Warfare Without Limits: A Darkening Human Horizon

27 Jul

There are several pressures that push war in the direction of the absolute, and imperil the human future. Perhaps, the foremost of these is emergence, use, retention, and proliferation of nuclear weapons, as well as the development of biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction. Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki there have been several close calls involving heightened dangers of wars fought with nuclear weapons, especially associated with the Cold War rivalry, none more serious than the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. To entrust such weaponry to the vagaries of political leadership and the whims governmental institutions seems like a Mt. Everest of human folly, and yet the present challenges to nuclearism remain modest and marginal despite the collapse of the deterrence rationale that seemed plausible to many during the confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States.


Underneath the tendency to develop for use whatever weapons and tactics that technology can provide is the fragmented political identities of a world divided into sovereign states. The inhabitants of these states of greatly varying size, capabilities, and vulnerabilities, have long been indoctrinated to view their own state through the idolatrous eyes of nationalism that view the extermination of the enemy as acceptable if necessary for national security or even desirable to satisfy national ambitions. The ideology of nationalism, nurturing the values of unquestioning patriotism, have led to an orientation that can be described as secular fundamentalism, vindicating militarist worldviews however dysfunctional given the risks and limits associated with gaining desired political ends by relying on military superiority. The crime of treason reinforces the absolutist claims of the secular state by disallowing defenses based on conscience, law, and belief.  


As I have pointed out in other contexts, the militarily superior side has rarely prevailed in an armed conflict since the end of World War II unless also able to command the moral and legal heights wherein are located the symbols of legitimacy. The political failures of the colonial powers despite their military dominance provides many bloody illustrations of this trend of miltarist frustration that did not exist until the middle of the last century. Because of entrenched bureaucratic and economic interests (‘the military-industrial-media complex’), the experience is denied, military solutions for conflicts continue to be preferred, and futile recourse to war goes on and on.


One further check on the excesses of warfare is supposedly provided by the inhibiting role of conscience, the ethical component of the human sensibility. This sentiment was powerfully and memorably expressed by some lines in the Bertolt Brecht poem, “A German War Primer”:


                        General, your bomber is powerful

                        It smashes down forests and crushes a hundred men

                        But it has one defect:

                        It needs a driver.


This ‘defect,’ a driver is both a human cost, and maybe a brake on excess, as Brecht suggests a few lines later:


                        General, man is very useful

                        He can fly and he can kill

                        But he has one defect:

                        He can think.


Of course, military training and discipline are generally effective in overcoming this defect, especially as backed up by the nationalist ideology discussed above, while international humanitarian law vainly tries to give support to thinking and respecting limits. The Nuremberg Trials of Nazi surviving leaders even went so far as to decide that ‘superior orders’ were no excuse if war crimes were committed.


In the nuclear age this process went further as the stakes were so high. I recall visiting the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) at the height of the Cold War. SAC was responsible for the missile force that then targeted many cities in the Soviet Union. What struck me at the time was the seeming technocratic indifference of those entrusted with operating the computers that would fire the missiles in contrast to the ideological zeal of the commanding generals who would give the orders to annihilate millions of civilians at a distant locations. I was told at the time that the lower ranked technical personnel had been tested to ensure that moral scruples would not interfere with their readiness to follow orders. I found this mix of commanders politically convinced that the enemy was evil and apolitical and amoral subordinates a frightening mix at the time, and still do, although I have not been invited back to SAC to see whether similar conditions now prevail. I suspect that they do, considering the differing requirements of the two roles. This view seems confirms by the enthusiasm expressed for carrying on the ‘war on terror’ in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.


In this period new technological innovations in war making accentuate my earlier concerns. The reliance on drone attacks in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) removes the human person altogether from the war experience, except as in the role of programmer, and even here reliance on algorithms for targeting, removes any shred of responsibility. When mistakes are made, and innocent civilians are killed, the event is neutralized by being labeled ‘collateral damage,’ and an apology is issued but the practice goes on and is even extended.  More important is the chilling effect of removing that human presence, both as a person of one’s own nation being at risk and as a source of potential questioning and even refusal. It should be recalled that the anti-war opposition of American soldiers in Vietnam exerted a powerful influence that helped over time finally to bring this failed war to an end.


