Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
28 March 2011
Review by Cathal J. Nolan, Boston University
Moral Dilemmas of Modern War: Torture, Assassination, and Blackmail in an Age of Asymmetric Conflict
By Michael L. Gross
New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010. Pp. xiii, 321. ISBN 978-0-521-86615-6.
Descriptors: Volume 2011, 21st Century, (Counter)insurgency, Ethics, Strategy Print Version

Michael L. Gross is well-qualified to write this fine study on the important topic of rapidly evolving twenty-first-century international norms of war. A Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Department of International Relations at Haifa University, he has published two earlier books on ethics in politics and international affairs.[1] He has gone much further in Moral Dilemmas of Modern War, to consider real, practical, yet also moral, dilemmas that states face when responding to asymmetric actors who ignore traditional laws or norms of war. He correctly notes that such norms are not merely under sharp challenge, but are proving mostly inapplicable in present conditions of armed conflict. Established rules of war-making were negotiated by states, largely within the venerable "just war" tradition of moral reasoning that found genuine resonance in international law well beyond the Western powers. Practiced moral skeptics may protest that norms of war and the tradition of reasoning underlying them have been more often observed in the breach than respected by belligerents. Given that historical record, some might ask why one would write or read a book applying ethics to emerging norms in modern asymmetric warfare at all.

That would be a mistake. Gross argues persuasively that asymmetric tactics and enemies have for some time fundamentally challenged core distinctions and legal guideposts to morally conscious war-making by professional militaries, most notably the distinction between legitimate targeting of combatants and the ideal of noncombatant immunity. Gross has no interest in knocking down straw men or engaging in mere casuistry. He most often argues for conventional or established international morality, while detailing new challenges and practices that undercut extant norms. And he achieves more than a purely academic demonstration that asymmetric conflicts are altering how militaries practice, and ethicists conceive of, modern warfare. He actually offers a compelling practical guide, or at least the basis for such a guide, to the new morality of asymmetric warfare that is replacing practices prohibited under conventional moral and legal norms. The result is an intellectually impressive study that will interest war reporters, military officers, international lawyers, and policy-makers, as well as advanced students of military affairs, ethics, and international relations.

The book has four parts: an introductory survey of key ideas, a main section on treatment of combatants in asymmetric war, another multi-chapter section on noncombatants, and a summary conclusion. Two introductory chapters lay out, in index-card style (standard in most political science works), the core issues of asymmetric warfare, at the intersection where "insurgents chose guerrilla warfare and terrorism while their adversaries turned to torture, assassination, and blackmail" (2). Readers unused to ethical theorizing or political science argumentation will find the discussion of necessary definitional issues a hard slog. Among the key terms delineated are torture, assassination, "blackmail" (or threats of harm), nonlethal warfare, terrorism, combatant liability, noncombatant immunity, types of asymmetric conflict, and wars of intervention. Four chapters treat the erosion of the idea and ideal of combatant equality due to new asymmetric warfare practices. Three more chapters detail increasingly blurred lines between legitimate enemy targets and noncombatants in insurgencies and related conflicts. A strong Conclusion is followed by a weak Afterword on fighting in Gaza from December 2008 to January 2009. The latter, a tag-on, short case study lacking the depth and salience of the rest of the book, adds little of interest to the core arguments and should have been discarded.

Historians will not be as impressed or shocked by the erasure of noncombatant immunity in asymmetric warfare as Gross is. In discussing recent dramatic changes, like many political scientists, he adopts a historically distorted baseline for measuring change and continuity in modern military history. This is a significant, but not fatal, flaw in the study. For the same reason, Gross also suggests a more rarified view of the international legal order than the historical record warrants. Sometimes, he also displays an ahistorical understanding of the restraint that states and traditional militaries have exercised in conventional wars. This arises from his narrowly Western view of international law, infused with democratic values not shared by most states even today. Any historian of "total war" in the nineteenth century, let alone its culmination in the great wars of the first half of the twentieth, will dispute the claim that mainly post-1945 asymmetrical wars in which "civilians assume combatant-like roles" have rescinded civilian exemption from targeting or reprisals (13). One might better argue that the unconventional means which conventional forces used in both World Wars obliterated the old moral principle of noncombatant immunity. In the light of that history, further (or continued) blurring of old distinctions and norms in new asymmetrical conflicts is neither surprising nor novel, though it remains of trenchant moral interest.

