EIF 2014: Killing Civilians, The Hub, Review

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Dr. Hugo Slim, Professor Jennifer Welsh
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In 2007, Dr. Hugo Slim produced his book ‘Killing Civilians; Method, Madness and Morality in War’.

To mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One, Edinburgh International Festival have mounted a series of public lectures and discussions on its impact and resonances, of which this, featuring Dr. Slim and his close colleague Professor Jennifer Welsh of the University of Oxford’s Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict, was one of these.

At one time, this reviewer played wargames, and still follows the hobby with some interest. Civilians play little part in these games, save as eye-candy decoration, apart from the odd rioting mob or body of disgruntled peasants.

Yet civilians have always been a part of war, whether as more-or-less willing participants or, more frequently, as unwilling victims of military aggression.

Dr. Slim outlines some of the themes of his book, pointing out that civilians suffered death, physical and sexual aggression, displacement and various types of theft, loss of kin and ethnic identity, and often ended up as refugees without means to support themselves. The price of their suffering is (literally) a very high one, both for those who are the victims and those who attempt to support them.

Apart from the social and economic costs, civilian casualties and suffering places a direct ethical challenge at the feet of the nations of the world.

Professor Welsh discussed United Nations initiatives to protect civilians – the term ‘civilian’ had no currency prior to World War One, and it is really only in the aftermath of World War Two, which had created 14 million orphans and contributed to massive numbers of refugees, that brought civilian protection into the world’s consciousness.

Nevertheless, the sufferings of those caught up in war continue, and while some recent events, such as those in Kosovo and Rwanda, a great deal continues to go unremarked.

What neither Slim nor Welsh really addressed was the ‘group think’ that is an essential part of the military mind-set, nor the peer pressure to adopt attitudes that are inimical to civilians. To put senior figures on trial for war crimes may do little to address human failure on the ground.

After a wargame, the miniature buxom barmaid, ranting Puritan and revolting peasants can be packed away, unharmed and ready for their next appearance. Not so the increasing numbers of civilians who experience war and who will bear its scars for what remains of their lives.

The Q and A proved lively and informed by experience, but perhaps unavoidably produced no further resolution to this growing evil of modern war.

27th August, 2.00-3.15p.m.

Hugo Slim 'Killing Civilians; Method, Madness and Morality in War' Hurst and Co., 2007