What is at stake ultimately is the human spirit squeezed to near death by technological momentum, corporate greed, militarism, and secular fundamentalism. This web of historical forces continues to entrap major political actors in the world, and dims hopes for a sustainable future even without taking into account the dismal effects of the gathering clouds of climate change. Scenarios of future cyber warfare are also part of this overall process of destroying societies without risking lives directly. The cumulative effect of these developments is to make irrelevant the moral compass that alone provides acceptable guidance for a progressive human future.


33 Responses to “Warfare Without Limits: A Darkening Human Horizon”

  1. jeni July 27, 2011 at 4:24 pm #

    Re your current blog: “Warfare Without Limits: A Darkening Human Horizon”,
    Thanks for bringing into the same frame the perils of nuclearism and ‘the dismal effects of the gathering clouds of climate change’.

    ‘Climate change’ is the ’cause celebre’ in this 21st century while the proliferation of nuclear weapons, nuclear nations, an expansionist arms industry and ‘safe’ nuclear energy (even post Fukushima) continues apace. I reckon you probably know Ashis Nandy’s “The Epidemic of Nuclearism: A Clinical Profile of the Genocidal Mentality” : http://www.transnational.org/SAJT/forum/meet/nandy_nuclearism.html in 1998. I think it’s an insightful essay as he brings it back to pathology deep in the psyche; and he writes this essay pre the horrible reality of ‘drones’: “You father the unthinkable because you have already psychologically orphaned your-self.”

    In the current news cycle media ‘ethics’ is all the rage – post the unravelling of ‘News of the World’, (and add Master Chef which tops all TV ratings). Here in Australia, the two major political parties battle out the intricacies of a carbon tax – while any public discussion of ‘genocidal mentality’ or expansionist state and non-state militarism seems to have been allowed to go through to the keeper; and this is amidst an ever expanding US military presence on Australian soil; see the recent giant US-Australian war games, ‘Talisman Sabre 2011’, and local efforts to challenge Australia’s co-option into the US military machine: http://anti-bases.org/

    Thanks for your very thoughtful blogs and keeping these urgent ethical matters alive.

  2. Richard Fairbanks July 27, 2011 at 6:01 pm #

    Thank you, Richard, for yet another careful post of concerned wisdom.

    Although not directly related, please allow me to offer a recent post that (very briefly) addresses the mindset that you are addressing; I would have sent it along privately, to avoid cluttering up your blog, but I am not aware of any such alternative. Thus please forgive any imposition; I offer it only for contemplation in your (very rare, I trust!) spare time, should you be so inclined. The post is “Conscious Evolution and Overpopulation” at the top of the “Who” page of http://www.DismantleIt.com. Blessings, and thank you, yet again.

  3. monalisa July 27, 2011 at 11:56 pm #

    Thank you Richard for your essay.

    Greed and power are the factors.
    Impoverishing people even in a state as USA doesn’t matter.
    Mass desdruction outside the USA and manipulating people through mass media owned by a very few is in accordance.

    Cuts in education in the USA will secure that the average US citizen will be directed in exact the way favored by certain big companies.
    It will fit in as the average people represent the majority.
    Politicans are instrumented.

    The EU is more and more becoming a dependance of the USA – seems to me.

    What I wonder is: US ciizen are so pround of their political structures yet they don’t see to which point it is leading.
    Having the freedom of carrying smaller weapons – for self defence even against politicans and political willpowers – will nowadays not help to overcome these devastating developments forced by owners and CEO’s of a few big Western companies.

    As to Bertolt Brecht: he saw peoples behaviour in very difficult times. He saw the misuse of political power. Unfortunately he was blinded by an unrealistic hope. And he found it out very late. Too late for him.

