, to revisit the matter of warrior self-identification in the armed forces, particularly those of the US. We have trod this ground before with our Colonel Panter-Downes (here). But the trend is pernicious, so today we offer another perspective in opposition. Written originally as a comment to a post at Carrying the Gun, it has been expanded for our use this week. Where the Colonel offered a review from within the military institution, the Faceless Bureaucrat takes a historical approach. And it’s good. So, give this piece a read, peruse the Colonel’s musings, check out Don Gomez’s writing, and then join the discussion on Twitter at the hashtag. — JSR


Over at Carrying The Gun @dongomez has posted an interesting essay on what he calls an ‘odd Valhalla obsession‘.   In it he says, “What I wonder is what the constant referencing of ancient warrior cultures says about our own military.”

Now Dear Readers, it may be a new year, but there was no way that I was not going to comment on his post.  I couldn’t help myself.  It was like birdseed left in the middle of the road by Wile E. Coyote.  In true Roadrunner fashion, I dived in, awaiting the inevitable car crash as a 10 tonne truck exited the phony tunnel mural that was plastered on the cliff-face behind me.  Instead, the comment grew and grew and attracted some attention, so I decided that I would turn it into post over here.  (Repeat after me: recycling is good.)  So, lightly edited, please find below my thoughts.

It won’t surprise you–given what I have written several times here at KoW (here and here, for example) about the whole Warrior trope–that I believe there is something unhealthy in the way that certain elements of armed forces in the West (particularly in, but not limited to, the U.S.) cleave to mythical Warrior identities. The Warrior is not a simple, straight-forward ‘good role model’; as individuals (idealised and actual) and as functional types, Warriors have always had a complicated relationship with collective violence. This is true across much of, inter alia, the Indo-Persian-Greco-European mythological imaginary. Homeric, Vedic, and Norse heroes are not worthy of blind emulation, partly due their inherently self-centred approach to combat.

As iconoclastic as it may be to say that (and I guess it must be, given the threats I have received from those who believe they are Warriors when they read my writing on this) the real mystery is to figure out what the allure is. Aesthetics is probably part of it, but why do serving, professional service people want to be associated with images of ill-disciplined, immature, selfish, greedy, individualistic, hedonistic, unaccountable committers of atrocities from centuries ago? Why not choose chivalric ideals, for example? Why not choose home-grown patriotic symbolism instead (from winning US armies, I mean)?

Part of the reason, I reckon, is so that members of contemporary armed forces can distance themselves from civilians–politicians, civilian strategists, diplomats, whizz-kids, bureaucrats, hedge fund managers. Could it be a version (an extended, extreme, perverse version) of Huntington’s ‘professionalisation as isolation’ movement espoused in his 1957 classic The Soldier and The State? “Anyone can get a grad degree; only Warriors go to Valhalla.” Taking this further, it is likely a move to ensure a degree of ontological security (an attempt to avoid the chaos that lurks in life without a comforting framework, as Giddens might have expressed it) for those who believe they are the heirs of Achilles or Beowulf.

This is problematic for several important reasons, but let me mention two here. The first is that Warriors don’t follow orders well: they don’t ‘fight and win the nation’s wars’, they fight their own (often deeply personal) wars, and this is dangerous for liberal democratic states. Modern war is an extension of politics (I read that somewhere), not a private quest for glory. Or revenge. Or a ‘bonding experience with yer mates’.

The second is that Warriors almost always have problematic relationships with female figures (as beneficiaries, bystanders, supporters, victims, and peers). Hyper-masculinity does not play well in a society made up of diverse, fluid, complex gender relations.  Choosing hyper-masculine (for the most part Warriors have been men) role models is not going to improve the situation.

Returning to Huntington’s conceptual landscape to conclude, Warriors wrongly believe they must focus solely on the military’s functional imperative, seeing no value in supporting its societal imperative. In primitive societies, role differentiation may have allowed for this (and certainly in our epics, this is often emphasized), but contemporary societies, contemporary politics, and contemporary wars demand that armed forces achieve a balance of functional and societal appropriateness.

Now is the time to leave fantasy role-playing behind and get on with the serious business of soldiering.*

(*I use the term soldiering regardless of the service to which one belongs.  I know everyone is different, just like every snowflake is different, but choosing the word warrior to act as a some universal term so that Marines, dragoons, grenadiers, sailors, aviators, etc. don’t get upset does not offset the negative aspects of the term as I have mentioned).

