Parabellum: Study of War – Philosophy & Law of War

No study of war is complete without an understanding of the Laws of War and the Philosophy of War, the history of war, the ethics of war, the politics of war, the economics of war, and the diplomacy of war. It is from this that an understanding of what constitutes a “just war”, and how war as “deterrence” can be perfectly appreciated. War Studies are meant to provide an understanding of military campaigns and operations in the light of the wide-ranging economic, social, technological and political changes in the world that are shaping the globe today. It is designed to engage people to engage critically with others about the conduct and nature of contemporary warfare, and to enable them to understand the contexts in which modern military operations take place.

War is the result of the choices people make. Unfortunately the menace of war has increased in recent years in the present world and whenever, wherever any leader embarks on brinkmanship he poses a threat to rest of the mankind and thus has to be checked.  It is often said that man’s capacity for ennoblement is equaled only by his capacity for debasement. He has the potential not only to rise to heights of sublimity but also sink to the lowest depths of degradation. The term Parabellum was coined by German arms maker Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken and is derived from the Latin saying si vis pacem, para bellum, meaning If you wish for peace, prepare for war. This article is in keeping with Group’s name, Parabellum and presents an objective brief on the Philosophy of War and the Law of War for the benefit of the general public who may not be familiar with the study of war, and who were never taught in school, college or at the university about the sacrifices made by a few so that others may sleep safe. However, the common moral and sane goal of humanity is to renounce war and work toward peace.

There is a personal dimension that I bring to the article having grown up in an Air Force Academy and benefited from the wisdom of my father, a Wing Commander in RIAF, a brother who recently retired as an Air Commodore and through discussions and dialogues with fellow pilots. History as we know has its beginning with Herodotus and Thucydides as the story of armed conflicts. I studied History and International Relations in the University as part of my Masters Degree Program. Except for being taught at the Military Academy, study of war history as a discipline has withered away with very few professorships, journal articles, or degree programs offering it as a curriculum. Precisely because of the ongoing war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya today the people seek answers to such questions as: Why do wars break out? How do they end? Why do the winners win and the losers lose? How best to avoid wars or contain their worst effects?

On a deeper level of our consciousness we need to examine the larger forces that have devalued the very idea of military history and of the war itself; abandon the naive faith that with enough money, education, or good intentions we can change the nature of mankind so that conflicts become a thing of the past because no matter what we will always just be men. However, some men will always prefer war to peace; and other men have a moral obligation to stop them.

Perhaps the greatest and most influential work on the Philosophy of War is On War by Carl von Clausewitz. It combines observations on strategy with questions about human nature and the purpose of war.  Sun Tzu, in “The Art of War” blends realism with classical military detail. The strategies contained in Sun Tzu’s work are often used in business world as well, and is greatly revered in China.

So what about the Law of War?  Legal experts define it as a body of law concerning acceptable justifications to engage in war (jus ad bellum) and the limits to acceptable wartime conduct (jus in bello). Further, the Law of War is considered an aspect of public international law (the law of nations) and is distinguished from other bodies of law, such as the domestic law of a particular belligerent to a conflict that may also provide legal limits to the conduct or justification of war.

Among other issues, modern laws of war address declarations of war, acceptance of surrender and the treatment of prisoners of war; military necessity, along with distinction and proportionality; and the prohibition of certain weapons that may cause unnecessary suffering.

The earliest known instances of the Law of War are found in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). For example, Deuteronomy 20:19-20 limits the amount of acceptable collateral and environmental damage to the effect that it provides specific injunctions that city should not be besieged for a long time, that no vegetation is to be destroyed, nor any essential utilities cut off. Similarly, Deuteronomy 21:10-14 requires that female captives who were forced to marry the victors of a war could not be sold as slaves.

Similarly in the early 7th century, the first Caliph, Abu Bakr, whilst instructing his Muslim army, laid down the ten specific rules {Laws of War} concerning warfare that stated clearly not to commit treachery or deviate from the right path;  not mutilate dead bodies; not to kill a child, nor a woman, nor an aged man.; not bring harm to the trees, nor to burn them with fire, especially those which bear fruit; and not to slay any of the enemy’s flock, except for eating purpose;  and to leave people not fighting with you in peace.

Historians have noted that these rules were put into practice during the early Muslim conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries. After the expansion of the Caliphate, Islamic legal treatises on international law from the 9th century onwards covered the application of Islamic military jurisprudence to international law, including the law of treaties; the treatment of diplomats, hostages, refugees and prisoners of war in Islam; the right of asylum; conduct on the battlefield; protection of women, children and non-combatant civilians; contracts across the lines of battle; the use of poisonous weapons; and devastation of enemy territory. These laws were put into practice by Muslim armies during the Crusades, most notably by Saladin and Sultan al-Kamil. Historians cite for instance the example, how after al-Kamil defeated the Franks, Oliverus Scholasticus praised the Islamic laws of war, commenting on how al-Kamil supplied the defeated Frankish army with food in following words:

“Who could doubt that such goodness, friendship and charity come from God? Men whose parents, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, had died in agony at our hands, whose lands we took, whom we drove naked from their homes, revived us with their own food when we were dying of hunger and showered us with kindness even when we were in their power.”

There is a definite moral purpose in the study of war and that being the educating aspect of the past sacrifices made by gallant men and women of the armed forces in defending freedom and ensuring security of their homeland. No future generation, however comfortable and affluent, should escape that terrible knowledge.

To think that advances in new weaponry, technology and globalization have altered the rules of war is naive. A pilot’s ability to strike a single individual from 30,000 feet up with a precision guided bomb or likewise a terrorist’s efforts to have his propaganda beamed to millions in real time do not necessarily transform the conditions that determine who wins and who loses wars. While instant communications may compress decision making, and generals need to be skilled at news conferences that can now influence the views of millions worldwide, the history of war suggests no static primacy of the defensive or the offensive but just a momentarily temporary advantages gained by particular strategies and technologies go unanswered for a time by less adept adversaries.

There will continue to be as history reminds us series of important anomalies and paradoxes. The size or technological superiority does not matter as much as public support which is crucial. “Public sentiment is everything,” wrote Abraham Lincoln. “With public sentiment nothing can fail. Without it nothing can succeed. He who molds opinion is greater than he who enacts laws.”


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About Syed Hussain

Syed Hussain, Ph.D: Banker, Bankruptcy Analyst, Forensic Accounting & Fraud Examiner, Cyber-Crime & Anti-Money Laundering Advisor, Internal Auditor & Counterterrorism Strategist . As an avid reader and traveler, the former air force pilot, likes to connect with like minded people and engage in intelligent conversations. He enjoys music, film and politics, as well as visiting museums, art galleries and air shows. Syed enjoys horse back riding and swimming. Besides English, he speaks other languages. At the end of the day, he can be found relaxing with a good beer and a fine meal.

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