    His poem: “Kinderkreuzzug” (= children’s crusade)
    could still fit in our world of today.
    Not concerning the people of the Judaish beliefs of those older days, no.
    Nowadays children of different colors, of different beliefs are affected. Too many orphans by willpower through warfare created.

    This poem should be regarded in a different way whereas the basics are still the same.
    Children should be our highest good, should be taken care of, should grow up in a world without too much destruction created by man.

    Parents should be aware that they are responsible how they will leave this earth to their children.

    With too much passive and dismissive behaviour they are too responsible for the outcome of greed and warfare.
    Pollution our air and soil and waters through weapons and misuse of the different powers will affect the whole earth.
    Thus affecting the global polulation – not only a few countries !

    Mankind is declining: even most animals take more care about their offspring than man does.

    And religion is still the manipulative power – misused and blinding people in almost the exact way as for thousands of years.

    Human race hasn’t developed.
    Humans are still missing their geo-social feeling which would secure that our earth could still a livable place in the future.

    The fact is: our earth is in a catastrophal state created by the human race, by greed, by stupidity, by warfare.

    As to 9/11: I am still wondering why chemists don’t say exactly how quick heat can travel through a building’s steel structure.
    And enforce big buildings to implode.
    This is the question together with others for the 9/11.

    As to

  4. Matt July 28, 2011 at 3:02 am #

    I find it truly amazing that you can do a whole post on the dangers of nuclear war and how apathically government employees can carry out orders by only mentioning the US.
    Truly amazed.

    • Richard Falk July 28, 2011 at 6:59 am #

      It is a fair point, but I was mainly relating my own experience of contact with those in this most powerful of countries dealing with this most powerful of weapons. I should have said this more pointedly.

  5. monalisa July 28, 2011 at 6:09 am #

    Another remark
    as to games:
    I think we are living in a time where games play a big part whether for fun or for a living or

    and this is the point:
    to give people a tool into their hands
    and a military order
    to play
    the game of
    good and evil in the name of a Christian articulated god …

    It’s just a game they would think …
    as so many have been used to play games in their cell phones, computers and so forth
    until they have grown up …

    It’s just a game
    where they win …

    what ?

    forgetting that real people: women, children and men are involved, daying in poisoned smokes of depleted uranium warheads.

    It’s just a game
    they may think and play

    and are polluting more and more our earth …
    the air we breathe …

    maybe that’s what could be won:
    a totally polluted air and soil ….

  6. John Lyman July 29, 2011 at 11:09 pm #

    Hello Richard,

    May I again call upon you to republish this article on the Journal of Foreign Relations?

    Thank you,

    John Lyman

    • Richard Falk July 30, 2011 at 7:25 am #

      Yes, John, that would be fine, and I am glad you feel the article is of some
      interest to your readership. Richard

  7. John Lyman July 30, 2011 at 11:04 am #

    Thanks Richard. Great article.

  8. Ray Joseph Cormier August 4, 2011 at 7:43 am #

    I just received this from Michael Harris, Author, Columnist, and Host of Ottawa’s CRFA Talk Show. You can be sure I will be very attentive, Professor.

    Subject: Re: Obama
    From: Michael.Harris
    Date: Thu, 4 Aug 2011 10:31:35 -0300
    To: ray032@sympatico.ca

    Thanks for your thoughts. On another matter ray, richard falk is on the show today from 2 until 3 pm. You made that possible. Many thanks. Michael

    Sent from my iPhone

    You can listen to the show live here from 1 to 3pm Today.


    • Ray Joseph Cormier August 4, 2011 at 8:34 am #

      Professor Falk, I took the liberty once again of re-posting this article having the same title in my Blog Today, attributing it to you with the link to this site. I embedded the 1970 music video ‘War’ by Edwin Starr – War (What Is It Good For?) at the top of the article to set the parameters.

