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The Use Of Explosives In Cities: A Grim But Lawful Reality Of War – Analysis

Orde Kittrie
15th October 2017 - Quoted by Thomas Ayres - National Defense University Press

Refugees flowing out of the Middle East pose a serious humanitarian crisis for Europe and the world at large. The indiscriminate use of violence by the so-called Islamic State (IS), the unlawful actions of the Syrian regime, and the conduct of some of the warring factions precipitated and continue to fuel this crisis. Consequent to the indiscriminate use of force and explosives in cities, the flow of Syrian refugees has caused some to call for a complete ban on the use of explosive weapons in cities or urban areas. But to what end? Let’s not learn the wrong lessons from this calamity.

he use of military force in cities or urban environments is not a new phenomenon, nor does it present novel problems for which the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) is insufficient.1 For those acting under military necessity, the LOAC demands much from those who must use force against a military objective in an urban environment. In an effort to prevent unnecessary suffering and destruction, the LOAC attempts to regulate the conduct of armed hostilities without unduly impeding the proper or allowable waging of war. Unfortunately, the current calls by some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) for a complete ban on the use of explosives in populated areas go far beyond what the LOAC requires.

Already, law-abiding nations forced to fight in populated areas use extreme caution. Professionalized military forces around the world take extraordinary precautions to accomplish their complex missions while limiting civilian casualties and protecting nonmilitary structures from the effects of attacks directed toward lawful military targets. For instance, former Department of Defense General Counsel Jennifer O’Connor discussed her recent observations on a trip to Iraq and the extreme care taken by U.S. forces when making targeting decisions.2 Existing LOAC obligates military commanders making targeting decisions to consider the cascading and multiplying effects of explosive weapons on civilian populations when critical infrastructure such as power, water, sewage, and hospitals is concerned.


Orde Kittrie, in his thought-provoking book Lawfare, discusses the idea of compliance-leverage disparity.7 The term is easily understood considering the terrorist organizations we now face. Their tactics to protect themselves purposely induce civilian casualties. They hide in civilian areas and invariably wear civilian clothes while conducting their operations. Kittrie contrasts “the painstaking law-abiding practices of the U.S. military and the dismissive practices of at least some of its adversaries.” Kittrie notes that these opposite approaches originate from different ideologies and tendencies regarding the levels, means, and disparity in the transparency and accountability in the use of force. The costs of compliance-leverage disparity are many, with the most insidious result being hesitance by law-abiding armies to use force even when such use is legal and required by military necessity. This is a great jeopardy to lawful missions and ultimately results in lengthier conflicts and even greater loss of lives.


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