The main strength of Gross's book is not its sense or presentation of modern military history, but its impressively balanced, clear-eyed, ground-level appraisal of the emerging standards of behavior that permit targeting civilians and other practices which the older wartime morality explicitly forbade. He is especially instructive on the paradox of democratic states, in particular, seeking to develop and employ nonlethal—thus, supposedly more "moral"—methods and weapons designed to be indiscriminate and thus permitting direct targeting of civilians. These include various chemical weapons that incapacitate but do not kill, neuroweapons that control mental processes, active denial systems, and behavior altering drugs. Gross adeptly lays out the practical possibilities and moral dilemmas of assassination and targeted killing. Though he concludes that "the moral benefits [of torture] are, if not doubtful, relatively marginal," he is remarkably, even refreshingly, interesting and open on rendition and the absolute prohibition of torture: "There is no overwhelming evidence that the costs of torture in a democracy are intolerable. Interrogational torture has yet to prove the cancer that some feared.... [D]emocracies have kept enhanced interrogation in check by confining it to a specific and well-defined group of individuals: unlawful combatants" (146). Further, opponents and supporters of selective torture alike "have only half the issue right. Compared with nonlethal warfare, targeted killing, terrorism, and constant assaults on civilians in asymmetric warfare, torture is a marginal phenomenon. Outside of democracies, however, the equation changes dramatically.... Democratic nations might contain torture and keep it well within the confines of excusable conduct, but their behavior echoes well beyond their borders" (147).

Whether one agrees or not, this is a philosophically, politically, and historically serious position. Torture is neither always nor absolutely useless or immoral: for most reasonable people, there will always be some definable circumstance in which competing moral imperatives warrant selective torture to achieve a higher good. However, Gross wisely warns, democratic states and militaries ought to be aware that employing torture even rarely will likely incur such high political and propaganda costs as to make the practice of marginal utility or moral benefit. He makes similarly striking, and largely persuasive, claims about the status of terrorism in real world asymmetric warfare: "Terrorism ... has moved from a prohibited to an excusable and now, with many reservations, to a justifiable form of war" (236). Other activities permissible under the new norms of state practices include assassination, targeted killing, enhanced or aggressive interrogation, the use of nonlethal chemical and other once-prohibited weapons, and lethal attacks on civilians participating in or "associated" with insurgencies and terrorists.

Moral Dilemmas of Modern War is not the usual academic ethicist's theoretical treatise or collection of hypothetical inquiries. Such works are too often and too easily countered by some competing treatise with its own set of case studies, usually in a dialectic that promotes not synthesis but cynicism about any moral project in the affairs of armies and states. Instead, Gross explores the ongoing revision of codified moral norms in war by states and their asymmetric opponents in the real world. Throughout, an intelligent central observation guides the analysis: asymmetric warfare induces traditional militaries, including those of democratic states, to use exceptional means against enemies that disregard conventional laws and norms. But to accord with basic humanitarianism while lowering their political and propaganda costs, such exceptional measures must secure overwhelming advantages over the enemy. Otherwise, the slide to a lower acceptable standard of warcraft will be swift and unrestrained. There is no point wailing into the wind against this slippage in past restrictions on war. War is dynamic, responding more rapidly and readily to new circumstances and technologies than any other human activity. Efforts to curb the worst excesses of war must be flexible and dynamic as well.

[1] Ethics and Activism: The Theory and Practice of Political Morality (Cambridge: CUP, 1997) and Bioethics and Armed Conflict: Moral Dilemmas of Medicine and War (Cambridge: MIT Pr, 2006).

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