So with that said, a few questions to get the discussion started:


  1. Do you find that the Warrior identity is prevalent in your military experience?  In what ways is it introduced and reinforced?
  2. In what ways do you believe that a Warrior identity actually benefits the individual, the military (as an institution), and the state?
  3. How might those benefits be incorporated into an identity model that eschews the downsides mentioned in the post?




It’s that time of year again…Terrorism and Santa Redux

Hello, Dear Reader! Yes, it has been a long time since I’ve posted here. Thanks for not bringing it up.

2015 will certainly stand out as a banner year for things going to Hell in a hand basket.  Planes, trains, rock concerts…nothing was immune from terrorist attacks. ISIS (or ISIL, or IS, or Daesh) was everywhere…

Or was it?

I am reminded of a post that I crafted here five years ago (5 years!?!  where does the time go, eh?) Given that re-gifting is the new…er…uhhh…gifting the same thing more than once, I thought I would share it with you again, for a second time, once more:

Terrorism and the Myth of Santa: Do you believe?

All the very best for this time of year (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) and here’s hoping 2016 is broadly better than 2015.  (No, Hallmark, you can’t steal that sentiment, it’s all mine.)



‘If you can keep your head’: Some intriguing reading for a new year

Hello, Dear Reader. Have you noticed just how swell 2015 is so far? Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose and all that, I suppose.

Today I want to share three pieces of writing that have come out recently. They are all worthy of your reading, albeit for different reasons.

1. James Fallows’s “The Tragedy of the American Military” in The Atlantic.  This is a compelling piece of long-form journalism.  It goes beyond the usual platitudes and begins to get at the underlying challenges facing not only civil-military relations in the US, but also with American foreign and defence policy and practice in general.  Fallows’s characterisation of America as a ‘Chickenhawk Nation’ is powerful, and to my mind, largely justified.  That is not to say that Fallows gets it all correct; I, for one, am not a fan of the idea of a return to compulsory military service.  However, Fallows does include, in his blog, a number of the comments and critiques shared by a number of his readers.  The article and the responses are well worth your attention.

As this is an academic blog (how could we forget that, Dear Reader?), I would say that what Fallows says is not new.  Andrew Bacevich, for instance, has covered, in scholarly detail, the issue of American militarism in a number of books.  I would recommend his (originally published in 2005) aptly titled The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced By War.  Christopher Coker’s Men at War: What Fiction Tells Us About Conflict treats the various roles that the military has played, across times and cultures in more detail than Fallows can in the beginning of his article .

2.   Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Gregory F. Treverton’s “The Calm Before the Storm” in Foreign Affairs.   I found this article, like most of Taleb’s writing, to be simultaneously intriguing, thought provoking, and incredibly annoying.  The idea that stability, in and of itself, should not be seen as the ‘be all and end all’, as it often masks (what Taleb calls elsewhere) ‘silent risks’, is both wise and timely.  Perhaps even more important is Taleb’s reminder that prediction (based on an assumption of predictability) is not as important (or possible) as flexibility.  Amen.  However, the application of this idea to ‘everything’ from teacups, to bodybuilders, to firms, to economies, to ecologies, to geopolitics cannot be assumed to hold true, at least not without serious empirical proof (and not just endless ‘thought experiment’ and mathematical QED ad infinitum).  This article is a follow on to Taleb’s previous Foreign Affairs article of 2011, and an extension of his longer, most recent book Antifragile.  While the shorter length of the article means that some of the key concepts are glossed over, at least we are spared the unbearable snark that almost drowns out the strong thinking in the fuller, book-length treatments.

3.  Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack’s “The World is Not Falling Apart” in Salon.  If we are to follow Kipling’s suggestion and not panic in the face of seemingly dismal and disintegrating circumstances, then perhaps reading Pinker and Mack’s piece is just the thing.  According to the authors, the world is not coming to an end.  Indeed, across any number of indices, we have never had it so good.  I can not help but agree with the conclusion, “an evidence-based mindset on the state of the world would bring many benefits”, but at the same time, it is somehow hard to be convinced.  The ‘data’ don’t fit the worldview, and vice versa.  I am sure this an indication of a deep-seated shortcoming on my part.  The read was instructive, though, for it highlights that emotions, first impressions, and the ‘facts’ are not always in alignment (as my astrologer reminds me on a daily basis).  Take a look and I leave it to you, Dear Reader, to make up your own mind.

