War has been accompanying humans from the very beginning. It is destruction and evolution. It takes out lives and it advances our civilization, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. But war is nothing without warriors. It depends on violence and those willing to apply it. But how much violence? What kind of violence and under what rules? And why should there be rules in war?

Historically, the idea of just war evolved among people of similar cultural backgrounds. It made sense to avoid creating everlasting hatred among neighboring groups, threatening relations in the next day of peace or creating incentive for revenge wars. Whatever the cause of war, you wanted the matter settled and done with, without further repercussions.

The idea of restraint in warfare appears in the Greeks, Persians, Romans and other civilizations of antiquity.

But that only applied to people of the same creed color and culture. The farther the enemy’s homeland, and the more alien his culture, the easier it was for him to be seen as less than human. And when that was true, anything went. And when everything went, the most violent and cruel aspects of human nature came out, with the desire not only to defeat your opponent, but to also inflict as much suffering as possible. A good example of that was the Puckle gun, which had round ammo for Christians and square ammo for the Muslim Turks, since it was believed that square ammo was more devastating.

Within time, the world got smaller, our morals evolved and our differences diminished, and this idea encompassed more and more people, up into today’s concept of panhumanism.

Early records of organized warfare show moral considerations for non-combatants,  the treatment of prisoners etc. A common theme is the concept of honor; some acts were considered honorable, while others dishonorable. That rule, of course, was not set in stone and often morality gave way to pragmatism.

One of the first recorded convictions for war crimes was that of Peter von Hagenbach, a Bourguignon knight from Alsace who was tried and beheaded as early as in 1474 in the Holy Roman Empire, for atrocities committed  during the occupation of Breisach. This was the first “international” recognition of commanders’ obligations to act lawfully.

In modern times, the mechanical brutality and devastation that technology brought to the battlefield made some people believe that morality in war is a lost cause.

However, even as people came to believe that by its very nature, war is immoral and we don’t need to trouble ourselves with the need to act morally, there are several reasons that counter that point.

The first is prudence. “If we use that thing at our disposal, maybe in the future it will be used against us.” One such example could be the convention for making the use of chemical weapons such as gas forbidden. The second reason stems from moral principle. “If we use this weapon, we violate values we hold dear as individuals in our society.”

Jus in Bello (international humanitarian law) suggests that those participating in war must be held accountable for their actions. This is the idea that actions in war must be tied to morality. Saint Augustine follows a different route: “Who is but the sword in the hand of him who uses it, is not himself responsible for the death he deals.” Those who act according to divine law or God’s laws as enacted by the state and who put wicked men to death “have by no means violated the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’” While this is connected to the concept of just cause, it doesn’t mean that individuals that wage a just or unjust war should not face consequences upon breaching the rules of just conduct.

In today’s battlefield, with an opponent that doesn’t shy away from any kind of atrocity, and a modern technology that gives you stand-off distance, it is easy to dehumanize the enemy. However, it is important to keep our calm and not dwell on barbaric practices. Our civilization has come too long of a way to allow ourselves to go backwards, and the brutality of the enemy is what makes it necessary to never give way from our moral high ground.


Featured image courtesy of German Army Archives