      My Blog being a work in progress, I will find the appropriate images relevant to the subject and insert them asap. So many people search Google images bringing so many people to a site they were not particularly looking for. Use lots of them in your future articles.

      My last article before this is titled, ‘CanaDa’ posted on the occasion of our National Holiday, July 1st.

      Having posted images of the major cities in CanaDa, those images have brought 317 viewers to that one article to date searching Google for images of CanaDa.

    • Richard Falk August 4, 2011 at 1:31 pm #

      Thanks, Ray, for your role in arranging this. I found Michael Harris an exceptionally well informed and clear minded interviewer. It was my pleasure, and I hope useful. Richard

      • Ray Joseph Cormier August 4, 2011 at 2:00 pm #

        It was an excellent interview, validating the confidence I have in your expertise and intelligence.

        Hearing your voice for the 1st time, you sound much younger than your years.

        I am still hoping you will find the time to comment in one of your two articles now posted in my Blog or in any of the other 26 articles that interest you.

      • Ray Joseph Cormier August 4, 2011 at 2:19 pm #

        p.s. If you are still up in Hawaii and want to listen to your interview, it will be replayed at 8pm Hawaii time this evening at the link provided above.

      • Ray Joseph Cormier August 7, 2011 at 5:32 pm #

        Professor, I just exchanged these emails with Michael Harris.

        From: Ray Cormier
        Sent: August-08-11 12:27:57 AM
        To: michael.harris

        I certainly do. That will be another show I will not miss. Thanks again for this notice.

        Are you planning a conference call sometime down the road with your expert panel? I would love to listen to Richard Falk and Alan Dershowitz discuss the issue. That would be some show!!!


        Subject: Re: After Thought
        From: Michael.Harris
        Date: Sun, 7 Aug 2011 20:11:19 -0300
        To:Ray Cormier

        Ray, professor alan dershowitz on the show this tuesday. You know what that means. Michael

        Sent from my iPhone

      • Ray Joseph Cormier August 9, 2011 at 3:01 pm #

        Apparently Professor Alan Dershowitz had a more important development that came up and cancelled his appointment to participate in the Michael Harris Israeli-Palestinian Peace Project.

        Re: Alan Dershowitz‏
        From: Michael Harris
        Sent: August-09-11 7:02:04 PM
        To: Ray Cormier

        He had a time conflict. No pre-tape
        Possible. Re-scheduling. Will keep you in the loop. M
        Sent from my iPhone

        On 2011-08-09, at 3:59 PM, “Ray Cormier” wrote:

        > What happened?

      • Ray Joseph Cormier August 12, 2011 at 8:16 am #

        Professor Falk,

        Professor Alan Dershowitz is re-scheduled to present his views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict tomorrow between 1:15 to 2pm on the Michael Harris “Peace Project” on Ottawa’s CFRA Radio Talk Show from 1 to 3pm Eastern time. I hope you will be listening here,


      • Richard Falk August 12, 2011 at 10:53 am #

        Ray: Despite Dershowitz’s prominence I do not consider him a responsible advocate of a pro-Israeli position, and would not find a debate with him to be a constructive use of my time, nor of any help to those in the public seeking to understand the conflict better and in good faith. He obscures and distorts the Palestinian ordeal and viciously attacks those who try to expose the truth, e.g. Richard Goldstone (prior to his retraction). I appreciate your efforts,
        nevertheless, to encourage open discussion of these sensitive issues.

      • Ray Joseph Cormier September 3, 2011 at 7:06 am #

        Professor, Today I just embedded a new video I think is a fitting end to this article re-posted in my Blog. I hope you check it out and agree. Peace



      • Richard Falk September 6, 2011 at 1:47 pm #

        Ray: I am swamped these days, having just moved to Montreal for four quiet months..With greetings, Richard

  9. N.A.J. Taylor (@najtaylordotcom) August 7, 2011 at 4:47 am #

    Thanks Richard. In response, I offer two comments.