Here’s to another 356 days of 2015, whatever they bring.



‘O four-foot brother’: Onolatry at Christmas Time

Well hello there, Dear Reader.  Yes, it has been a long time.   Technical problems (which, you won’t be surprised, baffled all of us historians and social scientists here at KOW) have kept us from our (self) appointed rounds.  That ends today.

I wanted to post something timely, something that combined both the Yuletide and subject matter near and dear to the Kings of War readership.    I’ve done it before, and some of those posts, upon my re-reading them–with a smallish sherry in my hand–seem worthy of re-posting.  Consider this one the Post of Christmas Past.  Just as good today as it was when it was first written, I dare say.

In that vein, you almost got a story about the effect of surveillance on the thorny problem of pecan theft, but I thought better of it.  What with North Korea and all the rest, I reckoned you would have had enough about nuts this year.

I could have done a bit on the fable-ulous WWI Christmas truce footie match, but everybody’s doing that just now.  Besides, you can see original footage below. Don’t those men look old, Dear Reader?  There is an interesting story behind this film, about how an alliance of four unlikely companions was put asunder by the actions of one reckless outsider.  The result was, simply put, terrible; the implications would plague the world for decades to come.  The horror.  Beyond describing, really.  Wings.  The Travelling Wilburys.  It makes me shudder just to think about it, so much so that I need another small(ish) sherry to just to screw up enough courage to carry on.

So, no Dear Reader, neither nuts nor football for you today, I am afraid.  So what, I hear you cry, what instead?  By way of answer to that I have but two words: Donkeys.

[Yes, donkeys.  Donkey would be one word–more than one is donkeys.  ‘Are’ donkeys.]

Donkeys are very much tied up with the Christmas story. (Although one would rather not comment on this particular specimen, if you don’t mind terribly.)  Some versions have it that Mary rode to Bethlehem on a donkey and that a donkey was present in the manger when the ‘Reason for the Day Off’ was born.  As a matter of fact, donkeys are implicated in the stories of both the beginning and the end of Jesus’s life: he rode to Jerusalem on a donkey on what would be known as Palm Sunday.  Donkey here stands for humble and lowly.  All good things to keep in mind at Christmas.

Donkeys, too, are immensely involved in military affairs, not as mounts, but as beasts of burden.  Used from Antiquity (the Egyptians and Roman armies were famous for their use of these hardy animals), they are still in use today, in areas such as Pakistan and Afghanistan.  There are legendary tales of those attending Quetta staff college needing to master the mathematics of donkey to ammunition to fodder ratios as the logistics component of their final exercise.  There are even plans to create robotic pack-‘animals’, modeled on…can you guess?  [Seriously?!  What have I been prattling on about for the last four hundred words, Dear Reader.  Yes, very good: donkeys.]  Donkey here stands for reliable and robust.  Both very good attributes for things martial.

Military donkeys are not restricted to utilitarian purposes, though: thanks to my subscription to Modern Farmer, I read recently a touching story of rendition, whereby US Marines kidnapped a donkey from Fallujah and took it home to Iowa in 2008, where it died four years later.  The Australian army has its own myth, that of Simpson and his donkey, who together rescued wounded soldiers at Gallipoli.  Donkey here stands for friendly and faithful.

Of course, there are more pejorative connotations for donkeys, too.  Old King Midas had his ears turned into those of a donkey by the god Apollo and Pinocchio suffers the same fate in Disney’s 1940 film.  Apocryphal or not, no one can (thanks in part to books like this one) think of the British Army of the First World War without conjuring up an image of ‘lions led by donkeys’. Donkey here stands for stubborn and stupid.

But for all its association with simplicity and plodding, there is a sinister side to donkeys, too.  They have been used as delivery systems for IEDs in Lebanon (1985), in the West Bank and Gaza (1995-2014), in Iraq (2004), and in Afghanistan (2009, 2013).  Interestingly, one of the earliest uses of exploding donkeys is attributed to the Union Army in the New Mexico campaign in 1862.

So, Dear Reader, do not  think badly of our friend Equus asinus this Christmas.  Bear in mind, perhaps, G.K. Chesterton’s donkey, who rises above the usual humble portrayal, to say

Fools! For I also had my hour

And from hour, we move to years, which also has a donkey connection via a process of hemiteleia, which allows me to wish you, one and all, in my own right and on behalf of my fellow contributors here at Kings of War, the very best for the rest of 2014 and a safe and rewarding 2015.


