ICRC – Humanitarian perspectives on the changing face of war

This week, we are looking at something a bit different to our usual fare. We are considering an E-briefing from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), via their journal the International Review of the Red Cross. The ICRC is the most important NGO in terms of warfare. It is hugely influential in terms of the law of armed conflict, and state policy towards humanitarian aspects of war. Here we discuss their piece ‘Humanitarian perspectives on the changing face of war‘ (available here). It considers how war, and its relationship with victims of war, has changed over the past few centuries. It is an interesting read, and I encourage you to check it out. 


Here’s what we thought: 


This briefing paper from the International Review of the Red Cross gives a short summary of something of the changing nature of warfare. Though the article is brief, and clearly written from a certain political perspective, I would like to pick up on one interesting line that caught my eye:  

‘the notion of heroism, traditionally associated with obedience to a warrior’s code of honour […]’. 

Though here the author talks about the decline of heroism and honour in the face of ISIS murderers on YouTube (a point I agree with), I do find the use of heroism an interesting term. Can war ever be heroic? Can a conscripted man or woman ever conduct heroic acts? What do we even mean by ‘heroism’? 

For many years now I would argue that we of the allied forces in WW2 have associated something quite ‘romantic’ with wars gone by, and the idea of fighting and dying for something you believe in – a discourse perpetuated in television, films and the wider print media. But how is this any different to any other human being dying for something they believe in? Not that I want to support the acts of ISIS in any way, shape or form, but I do think we need to consider for a moment, quite how we depict ourselves – in the UK and the US especially – as somehow ‘heroic’ (think the Blitz, Pearl Harbour, D-Day…), when mostly war just boils down to a question of survival and ‘kill or be killed’.   

Even in the Red Cross it seems, the romantic discourse of old war as somehow ‘heroic’ lingers on… 

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 

This piece links in with some thoughts I’ve been having recently, particularly the ‘humanitarian’ perspective. The recent book The Internationalists by Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro. In it, they argue that law, specifically attempts to outlaw war, has been a major contributor to the general lack of inter-state war which we see today. I’ve been thinking about how this has created what Prof. Johann Galtung would describe as a negative peace (the absence of war), but that we are still a long way from an international positive peace (an integrated and equitable global human society with justice for all). Although the ICRC is focussed on the law of armed conflict, this does nothing to contribute to positive peace, as it only applies in wartime. I’ve been wondering also about whether international human rights law can contribute to an international positive peace. I certainly think it can contribute, but I’m yet to fully think about what is missing. Hopefully I’ll be able to turn it into a research project in the future! 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University 


What do you think? 


Let us know in the comments below 

4 thoughts on “ICRC – Humanitarian perspectives on the changing face of war

  1. Did I really forget to write a review on this piece? Good job…

    @Mike – You touch upon some really large questions about heroism. I think there is a significant debate to be had about the connection between heroism, dehumanization, the lack of dirty wars and bloodshed on Western grounds for the past 70 years, masculinity, militarism, military ethics, and of course how new technology changes this concept. There is so much to unpack there. @Josh, could we have this theme another month perhaps? I could also think of some interesting material about this and I would love to have some discussions on this.

    But I do find it interesting too how the ICRC, traditionally not one to glorify war, mentions heroism casually like that without unpacking the concept.

    @Josh You are the second person to recommend me this book in a short time! Is it understandable for non-lawyers?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Maaike, sure. A theme discussing heroism and war would be really interesting. We can certainly do that, just send over your suggestions. In terms of The Internationalists, yes, I think you would understand it fine – especially seeing as you tackle the legal papers in this research network without any problems!

    @Mike, I’ve been thinking myself about ‘constructed’ heroism and warfare recently myself, as you know I was hoping to present at a conference on changing masculinities of aerial bombers. In this work, I looked into air forces in WWII, whom we have this view that they were all stoic men who took on the luftwaffe knowing full well they might not come back, but went anyway. In some of my research I found that, actually, they were bricking it – as we would be. Some airmen sabotaged planes and feigned illness to get out of operations, rather than be labelled as having ‘low moral fibre’ for not wanting to go. So the reality seems to be far different from the conception we now have. I’ve also been thinking if this is all a hangover from WWI, where it was ‘noble’ and ‘glorious’ to die for your country and the empire?


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