War happens, but it has limits

World War I trench at Sanctuary Wood, Belgium.

World War I trench at Sanctuary Wood, Belgium.

The past year has been a reminder of the brutality of modern armed conflicts. The killing of U.S. and British hostages by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 over contested airspace in Ukraine, and the kidnapping of schoolgirls by Boko Haram in Nigeria, are but three recent examples of the horrible things that can happen to humanity in the midst of war. It is a lesson that keeps repeating itself.

Exactly 150 years ago, in the fall of 1864, Sherman’s March to the Sea laid waste to the Confederate economy during the American Civil War. Known as the hard-war strategy, this scorched-Earth campaign was characterized as merciless. “If the people raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty,” General Sherman noted after ordering the evacuation of the city of Atlanta, which he would later burn to the ground, “I will answer that war is war.”

Fifty years later, on the other side of the Atlantic, it took less than three months for an estimated one million soldiers to be killed or wounded in an unintentional Race to the Sea. The exhausted armies of Germany, France, Belgium and Britain then settled into the trench warfare that would dominate their war effort for the remainder of the Great War and decimate an entire generation.

These wars of the past – and the wars of today – serve as a reminder not only of the cruelty of war, but of the need to do what we can to minimize harm when war strikes.

Today we are proud to re-introduce Humanity in the Midst of War, the American Red Cross’s blog about International Humanitarian Law (IHL), the rational effort to have warring parties show restraint during armed conflicts by sparing and protecting civilians and persons out of combat. This blog is about the fact that there are rules that regulate war—rules like the ones that compelled General Sherman and countless other commanders in history, to order their troops to spare persons in invaded territory. It is also about the story of an idea—that non-combatants bearing the Red Cross or Red Crescent (or Red Crystal) should be able to show humanity amidst inhumanity and provide neutral and impartial aid to war victims. This is the logic behind the modern laws of war contained in the Geneva Conventions and other international agreements.

Over the past year, in response to advancements in technology and geopolitical changes, the IHL team at the American Red Cross revamped its educational programs and public events. We now provide:

  • Day-long trainings to government, press, and nonprofit professionals, explaining the rules designed to protect civilians in wartime;
  • Weekend workshops for law and graduate students across the United States to engage aspiring young professionals with the rule of law and the international system; and
  • Training for U.S. youth through the IHL Action Campaign.

Together with our other public events and outreach, and the resources on our website, these projects aim to disseminate IHL, as required by the Geneva Conventions.

Starting today, Humanity in the Midst of War will incorporate forward-thinking and creative new posts on substantive issues in IHL. Our editors, staff and guest bloggers will roll out blog posts on a regular basis explaining the fundamental principles of IHL, discussing significant developments in its body and practice, sharing details about current educational and dissemination projects, and expanding on legal issues at the forefront of modern warfare. Our aim is to become an open forum to share knowledge, answer questions, and create dialogue, while reaching a broad audience across all sectors—from lay persons to professionals.

Today, on the centennial of World War I, it has become almost impossible to keep track of all the armed conflicts happening around the world. The UN reports, however, that conflict has driven the number of forcibly displaced persons to over 50 million, a figure not seen since the end of the Second World War. It is up to us, an engaged global citizenry, to promote the lessons that inspired the Geneva Conventions. It is up to us, to remember that war happens, but it has limits.

2 responses to “War happens, but it has limits

  1. I love the idea of this blog. My blog and this one share so may things in common. We must all work together for the good of humanity. Really, the various conflicts and crises that has marked this year has been alarming. Even more alarming is the number of people displaced, both internally and as refugees.

  2. Pingback: Humanity in the Midst of War·

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