Mistakes were made: ‘We tortured some folks.’

We tortured some folks

Following in the footsteps of President Obama and his frank admission, ‘We tortured some folks’, several historical figures also came clean this week:

Michael Hayden, head of the NSA after 9/11: ‘We tapped some calls.’

Richard Nixon, on the Watergate scandal: ‘We bugged some bros.’

Dick Fuld, on the implosion of Lehman Brothers: ‘We lost some dough.’

Pol Pot, on his strategy to purify Kampuchea through a return to the land: ‘We worked some peeps to death.’

Reynhard Heydrich, on the subject of Kristallnacht in November 1938: ‘We smashed some windows.’

Stalin, on the subject of the forced famine of the kulaks in the 1930s: ‘We starved some dudes.’

Field Marshal Douglas Haig, on the subject of the Western Front in the First World War: ‘We dug some trenches.’



Lighthouse Erected in the Great Sea of Time? You be the judge

I think that it is great that military commanders now have reading lists (who doesn’t have one these days?).  Encouraging military professionals to understand their profession in ways other than by dint of their own experience alone is a worthwhile endeavour and should be encouraged.

This sentiment, of course, depends on the assumption that all books so chosen have a contribution to make towards the noble aims of such an enterprise.  But what is one to make of ‘bad books’?

On the Commandant of the US Marine Corps’s Professional Reading List, I found and read this book: The Warrior Ethos by Stephen Pressman.  It is required reading for every Marine, regardless of rank or role.  And to me, that is a shame.

The book is chock full of bumper-sticker aphorisms, many of which are contradictory, the bulk of which are sexist, some downright misogynist.  The book advocates a turn to ‘subjective control’ of the military, rather than ‘objective control’, on the basis that the distinctions between the military culture and the civilian one are unhealthy.

A confusing–even worrying–choice, therefore, and one that needs defending if it is to be appreciated.

Bring it.


On Accountability: The Tragedy of Srebrenica

“It is not only what we do, but also what we do not do, for which we are accountable.”  Molière

The massacre of 8,000 Muslim Bosnian men at Srebrenica in July 1995 was genocide, the vilest crime against humanity in the international legal statute book.  Of that there can be no doubt.  Who is accountable for it, however, is slightly less clear.  This week’s landmark Dutch ruling adds another dimension to the issue, one that clouds, not clarifies, the matter.

Individual Responsibility

At the individual level, there have been a number of convictions and prosecutions at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia for the slaughter committed.  Krtić and Blagojević were convicted, while several others, including Milošević, Karadžić and Mladić, have been accused, charged, and/or prosecuted for their involvement.   National courts in Serbia, Bosnia and elsewhere have also carried out trials of those responsible, many for individual acts of murder, rather than genocide. The number of people actually involved and responsible for these obscene crimes is, undoubtedly, much larger than those prosecuted; there is rumoured to be a list held in Banja Luka with over 25,000 names on it, 800 or so kept secret.  This failure of humanity, it seems, had many fathers.  

Collective Responsibility

Above the level of the individual, though, how has accountability been allocated?

In 1999, then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan apportioned blame on the ‘international community’ and the senior leadership of the UN for failing to protect the people of Srebrenica.  He re-iterated this in 2005 on the 10th anniversary of the massacre, repeating that the UN was partially to blame.  In 2001, the parliament of France claimed that France had failed in its duties as a member of the Security Council and had not done enough to prevent the tragedy.  The governments of Serbia and Republika Srpska have oscillated, sometimes appearing to take responsibility (by apologizing), but often pointing out that the massacre was the work of individuals, not of the state itself.

Since Nuremberg the idea that an individual can escape responsibility by claiming to have been ‘simply following orders’ has been repeatedly shown to be an insufficient defence.  However, that is not to say that it does not continue to form the basis for attempts to side-step accountability.  Duch, the notorious commandant and torturer-in-chief of the Khmer Rouge’s S21 detention facility, used it vociferously at both his trial and his appeal before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).

What is less clear, though, is the opposite relationship: at what threshold do we hold accountable the organisation for the crimes of its members?  The principle of command, or superior, responsibility can hold commanders responsible for not doing enough to prevent or stop war crimes being committed by their subordinates, but applications of the principle are not as straightforward as one might expect, as rulings since 1945 have repeatedly shown.

