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Soft War: The Ethics of Unarmed Conflict.

Soft War: The Ethics of Unarmed Conflict

Edited by Michael L. Gross and Tamar Meisels

In Soft War, Michael Gross and Tamar Meisels have assembled an important volume addressing aspects of military ethics that are underserved by standard just war accounts as well as international humanitarian law (IHL), which primarily address the use of lethal force by state and nonstate actors.

One way to think about the problem the authors pose is this: nonlethal means--whether cyber, economic, media, or others--have the ability to significantly disrupt civil life. While much of that activity is experienced as a nuisance, as Jessica Wolfendale observes in her chapter "Defining War," once that disruption reaches a level that threatens civilians' ability to meet basic needs, it has reached the level of war.

Certainly cybermeans raise such concerns, as George Lucas discusses in his chapter on state sponsored "hacktivism." But the authors in the volume address a much wider range of "soft war measures" including economic sanctions, restrictions on trade, propaganda, media warfare, lawfare, extortion as well as restrictions on liberty, including kidnapping and hostage taking. While such means can cause loss of life and damage to infrastructure as second and third order effects, such as coalition sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s, they do not have to in order to have the same coercive effect as lethal means normally associated with warfighting. In this way, soft war measures do not fall short of war as much as they are a part of, or in lieu of, "hard" war.

Moreover, as Lucas notes, while one single nonlethal attack would not likely rise to the level of war, effects of such attacks can accumulate until one has suffered "death by a thousand cuts." Thus more concerning than an unlikely cyber "Pearl Harbor," are the cumulative effects that things like theft of state and proprietary secrets, interference with trade, commerce and finance, exploitation of domestic and international laws to constrain an adversary's response--all of which can be accompanied by an effective information campaign--can have on the outcome of a conflict, without a shot being fired. Such means raise a number of questions regarding their permissible use.

The fact such means are nonlethal raises questions whether the conventional rules of war apply. Gross and Valerie Morkevicius argue that even with "soft" means one should still discriminate between legitimate and illegitimate targets, limit collateral harm, and consider proportionality. However, both argue that what counts as legitimate, collateral, and proportional is different. For Gross, the employment of nonlethal means suggests civilians can be liable to nonlethal measures based on the contribution they make to the enemy's war effort. Morkevicius argues that intentional, nonlethal, targeting of civilians is morally preferable when the alternative is the use of lethal tactics that may still result in their deaths, however unintentional that may be.

The chapters on economic measures are also informative. In general, the authors who took up economic sanctions, especially Joy Gordon, felt that indiscriminate sanctions that disrupted civil life were always wrong. However, sanctions on nonessential goods as well as "smart sanctions" that targeted organizations and individuals closely associated with causing or prosecuting the conflict were permissible, though she acknowledged their efficacy has historically been limited. Cecil Fabre's chapter on "conditional sales" offered an alternative to sanctions, where states may withhold or sell at a premium some kind of commodity an adversary state may need in order to compel it to address one's legitimate concerns.

Also of particular interest were Laurie Blank's and Sebastian Kaempf's articles on media in soft war. Blank notes the complementary effect media operations can have on how various audiences perceive the use of force. While not lethal itself, media operations can shape the narrative associated with the use of lethal force to enhance the legitimacy of one's own operations or the illegitimacy of the enemy's. Doing so, however, raises some concerns. To the extent a party to a conflict portrays otherwise compliant uses of force as noncompliant, they paradoxically risk eroding adherence to IHL or encouraging abuse of the law, such as the use of human shields, which exploits prohibitions on targeting noncombatants. Janina Dill, in her chapter on lawfare, poses a similar concern regarding the abuse of IHL, and notes such exploitation risks undermining adherence to those laws.

Kaempf's concern seems to be the mirror image of Blank's. Rather than the discouraging effect the media coverage can have on compliance, he is concerned about the sanitizing effect on the killing itself, which obscures the costs of war and sometimes covers up war crimes. Moreover, he observes, that while instantaneous nature of media coverage has had the effect of encouraging compliance with IHL by the United States and others, it also encourages downplaying the actual harm done. He further notes media has had the opposite effect on the Islamic State, which uses it to publicize its atrocities as a means to terrorize. Given the critical role media plays as a "soft weapon," then it may be time to develop better rules for regulating its use.

The book also addresses the role nonviolence can play in shaping and resolving a conflict. As James Pattison, Christopher Finlay, and Cheyney Ryan argue, the employment of nonviolence, whether in protest of some injustice or as unarmed peacekeepers, conveys a legitimacy that may make these measures preferable to violence, and perhaps more effective. To the extent that efficacy can be demonstrated, then such means can become morally preferable, if not obligatory. Such an obligation would have a profound impact on how states organize for war.

Taken together, this volume addresses an aspect of national security that is underrepresented not just in military ethics and law, but in practical discussions regarding how to fight wars well. Thus, the concerns these authors raise expand the kinds of ethical considerations academics and practitioners ought to take into account when employing the means associated with soft war, whether integrated into a "hard war" strategy or used in lieu of lethal force.

Reviewed by C. Anthony Pfaff, research professor for the military profession and ethics, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College.
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Title Annotation:DEFENSE STUDIES
Author:Pfaff, C. Anthony
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2018
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