This question is a little provocative so a clarification is in order. There is a distinction between whether a war is just (jus ad bellum) and whether it is being conducted in a just manner (jus in bello). In the case of IS it is incontrovertible that there is just cause for war. I have argued elsewhere that what is happening in IS occupied territory is attempted genocide. This legitimises military intervention, especially since the Iraqi government has requested help. What I wish to examine here is whether this war is being conducted justly.
Just war theory provides us with several principles that limit what is morally permissible in war. There are two principles that give us cause for concern when assessing the intervention against IS: proportionality and non-combatant immunity. The first of these is the idea that the means of war must be proportional to the ends. Soldiers should aim for victory, but this does not mean that victory can be pursued by any means necessary. There must be, to use Michael Walzer’s term, an ‘economy of force’ (Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, 129-33). A general should not waste the lives of his soldiers in a bloody offensive when there are more economical means to victory. He should not resort to tactics that will produce longstanding bitterness and prolong the war (such as taking no prisoners).
This relates to the second principle – non-combatant immunity – which applies to civilians and soldiers who are hors de combat. This does not mean that any non-combatant death necessarily makes a war unjust. The sad reality of modern warfare is that innocent people die. What it does prohibit is the deliberate targeting of non-combatants in order to win a war. Non-combatants may die but this can be excused when certain conditions apply. The most important of these conditions is that the risk of killing non-combatants must be minimised even when this entails greater risk to soldiers (Walzer, 153-6).
If the air campaign against IS is just, then it must be proportional and it must take due care to minimise the risk of killing innocent civilians. The justice of air strikes has been questioned since the Second World War, especially in relation to the firebombing of Dresden and the use of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Walzer, 255-68). More recently, the use of high altitude bombing by NATO forces during the Kosovo intervention was the subject of criticism (Independent International Convention on Kosovo Report, 289-92). In each of these cases questions were raised regarding proportionality, the number of non-combatants killed, and effectiveness in contributing to ending the conflicts.
How to judge the current campaign
There may be similar questions about how air strikes have been affecting non-combatants in IS occupied territory, but I wish to consider the air campaign from a different angle. Presumably if there is an obligation to ensure that non-combatant causalities are minimised then it applies to all non-combatants. Put another way, our obligation cannot be limited to refraining from killing them; it must also entail not letting them die needlessly. This means that due care must be taken regardless of whether non-combatants are on our side or the enemy’s. The question here is whether air strikes are sufficient to protect non-combatants in and near combat.
As I write, Syrian Kurds in Kobane are engaged in bitter fighting against IS forces. It is a battle they might not win, despite air support from the coalition. If Kobane falls to IS it is reasonable to expect that the rights of non-combatants will not be respected, since there are credible reports of civilians being massacred, abducted, enslaved and raped IS forces in the Sinjar region (Amnesty International, 8-22). The air campaign may minimise the risk to our servicemen and women, but it may do so at the cost of civilian lives.
This relates back to proportionality, which we often consider in terms of excessive force. As mentioned, generals are not supposed to waste their soldiers’ lives or use brutal or cruel weapons against the enemy. Yet, the principle of proportionality can also be violated when insufficient means are employed. In terms of the economy of force a general should not be a spendthrift, but he also should not be a miser if it results in defeat or in the needless deaths of non-combatants.
We are told that bombing is necessary because of the threat IS poses to our security. The air campaign may prevent IS attacks in the West by destroying their operational capacity, especially when coupled with preventing western jihadists from returning home. However, the intervention has also been justified on the grounds of stopping the widespread abuse of human rights by IS. The problem is that, according to Michael Fallon, the air campaign may take years to degrade and destroy IS. This does not seem to match the urgency of the humanitarian disaster in Iraq and Syria. Consequently, the way we are fighting IS does not rest easy with our jus in bello obligations.
What to do
Thus, we need to seriously consider deploying ground forces against IS, if they are more effective at protecting non-combatants. It is not a popular opinion. YouGov reports that the majority of Britons are in favour of air strikes against IS, but are opposed in nearly equal numbers to “putting boots on the ground.” This is understandable. Memories of Afghanistan and Iraq are still fresh. However, if we are committed to defeating IS we must live up to our obligations of protecting the lives of non-combatants and ending this conflict. Not doing this is to tell the people of Kobane that they are paying for our security with their blood.
Amnesty International. Ethnic Cleansing on a Historic Scale: Islamic State’s Systematic Targeting of Minorities in Northern Iraq. London: Amnesty International, International Secretariat, 2014
The Independent International Commission on Kosovo, The Kosovo Report (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000)
Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, 4th edition (New York: Basic Books, 2006)