Even so, the notion of superior responsibility merely moves the level of individual accountability up a notch or two. What about the collective, especially the state?  The admissions and apologies mentioned above are all fine and good, and some of them are probably even genuinely felt, but they are voluntary actions.  They come with no penalties or sanctions.  They are not the judgments or adjudications of others, against legal or normative standards, but, rather, internally determined.  Some of the apologies, such as the one from the Republika Srpska, for instance, do not mention the word ‘genocide’, acknowledging only that 1000s of people were illegally killed.

It is interesting to note that despite several international and national prosecutions (which have led to some convictions) indicating that a genocide did take place and that individuals were responsible,  when Serbia (and Montenegro) was taken to the International Court of Justice by Bosnia for the genocide, the state was not found to be culpable.

The ICJ ruled that states, in principle, can be held responsible for genocide. It also ruled that genocide did occur in at least one instance during the Bosnian war — at Srebrenica, when some 8,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred in 1995, at the hands of the Bosnian Serb Army (VRS). The court also found “conclusive evidence” that numerous other killings and massacres of Muslims occurred in other parts of Bosnia.  But crucially, the ICJ found that these atrocities were not enough to prove the “necessary specific intent” to liquidate an entire group that is needed for a genocide conviction. In other words, despite evidence of atrocities and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, as well as evidence that the Bosnian Serb Army received logistical and military assistance from Belgrade, Bosnia failed to prove that Serbia’s leaders at the time set out to physically liquidate Bosnia’s Muslims and acted to fulfill this plan.  (Source)

Republika Srpska, a constituent entity of Bosnia itself, has never been taken to the ICJ to account for the actions of the Bosnia Serb Army during the war, including the genocide at Srebrenica, despite several of its military commanders being prosecuted and convicted for war crimes.

This makes an incredible (and somewhat perverse) contrast with the Netherlands.  On the basis that it was their soldiers, working under a UN mandate (but ultimately remaining, inescapably, under Dutch national or full command) that did not prevent, and indeed in some way facilitated, the massacre, the Dutch cabinet resigned on 16 April 2002.  The government felt that it was responsible not only for the battalion’s performance, but for deploying them in the first place and maintaining them there despite problems with the UN mandate.  While this may also be seen as an ‘internal and voluntary’ step, it was one with real consequences and conforms with the highest principles of responsible government, not to mention collective responsibility.

The Netherlands last week went a step further.  A Dutch court found that the government of the Netherlands is responsible for the deaths of at least 300 of the victims at Srebrenica because its “peacekeeping force should have known that the Muslims were likely to be killed by the Serbs” and, therefore, should not have ‘handed them over’.  Here we have a legal adjudication formally declaring that a state is responsible for a part of the genocide.  Financial compensation to the victims of the families will no doubt follow.  The fact that the judgment didn’t come from an external body, but rather a domestic court, is all the more incredible, proving that the rule of law can and does prevail in some liberal democracies.

Back to Bosnia via Versailles

A great deal of the popular attention paid to international law over the past two decades has been on individual accountability, at the level of soldiers (in the cases of ICTY and ICTR) and of heads of state (in the cases of the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the ICC).  While the ICJ ‘Genocide’ ruling in the case of Serbia in 2007 was in important first step in the process that may see states held accountable for the actions of those working in their name, it was largely unsatisfying.  The actions of the Dutch government and judiciary before and after it demonstrate how at odds international law, common sense, politics, and public opinion can be.

Of course, it didn’t used to be this way.  There is plenty of precedent for collective guilt.  It just fell out of fashion.  The First World War ended with the Treaty of Versailles, Article 231 of which unambiguously stated:

The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.

(Along with accepting responsibility for the war, the German state was forced to pay reparations, the final payment of which took place on 3 October 2010.)

From the outset, the notion of war guilt was controversial and Hitler’s objections to it were warmly received in many corners, including by some in the West.  Still, variations on war guilt, in the form of reparations, were imposed on several countries after the Second World War, and on Iraq after the first Gulf War.

Still, we see a contemporary reluctance to look at collective or national accountability.  Indeed the the crime of ‘aggression’ is now an individual matter under the ICC statutes.

