Sunday, 22 May 2011

Asymmetrical warfare and the 'big brother lecture'

For as long as I can remember, I have been told "You're the big brother!  You SHOULD know better" and I always felt that truth and justice had no place in the world.  This happened sometimes when my darling little sister, with legendary persistence, had finally managed to provoke me into retaliation, and then I was the one who was punished!  (Well OK, its a while since my mother actually used that line of argument, but still it lingers!  :)

Even today in my professional life I sometimes find it annoying to get the equivalent of the 'big brother lecture'.  Relatively junior staff sometimes get more leeway and middle management is often an unenviable position to hold.

Recent events in Pakistan have made me wonder whether there is an analogy to be drawn.  In this case USA is the big brother who has been provoked into drastic action, and Al Quaeda is the poisonous little sibling that has been goading and provoking.  In this view of the situation one is left to wonder whether Pakistan takes the role of another acquiescent sibling, or that of the chiding parent.  However, parts of Europe definitely take the parental tone.

Last week I was discussing the whole bin Laden saga with an American friend who is a tolerant and decent christian.  I asked her what she thought about the subject and I was quite surprised at the satisfaction that even she clearly felt at the summary justice that had been dispensed.  When I played devil's advocate and asked her the questions that others have asked me, I was not surprised that she felt that USA had been attacked.  However, I was surprised that she thought that USA had been singled out and thought that that gave them some special right to strike back.  National stereotypes aside, I find that many Americans do not to remember about the Madrid and London bombings.

Now - I might agree with her about the death of bin Laden (although not without reservations) and about whether justice can and should be dispensed in this way.   I have noticed a difference between the views of European and American friends.  Of course as Alexander Dumas said "all generalisations are dangerous, even this one" but I feel that there is a trend for Europeans to be disapproving or guardedly approving.  On the other hand I have yet to meet an American who sees this as a dangerous erosion of international law.  So far all have wanted to celebrate what has happened.

What does this have to do with the big brother lecture?

It seems to me that the time has come for the rules of international war to be reviewed.  The 'accepted' codes of conduct have been designed for more-or-less symmetric wars where the two protagonists have broadly equivalent resources and tactics.  Surely by now people have noticed that not all warfare is conducted in such a (dare I say) gentlemanly fashion.

Over a hundred years ago the British faced terrorist action all around the empire - and of course responded brutally.  We still face criticism from around the world for the barbaric actions of our ancestors whether we as descendants are individually guilty or not.  I feel a parallel with the Garden of Eden story here, and I have more or less the same views on both.  It wasn't my actions and I personally accept no blame for either.

In recent decades asymmetric warfare has continued unabated, with relatively under-resourced terrorist groups taking action against society and then claiming the moral high-ground when retribution is taken against them.  In the case of Al Quaeda perhaps this started with the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, and gradually developed to include the Twin Towers atrocity, and the Madrid and London bombings.  Now that bin Laden has been attacked they seem to think that it somehow justifies what they are doing - but they are simply wrong.

Something has to change.  The big brothers and sisters of this world need to feel that they can defend themselves adequately without being accused of bullying.  I think we can all contribute to our own defence.

Be vigilant and resist creeping compromise.

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