On the day when there are airstrikes in the vicinity of Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza, examining the brutality of war seems ominous, some will say that this is what modern wars are about as Hospitals have become a sanctuary for groups as the Hamas.
Wars were or are always brutal – that is one of the constants of the nature of war – it is violent. While the means of waging violence may change over a period killing and death is endemic to modern, medieval and ancient wars alike.
While the instruments of war today are of greater precision, the lethality of modern weapons systems and the cruelty of those employing the same indicates that where 100kg of TNT the common explosive for destruction is required 1000 kg or more may be used for achieving a high level of assurance.
Another aspect of brutality is civilians seen as legitimate targets of war thus unarmed and undefended are increasingly being targeted be it in Ukraine or in Gaza.
As per a Reuters reportv of November 06, Oct. 7 attack Hamas killed 1,400 people in Israel [now revised to 1200] and seized more than 240 hostages. In the retributive operation launched by Israel, “Gaza is becoming a "graveyard for children", U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said demanding for a ceasefire in the enclave, where Palestinian health authorities said the death toll from Israeli strikes had exceeded 10,000.
In Ukraine the total civilian casualties from 24 February 2022, which marked the start of the large-scale offensive by Russia to 8 October 2023, as per OHCHR were 27,768 civilian casualties in the country: 9,806 killed and 17,962 injured. This included: 22,468 casualties (7,649 killed and 14,819 injured) in territory controlled by the Government when casualties occurred. OHCHR believes that the actual figures are considerably higher.
Clearly the warring sides today are not driven by humanitarian consideration or laws of modern wars. Many of the atrocities committed can well be documented and have been by human rights groups as war crimes, but warring sides deem these groups as well as UN agencies are being targeted as bias.
Why wars are brutal today? Several factors could be driving the brutality in wars today.
First and foremost is that these are driven by extremist ideologies many a time religious or ethnic. Thus killing the other be it soldier or civilians is justified in the eyes of the perpetrators even where it amounts to, “ethnic cleansing”.
Russian targeting of Ukrainian citizens is seen as acceptance of denial of right to live just because they are in the wrong side of the fence, notwithstanding the many years of fraternization during the Soviet times and beyond. Texts are dug out from the past to denote that Russians and Ukrainians were never one race.
In the case of the war in Gaza the justification is neatly divided – religious and ethnic and thus easier to identify. Over the years the differences between Israel and Palestinians of Gaza have hardened to an extent that there is no leeway for compromise. Extremism on both sides is to blame for this divide - the moderates such as the Palestine Authority has been undermined as it is seen unlikely to gain for the Palestinians a State.
At a smaller scale India is also experiencing this ethnic brutality in Manipur, the physical violence has been to an extent controlled but the underlying divide continues.
Second wars are waged for punitive retribution and against seeming unjustness. Russia’s decision to launch the War in Ukraine which Moscow calls as Special Military Operation was to overcome the unfairness of the NATO push to the East despite past assurances.
Israel’s war in Gaza is also purely driven by retribution – avenging the loss of innocent lives which includes the brutality of kidnapping, maiming, and killing of Israeli innocents by the Hamas.
Though inexcusable, how far does this justify use of disproportionate force? Israel has claimed that Hamas uses civilians as human shields. Indeed, the group is known to do so in the past, the Israeli rationalization is now perhaps that thousands of civilians in Gaza are being held hostage to prevent an offensive thus an operation which causes losses of thousands is mere collateral. Indeed such warped justifications by the perpetrators denote the abandonment of reason in waging wars.
The sense of retribution is more intense due to the surprise achieved by the Hamas in launching multi pronged rocket and human suicide attacks on a nation and a force which prides itself on the ability to preempt threats and neutralize it.
Thirdly a related factor is of human shield. Russia targeted civilians in build up areas claiming that these were being used as artillery or missile shelters. In Gaza the entire Gazan civilian population is seen as one large human shield for the Hamas.
The façade of modern militaries so called ability to carry out precision strikes based on information from multiple surveillance and detection devices is exposed or is there no patience and will to wait for discovery of military targets or is the impatience for demonstrated success is so high that targets are being imagined.
Fourthly, the United Nations raised as an organization post the Second World War to prevent wars in the future has singularly failed in preventing these. The reasons for the same are many including normative, structural, organizational, and so on which will need separate deliberation.
Fifthly the entry of non state actors in war has led to violating the basic principle that States alone have the monopoly to wage wars. Non State or quasi state actors as the Hamas are not inhibited by the manner of killing of innocents be it non combatants such as women and children. Nor is private military corporations as Wagner formed out of convicts on pardon adhered to universal human rights.
Finally, it is just the material factor – the high lethality of modern munitions that is causing far greater damage than legacy so called iron bombs. Added to this is the phenomenon of use munitions which should be banned such as cluster munitions – a deathly recipe for human casualties for years to come. And there is the large military industrial complex which is benefiting from these wars.
In short the era of JUST Wars if ever there was one is now over and gone, it will take another awakening of the human conscience post the Second World War for humanity to stop wanton killings in the name of war.