Q: The title of your research, The [F]utility of Barbarism–with its suggestive, ambiguous [F]–perfectly captures the dilemma of following rules of war that an enemy doesn’t. You conclude that barbarism ultimately doesn’t pay, costing the transgressor credibility in the long run. Is there a way to make this result more obvious in the short term? To shorten the half-life of consequence for bad actors, making the tactic more evidently undesirable?
Making the full range of costs obvious to decision makers contemplating barbarism as a strategy will not be easy, in particular in democratic states, who tend to have short election cycles and, nowadays, broad populations who know little about military history or operations. Educating broad populations about the net costs of barbarism—reputation (think Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay), PTSD, retaliation in kind, and so on—would be a first step toward giving political elites the chance to oppose strategies likely to result in harm to noncombatants and not be punished for doing so.
As daunting as such a mass educational effort might be, there remains another obstacle to barbarism avoidance: for many actors the problem is that they do not see the victims of their attacks as human, and therefore they both suffer no pangs about what others might consider clear cases of mass murder (or collateral damage), and believe outsiders who indict them do so only from political motives rather than from any conviction that a moral wrong has been done.
—Ivan Arreguin-Toft’s current research focuses the utility of barbarism—the systematic or deliberate harm of noncombatants in pursuit of a military objective—as a strategy in war. Assistant Professor of International Relations at BU, he specializes in Asymmetric Conflict (Insurgency, Counterinsurgency, Small Wars, Terrorism).