Dirty wars | Inquirer Opinion
Gray Matters

Dirty wars

/ 05:03 AM April 16, 2024

Following the horrors of the two world wars in the last century, we saw international efforts to try to “civilize” wars by setting limits to what kinds of weapons to be used, and what can be done to protect noncombatants, especially children.

The Geneva Conventions are the most extensive of the international treaties and agreements but its origins go back to 1859, in the aftermath of the Battle of Solferino, involving a French victory over Austrian troops. After that battle, some 30,000 injured soldiers were left unattended. Henri Dunant, a Swiss national who visited the battle site right after the debacle, was horrified by what he saw and began to arrange for talks among governments that became the basis for agreements on medical neutrality. Dunant established an International Committee for Relief to the Wounded, which later became the International Red Cross and Red Crescent (for Muslim countries).

Other intergovernmental meetings were to follow and between 1864 and 1949, the Geneva Conventions were able to come up with treaties related to humanitarian aid, protecting civilians as well as aid workers. There is one provision that is specific to food, forbidding “occupying authorities” (invaders who take over other people’s territories) from blocking access to food.

Israel has been accused of violating this provision in Gaza with their blockades and imposing all kinds of conditions for the groups that are allowed to bring in some food. But last April 1, seven aid workers from the World Central Kitchen (WCK) were killed shortly after they had delivered food aid, their convoy of three vehicles fired on repeatedly, killing seven WCK workers.


It turns out some 200 aid workers have been killed in the line of duty in Gaza and now, countries like the United States and the United Kingdom are being pressured to stop military aid to Israel, something unlikely to happen, but Israel has at least agreed to open more portals for delivering humanitarian assistance.

Although medical neutrality—noninterference in medical activities during war and civil conflicts—was what spurred the Geneva Conventions, it still continues to be repeatedly violated. Two months ago, Israel came under fire for bombing hospitals and, in one case, sending soldiers disguised as doctors into a hospital in the West Bank, killing three Palestinian militants.

In recent years, we’ve seen “Star Wars” moving out of movies and into the real world. Mainly, countries like the US have developed technologies to reduce the exposure of their soldiers to the perils of direct combat. Drone warfare has become quite sophisticated, guided by humans safely distanced from combat but able to zero in on targets—infrastructure such as military camps and soldiers, especially officials.

The US has used drones to assassinate at least 2,000 targets in Pakistan. The drones were originally deployed for reconnaissance and for surveillance but in recent years, the drones themselves carry munitions or, perhaps, we should say the drones have become lethal missiles, really becoming guided missiles.


While the use of sophisticated technologies seems to be for the purpose of achieving greater precision, the chances of human error remain high. The drones can’t function on their own, depending on instructions and “intelligence” supplied by humans and there have been mistakes in identifying the targets. The WCK global case comes to mind again—the Israeli military admitted that they erred, claiming that they depended on images that were blurred to conclude there was an armed man with the WCK convoy. All seven WCK workers were unarmed.

Perverse new forms of wars are emerging. The week the WCK aid workers were killed in Gaza, the Russians launched “double-tap” assaults on Ukranian targets, where they first fire at military targets, and then pause … and wait for the humanitarian workers, in these cases, ambulances, to enter the battle site and when that happens, the Russians then begin to fire again to kill the humanitarian workers with the “second tap.” Three humanitarian workers were killed in the April 3 attack with another four deaths two days later, this time including journalists.


The largest number of fatalities, which disappear in the frenzy of media coverage, is still collateral damage. In the Hamas-Israel war, over 33,000 civilians have been killed, 70 percent of whom are women and minors.

The term “dirty wars” is used more specifically to refer to state-sponsored terrorism, especially those of the 1970s and 1980s in Latin American countries with right-wing dictatorships. Under martial law, we, too, had our own dirty war as the regime waged war against the New People’s Army and against Muslim secessionists.

Yet, when you think about it, can there ever be clean wars?


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