    First, worryingly the notion of nuclearism that you identify in nuclear weapon states such as the United States is exacerbated by the very organisations one would expect to be working to eradicate it. For instance, many prominent research foundations in the US favour funding projects that maintain and extend US national security, by approaching the US’ securitised problem of nuclear nonproliferation rather than the obligation of disarmament.

    That is, projects that are funded generally pursue one of three lines of research: projects that seek to understand and combat nuclear terrorism; projects that work towards containing “rogue states” such as Iran and North Korea; or projects that permit an enhanced role for the US in the international policy regarding both aspiring and actual nuclear weapons states.

    The former two focuses are problematic for me because they largely feed rather than combat the nuclearism you describe. The latter troubles me because it implicitly bets on effective research and policy must have a prominent leadership role for the US.

    If we look at the proposal for a nuclear weapon-free-zone in the Middle East for instance, we must acknowledge that it is not necessarily the US that is key to the success of such an agreement taking place. And yet, at least since 1995 – and arguably since the 1980s – such a zone has been widely viewed as critical to the long-term viability of the entire nuclear nonproliferation regime.

    In my reading of the situation, this myopia is far worse in the US than in say the EU, but that may be me being a little unfair.

    Second, the march towards technological progress led by economic imperatives that you describe makes this a crucial moment, in my view, to reflect on the notion of harm as it is carried out between and among people. In line with Andrew Linklater’s most recent work into ‘the problem of harm in world politics’, it appears to me a useful conceptual lens with which to examine a raft of concerns over the modern practice of warfare that relate to technology, IHL, economic interests, and so on.

    This second course of inquiry is what is driving my doctorate.

    Go well,
    Nicholas (N.A.J.) Taylor
    PhD candidate in the School of Political Science and International Studies,
    University of Queensland

  10. Ray Joseph Cormier December 2, 2011 at 10:35 pm #

    Professor Falk,

    You must be enjoying Montreal. You haven’t post a new article in a long time.

    I hope you will like my latest article posted to my Blog November 29, only learning the significance of that date in Israeli History Today



    • Richard Falk December 3, 2011 at 5:54 am #

      Ray: I will read. I am enjoying Montreal, but I did post something a few days ago, and my writing for Al Jazeera takes time.

      • Ray Joseph Cormier December 3, 2011 at 4:32 pm #

        Thank you Professor Falk for your thoughtful words in the article.

      • Ray Joseph Cormier December 3, 2011 at 4:38 pm #

        Bty, since you are so close to Ottawa, Michael Harris would like to have you in his studio for the hour or two for discussion and to field questions from the callers. He will gladly give you the time.

        You must be aware the Canadian government has a blind, one sided policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Your presence will be helpful since government Ministers monitor his show.

      • Richard Falk December 4, 2011 at 5:30 am #

        Thanks, Ray, for encouraging such an appearance, but it is not feasible
        for me to go to Ottawa for such a media event. It is important as you
        suggest to get a more accurate view of the conflict before the Canadian public, but I am always reluctant to take the time and devote the resources to travel for such a purpose. I am not, in the end, a media person!

  11. Ray Joseph Cormier January 11, 2012 at 9:33 am #

    Professor Falk, continuing along the trend line of this article, I just posted the latest report to my Blog.


  12. Ray Joseph Cormier February 29, 2012 at 4:49 pm #

    Professor, also along the lines of your article, I just posted a new report to my Blog:



  13. ray032 October 7, 2014 at 7:12 pm #

    Richard, the substance of this warning from 3 years ago has come to pass. This is one of 2 of your articles I re-posted to my Blog verbatim. Our current elected leadership is projecting a 10 year war against ISIS. Leon Panetta is projecting 30 years of warfare without limits.

    ‘Leon Panetta, Head of Pentagon and C.I.A. under Obama, Says Brace for 30 Year War with ISIS’


    I still believe we have only the 3 years for Israel to declare the Jubilee Year in the 47 year Military Dictatorship in the occupied territories before all hell breaks loose everywhere!


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