21st Century Warfare and Just War Theory

The use of cyberwarfare and predator drones (above) raise questions about the ethics of war in the 21st century.

Recent leaks of classified information on drone strikes, cyberwarfare, and terror plots have prompted U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint two prosecutors to investigate these leaks.  Much of the secret information has appeared in a series of New York Times articles dealing with the president’s national security decision-making.  While the leaks themselves are an important story, the content of the classified information paints a picture of a president and his advisers grappling with questions of ethics in an age of unconventional warfare.

Just War Theory refers to a body of thought developed over centuries by philosophers, theologians, and other scholars.  It seeks to define conditions under which war is just, or ethically defensible.  There is wide agreement on principles such as discrimination (the need to distinguish between combatants and civilians–one can target the former but should avoid attacking the latter).  But applying this principle in a war zone can become very difficult.  What if you are fighting against insurgents who don’t wear uniforms and use the civilian population as cover?  And what if the enemy puts a tank (a legitimate military target) next to a hospital or school?  Can the tank be attacked with an airstrike?

Advances in technology (e.g., nuclear weapons in the 20th century and cyberweapons/drones in the 21st century) can further complicate the application of Just War Theory to real-world cases.  Recent leaks describe President Obama personally ordering drone strikes against targets on a “kill list” and also ordering cyberwarfare to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program.  But they also show a president grappling with the ethical issues raised by such technology.  One New York Times article claims that the principle of discrimination plays a key role in decision-making on cyberwarfare:

“…Precisely because the United States refuses to talk about its new cyberarsenal, there has never been a real debate in the United States about when and how to use cyberweapons.  President Obama raised many of the issues in the closed sanctum of the Situation Room, participants in the conversation say, pressing aides to make sure that the attacks were narrowly focused so that they did not take out Iranian hospitals or power plants and were directed only at the country’s nuclear infrastructure. ‘He was enormously focused on avoiding collateral damage,’ one official said, comparing the arguments over using cyberwar to the debates about when to use drones.”

What do you think?  Has the U.S. been sufficiently careful to avoid civilian casualties in its use of drones and other weapons in Iraq, Aghanistan, and elsewhere?  Are some civilian casualties unavoidable and thus acceptable in warfare?  What are the limits of discrimination as a requirement for a just war?

2 responses to “21st Century Warfare and Just War Theory

  1. Pingback: Drones,UAV’s and the robo wars. «

  2. Pingback: Reciprocity, Secrecy, and Blowback | World Politics News Review

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