How will the circle be squared?  Where is the balance between the individual and the state when it comes to war crimes?  There are no clear answers.  The words of one legal scholar (Beatrice I. Bonafè) sum up the current debate thus:

It is a settled principle that states incur international responsibility when they breach international obligations, and all the more so when these breaches are particularly serious, that is, when they amount to international crimes. On the other hand, today it is undisputed that international law provides for the criminal responsibility of those individuals who commit international crimes. What is much more uncertain is the relationship between these two regimes of international responsibility, that is, the connections between state and individual responsibility when the same or analogous conduct, performed respectively by individuals and by states, gives rise to both individual and state crimes.

In the meantime, the families and survivors of Srebrenica continue to search for justice, and only The Netherlands has meaningfully ‘stepped up’ to accept their part in the tragedy. Sadly, there are likely to be further chapters of this debate, as there is no sign of individual or collective atrocity ending anytime soon, whether in Gaza, Syria, Iraq, the Ukraine, Burma, or elsewhere. 


The Books of August: A Reader’s Guide to the Centenary of the start of the First World War

Unless you are completely illiterate (in which case, unless your friend or Siri is kind enough to read this post aloud, you will be missing out on some very witty stuff, Dear Read…I mean Dear Non-Reader), you will not have failed to notice the literal deluge of books out and about on the First World War.  Scholars may not be very well socialised (sorry, but it is true.  Some of my best friends are academics) but they figured out about recycling yonks before the rest of us.

There are ‘new’ books, there are re-written ‘special editions’, there are ‘popularised revised editions’, there are ‘re-issued classics’…the list goes on.  Some focus on the causes of the war, others concentrate on the combat, or a particular ‘under-appreciated’ theatre, or the homefront, or the legacy.  Buy them, read them, go on, I dare you.

Why have all these books been written?  A good question, and I am glad you asked.  The short answer, to paraphrase Barbara Tuchman, is this:

To turn around the publication of a million books at the very moment of commemoration would have taken a more iron nerve than most publishers disposed of.

Much of the output this year is re-hashed, or recast, work from research conducted long ago.  Very little ‘new’ evidence, say from a recently unlocked archive, is contained within these works.  It is not to say that they are poorly written; they are not.  The prose is as good as there is to be found.  But, really, honestly, many of the books did not need to be written.  They are cash cows many of them, publishing houses’ attempts to take advantage of the time.  It is a shame.  And so it goes.

Moving on from my pitiful attempt to stand, Canute-like, against the tide of wanton commercialism, I would say that the First World War was terrible and terribly important.  It deserves our study and our scrutiny.  But in doing so, I put forward, Dear Readers, two key pieces of guidance, two words of wisdom, perhaps.  

1.  Do not make corny, irrelevant attempts to tie together the situations of 1914 and 2014.  The South China Sea is not the ‘powderkeg of Asia’; Iraq is not the ‘sick man of the Arab World’. Putin is not the Tsar.  ‘Why not?’, I hear you shout.  Because.  That was then and this is now.  Our own day’s troubles (and they are legion) are rooted in history, to be sure.  But they are rooted in their own, contingent history.  They cannot be crammed into a tidy template and made to fit an existing script.  That’s why not.

2.  Upon reading a book, ask yourself if it can pass the acid test: can it explain why it all happened?  Many will try.  It was because of alliances, some say.  It was not because of alliances, others will intone; the alliances actually prevented it from happening earlier.  It was the Kaiser!  It was the Serbs! It was the aristocracy!  Even books that do not have as their primary aim the explanation of the origins of the war will have, embedded somewhere in their narrative, a short-form for why it all came about.  But do any of those explanations actually work?  Do they increase our understanding of how it all began and for what purpose?  Most of the time they turn on points of historiography, or even ideology, rather than actual insight into the events.

After having read perhaps more than my share of these books over the past 30 years or so, I still wonder if any of us can really give an answer to the key question, set by Baldric in Blackadder Goes Forth:

The thing is: The way I see it, these days there’s a war on, right? and, ages ago, there wasn’t a war on, right?    So, there must have been a moment when there not being a war on went away, right? and there being a war on came along.   So, what I want to know is: How did we get from the one case of affairs to the other case of affairs?

How indeed.


Are coups bad? This one, or every one?

The US reaction to last week’s coup in Thailand appears clear and robust:

“I am disappointed by the decision of the Thai military to suspend the constitution and take control of the government after a long period of political turmoil…”

However, what are we to make of Kerry’s second phrase?

“…there is no justification for this military coup.”

Are we to understand that under some circumstances coups are, or could be, justified?  If so, is this a helpful statement in terms of setting normative boundaries in International Politics or does it merely reflect an underlying Realpolitik?