Sunday, August 10, 2008

Over the Brink

Friday, the Times Online reported that Russia and Georgia moved “to the brink of war” after the initiation of hostilities. By evening, war had been officially declared by both sides; yet yesterday morning, I woke to find out that Georgia and Russia were merely “nearing all out war” with the mobilization of Russian warships and commencement of bombing raids. By afternoon, Bloomberg had reported that Russia (at least) was “waging full-scale war.”

At what point does a pair of countries cross the threshold between almost being at war and actually being at at war? Important question since, among other things, the laws of armed conflict only apply to wars and occupations, not to skirmishes, riots, or low-intensity conflicts. (Human Rights Watch: there's definitely a war happening, and the rules definitely apply.)

Political scientists answer this question through reference to the body count. The standard threshold between low-intensity political violence and a genuine war, for the purposes of studying wars, is generally set at 1,000 battle deaths. However political scientists differ on whether this is deaths per side or deaths total, and whether “battle deaths” includes collateral damage against civilians, or simply intentional deaths by targeting.

Even then, it can be pretty hard to sort out who is dead. Currently, Russia is reporting 2,000 dead; but then, they’re also claiming that Georgia is committing genocide. Georgia makes a variety of counter-claims.

Is the willingness to target civilians, possibly, the difference between "war," "all-out war" and "full-scale war?" Hmm.


Mike said...

I wonder which LOAC Article covers Wrongheaded Regional Steamrolling Tiffs... and what the threshold count is for such cases. Will have to develop a WRST dataset...

hank_F_M said...


I’m stuck between two good rules of thumb.

Don’t believe the propaganda of either side.

Or given the participants,

The worst accusations of both sides are true.

I’m willing to let “the difference between "war," "all-out war" and "full-scale war?" be what ever fiction promotes a stable and lasting peace.

But whatever, both sides clearly meet the requirements of lawful belligerents which means they should not target civilians as such.

Cleitus the Black said...

Ha... That is wishful thinking at its best.

Last time I checked, the US, Great Britain, and Germany were all lawful belligerents in WWII, yet I don't recall it preventing them in the slightest from targeting civilians.

In fact, the Blitz against London, the Allied bombing campaign against German cities, and the targeting of two civilian population centres in Japan with WMD were all specifically targeted at civilians.

With that said, I rather suspect our Eastern cousins may prove a bit more civilized in the prosecution of their lovely little war.

Diodotus said...

Two points:

1) The 1949 Geneva Conventions weren't drafted until after WW2; admittedly, rules were on the books prior and were broken.

2) I'm referring to the rules against mistreatment of detainees, not against targeting of civilians.

So anyways, you're examples are apples and oranges but, your points are well-taken.

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