The Multilateralist

Can low-tech armies fight legal wars?

Can low-tech armies fight legal wars?

Libya has been an intervention largely premised on violations of the rules and norms of warfare. At least according to the official story, it was the Gaddafi regime’s brutalities, and specifically its attacks on civilians, that put it beyond the pale and opened the door to international intervention. I’ve got no quibble with this rationale, although the scale of the killing and atrocities in Libya remains somewhat murky. But it does raise an interesting question: can a low-tech army fight a civil war, particularly in urban areas, without regularly violating the laws of war and endangering civilians?

Imagine for a moment that a poor country is fighting a civil war with a low-tech and spottily trained army. Imagine further that the government leaders have no intention of abusing civilians but are determined to prevail against the rebels, most of whom don’t wear uniforms. Is this kind of army even capable of conducting operations that don’t fall well afoul of the rules of war? It may be that developments in the laws of war and changing norms have made lawful war almost impossible for all except the most advanced militaries, blessed with precision weapons and enormous budgets.