[URBANTH-L]REV: Sriram on Kassimeris, ed., Warrior's Dishonour: Barbarity, Morality, and Torture in Modern Warfare

Angela Jancius jancius at ohio.edu
Tue Oct 30 18:00:44 EDT 2007

Published by H-Human-Rights at h-net.msu.edu (October 2007)

George Kassimeris, ed. _Warrior's Dishonour: Barbarity, Morality, and  
Torture in Modern Warfare_. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006. 243 pp. List of  
contributors, index. $89.95 (cloth), ISBN 6-7546-4799-4.

Reviewed for H-Human-Rights by Chandra Lekha Sriram, Chair in Human  
Rights, School of Law, University of East London

_Warrior's Dishonour_ is an edited volume that seeks to do just what  
the subtitle suggests: make sense of barbarity and torture in modern  
warfare. However, its sweep is somewhat wider and narrower than this:  
it includes discussions of conflicts that well predate the modern  
era, and there is relatively little discussion of morality in the  
volume.  As with most edited volumes, the quality of the chapters is  
somewhat variable. However, taken as a whole it is a useful  
contribution to contemporary debates about the appropriate conduct of  
war, the use of torture, and the degree to which warfare has in some  
sense changed (in the modern era, or after the events of September  
11, 2001). The contributors are all based in the United Kingdom,  
which means that the volume offers what might be a slightly different  
approach than work emerging from the United States on these topics.   
Most notably, nearly all of the contributors rely, explicitly or  
implicitly, upon constructivist postmodern, or cosmopolitan  
theoretical approaches. A common theme running through the volume is  
the utility of barbarity and torture in conflict--not for rational  
ends such as victory, but the dehumanization of the enemy "other" and  
the construction of the protagonist "us" as heroic or otherwise  

The volume proceeds in five parts. Part 1 presents what are termed  
"Stories of Atrocity" ranging from the historic (conflicts in the  
British Isles in the mid-seventeenth century) to the contemporary  
(the tactics of the Lords Resistance Army in Northern Uganda). The  
historic sweep of these pieces helps to dispel the myth that the  
barbarity we see in conflict today, whether inflicted by Al-Qaeda or  
by U.S. troops in Abu Ghraib, is in any sense new. The chapters lay  
bare the degree to which there is an enduring tension between the  
essential violence of warfare, and the tendency for it to escalate,  
and the so-called warrior's code, meant to restrain behavior. The  
tendency of conflict to escalate, the chapters suggest, means that  
even in the absence of barbaric goals, and indeed even where very  
clear rules prohibit barbaric behavior, it can still emerge. This is  
due in part to the tendency of training, military rhetoric, and the  
conduct of war to depersonalize the enemy, making abuses far easier-- 
not necessarily the conscious intentions of soldiers or their  
leaders. Torture and barbarity in this sense do serve a purpose: to  
demonstrate power and to reaffirm the torturer's self-conception  
rather than to obtain evidence or a military advantage.

The second section, on barbarity as strategy, seeks to explain  
barbarity in contemporary warfare, and again to dispel the myth that  
there is something "new" and especially barbaric about contemporary  
conflict. The authors suggest that the extraordinary brutality  
witnessed in Sierra Leone against civilians, for example, was not  
merely driven by the supposed nature of the conflict as a "resource  
war." One chapter in this section and some elsewhere in the volume  
find that the predisposition to barbarity is hardly restricted to  
fighting forces or prison guards; several landmark controlled  
psychological experiments have demonstrated the alarming willingness  
of individuals to abuse other people who have been categorized as  
prisoners in these experiments. Barbarity is in some sense essential  
to war, and not alien to human nature; it is for this reason that  
rules, such as international humanitarian law, are created to contain  
the barbarity.

The chapters in section 3, on the barbarity of contemporary culture,  
deal squarely with the conflict in Iraq and the abuses in Abu Ghraib  
and on Guantanamo. Several chapters engage in a close analysis of  
Bush administration language and policy. The claim that the abuses in  
Abu Ghraib were the actions of a few bad apples acting outside their  
mandate is rebutted by the fact that the Justice Department sought  
during this period to simultaneously re-define torture, suggest that  
it was legal in some instances, and to exclude many being held by the  
United States from the protections afforded them as POWs by  
international humanitarian law. This defense is further challenged  
with evidence from the rhetoric of the Bush administration, rhetoric  
that sought at once to vilify "the enemy" by labeling it evil, while  
at the same time labeling Americans, and virtually any Americans, as  
heroic. Several pieces point finally to the evidence that ranking  
officers were aware of abuses, and did not seek to stop them,  
suggesting at least implicit support for their use. If this argument  
is correct, then whether or not there were clear orders from senior  
political or military officials to abuse prisoners, they set the  
stage and turned a blind eye to the consequences.

Part 4, war crimes and human rights, considers attempts to treat  
barbarity in war as a crime, through the use of international  
criminal accountability. The construction of victimhood is treated as  
particularly problematic, for many atrocities have been perpetrated  
in the name of "not being victims ever again." Further, while victims  
are often rhetorically central to the pursuit of international  
criminal accountability, the fact that a person has been victimized  
does not necessarily mean that a crime has been committed in  
international law, and even if it has victims have not then played a  
significant role in international criminal tribunals. This is not  
particularly surprising, the chapters note, given the state-centric  
nature of international law and the continued necessity of state  
consent for such institutions to function.

The final section of the volume considers arguments for the  
justification of torture, presented most notably in recent years by  
Alan Dershowitz in his argument for limited torture as authorized  
through judicial torture warrants. The chapters deal less with  
whether torture actually "works," although neither suggests that it  
is particularly effective in gaining accurate information, and more  
with the debate over whether, if it worked, it could be justified.  
Each critiques in part Dershowitz' ticking time bomb scenario, and  
utilitarian or at least consequentialist response.
Taken together, these essays represent a thoughtful set of  
reflections upon barbarity in contemporary conflict, and in  
particular an attempt to explain the propensity for barbarity and  
torture even where it is proscribed and would appear to serve no  
function, or even to be counterproductive. They should be of interest  
to those interested in torture, international criminal accountability  
generally, and debates about the conduct of the global war on terror.

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