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Kroc panel debates meaning of war

Brian McKenzie and Nick Bock | Monday, September 17, 2007

Gerard Powers, director of policy studies at the Kroc Institute, commended two visiting generals who spoke at the “What is War?” conference this weekend because, Powers said, “you can’t talk about war and peace without understanding the situation on the ground.”

The conference, hosted by the Kroc Institute Friday and Saturday, featured speeches by scholars, military personnel and war correspondents. It was held to help the International Law Association formulate a more precise and modern definition of war, which is “central to protecting fundamental human rights that can be legally suspended during formal wartime,” according to a press release by the Kroc Institute previewing the event.

Two former commanders of U.S. and British forces in Bosnia composed the military panel, which filled an auditorium well beyond capacity. U.S. Gen. William Nash and British Gen. Michael Rose focused on how international law and morality affected war policy.

According to Rose, obeying the rules of war was an important way to mobilize public support. Violations, he said, undermined the mission, promoting the forces of civilization. Nations that lose the moral high ground “don’t have a weapon left,” he said.

Rose stressed that the role of peacekeepers was to “[avoid being] complicit in evil” but to enforce the rule of law objectively.

Nash also spoke about preventing war crimes. He said that peacekeepers have to be “even-handed” but advance an agenda, such as promoting the Dayton Accords. Having a clear mission empowered peacekeepers in Bosnia, he said.  He explained that local policemen were often confused that Western soldiers interrupted abuse aimed at members of their ethnic community.  

Powers called the generals’ perspectives “necessary to understanding critical issues pertaining to war.”

To sophomore Nick Bloom, the conference was “[incredibly important] to our country … It is important for us to listen to great minds like those at the conference to gain a deeper understanding of the circumstances, trials and successes we face in conflict with other nations.”

Mike Gotsch, a junior political science major, considered the assessments valuable and credible because “they have been there.”

The panel of war correspondents included four journalists, who spoke about the difficulties of reporting the truth when every group in a conflict has their own agenda. Pamela Constable, a Washington Post writer, said that even the Marines she embedded with only had “one version of the truth” and spoke favorably of some Taliban goals, while downplaying others.

Darrin Mortenson, of the Mershon Center for International Security, said that the Marines he had been working with pressured him to slant his coverage. Officers would sometimes post his articles after highlighting passages they disagreed with, he said.

The journalists agreed that uncovering the truth was very difficult. Constable and Mortenson were stationed on different sides of Fallujah, Iraq, and their accounts of the conflict were entirely different.

Ernest Torriero said the news media have not been able to get at the truth. In one case, Americans and Iraqi government forces put hoods over Iraqi men, but journalists were unable to determine who they were or why they were hooded.

Todd Whitmore, an associate professor of social ethics at Notre Dame, used his experiences in Northern Uganda to define war. He argued that war has become “more than an extension of political means.” For some armed groups, war has become a “social fever dream.”   

Reaching reconciliation and understanding the motivations behind war required “[joining] the legal and political with the cultural,” Whitmore said.

Thomas Grassey, a professor at the Naval War College, offered individual-level situations that, he said, showed how obeying the law could be unethical. Historians Jeremy Black and Williamson Murray analyzed the evolving definition of war by considering historical and current events.

Jeremy Black, a history professor at the University of Exeter, referenced St. Augustine’s classic definition of war. He said that the nature of war has since changed fundamentally.

“Now, to get people to support war, you have to moralize it greatly.”

Williamson Murray asserted that introducing morality to war was dangerous. He emphasized the friction between morality and justice. Murray also believed that the distinction between mistakes and intentionality must be made when analyzing human rights violations.

The panel of peace researchers looked at the formal definitions of “armed conflicts” and how the current trend of “rhetorical wars” is changing it.

“It is not only hard to define war, but also to define what they are about,” said Peter Wallenstein, a research professor at the Kroc Institute.

Wallenstein urged against defining a “war” as a conflict that causes a given number of combat-deaths per year, as one influential study by University of Michigan researchers does.

John Darby, a professor at the Kroc Institute, focused on the Global War on Terror. Calling it a “rhetorical war,” Darby argued that declaring war on a concept has devalued the definition of war. There are no geographical boundaries to these wars, and some countries are adopting the platforms of anti-terrorism to justify other agendas, he said.