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For teachers - ages 12-14 Civic Education: Resource Sheet: The Limits upon War

Teaching and training materials

For teachers - ages 12-14 Civic Education: Resource Sheet: The Limits upon War

14 October 2006

Starters for discussion and writing

  • Argument of Karl von Clausewitz, German philosopher of war (1832):

    War is an act of force which theoretically can have no limits.

    War tends towards the ultimate exertion of forces.

    Moderation in war is an absurdity.

  • General W.T. Sherman, American Civil War general, (1885): War is hell.
  • The limit of consent:

    (a) In reply to Clausewitz and Sherman, war does have limits. War is hell when people are forced to fight, when the limit of consent is breached.

    (b) In modern wars, the power of the State to wage war is such, that individuals can be coerced to fight, directly, through conscription, or subtly induced to volunteer through propaganda.

  • The laws of war include restrictions on how war may be waged. These may vary with changing technological capacity. Examples have included prohibitions on:
    • feathered arrows
    • dum dum bullets
    • poison gas
    • biological weapons
  • International humanitarian law includes restrictions on who may be killed:

    (a) These do not change. Basically combat should be between combatants. The crucial test: Is a soldier or airman taking aim at another, or at an identifiable military target?

    (b) Certain classes of persons have always been considered exempt from attack: those who have not been trained to fight and those who cannot or do not fight. These non-combatants include:

    • civilians
      • children
      • non-service men and women
      • medical personnel
      • clergy
    • surrendering soldiers
    • wounded soldiers
    • captured soldiers
    • members of neutral states, cities or tribes
  • These restrictions, shaped over centuries by moral, legal, philosophical, religious and political considerations are known collectively as the WAR CONVENTION. International Law recognises these principles, particularly in the form of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, and their additional Protocols, signed in 1977. Article 38 of the 1989 Convention of the Rights of the Child deals particularly with children's non-combatant immunity.
  • The International Committee of the Red Cross and many United Nations and non-government organisations, actively defend these principles throughout the world.