Sriram on Kassimeris, 'Warrior's Dishonour: Barbarity, Morality, and Torture in Modern Warfare'

George Kassimeris, ed.
Chandra L. Sriram

George Kassimeris, ed. Warrior's Dishonour: Barbarity, Morality, and Torture in Modern Warfare. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006. 243 pp. $89.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7546-4799-7.

Reviewed by Chandra L. Sriram (Human Rights Program and School of Law, University of East London) Published on H-Human-Rights (October, 2007)

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 righteous.

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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Citation: Chandra L. Sriram. Review of Kassimeris, George, ed., Warrior's Dishonour: Barbarity, Morality, and Torture in Modern Warfare. H-Human-Rights, H-Net Reviews. October, 2007. URL:

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