In War, Assassination It’s Distasteful and Unsporting… But Does It Work?

The art of war is changing. Major countries used to invest hugely in weapons of mass destruction: but when the public began to ask why they didn't just kill the enemy's leader, they switched to targeted assassination. But there is no real evidence that this new strategy of assassination serves any purpose against ISIS / Leggi in italiano

It's strange to see how the art of war is changing.  Not long ago, the major countries that most felt the need to pursue a foreign policy based on the threat of violence were investing hugely in weapons of mass destruction – devices and technologies that could kill millions of people in a single attack.

The approach may have made sense in wars between enemies who saw things the same way, but it proved entirely ineffective in waging "asymmetric" wars, leading to the defeat of major powers at the hands of "ragged and barefooted" enemies – the outcome of the Vietnam War for the Americans, the Afghan war for the Russians and others as well, without listing them all.

As often happens, the public may have realized this before the military General Staffs did.  Europe's response – that of the man in the street, not the leaders – to the US invasion of Iraq was almost unanimous: "Why don't they just go in and kill Saddam Hussein, instead of dragging all those wretched people into it?"  

The Americans probably could not have done so, but it was still a good question.  Now the powers wage asymmetrical wars of their own.  Russia dispatches its "little green men" – not many, by traditional standards – to provide low-cost support for its "friends" in eastern Ukraine and is, so far, even less committed in Syria, where it prefers to dispatch aircraft and a few cruise missiles.

The Americans have basically done the same in their most recent interventions in the Middle East, which is witnessing a growing strategy of containment – an approach that could be summed up as "let's isolate them and leave them to kill one other on their own."  We are also seeing increasing use of targeted assassination as a legitimate instrument of war – very clearly so in the case of the United States, which has the "democratic" merit of being able to hide virtually nothing for very long.

The deployment of sharpshooters with the specific aim of killing enemy officers in battle was Napoleon's invention.  This technique, condemned at the time as being highly unsporting, was immediately adopted by other European countries.  The Americans readily talk about its use in Iraq and Syria: "Coalition attacks on high-value targets," the Pentagon spokesman said in a teleconference a few days ago, "are shortening ISIS' bench."

The sporting metaphor is a fitting one.  Apparently "baseball cards" are what US miltary call the files they are given to identify high-value targets to be eliminated.  There are plenty of them.  Pentagon documents show that between 2007 and 2008 US forces carried out a daily average of eight "finishing actions" – the euphemism for attacks against individuals – in Iraq and a further six a day in Afghanistan.  Methods include the use of drones, regular troops, special forces and combat aircraft such as the F-15E Strike Eagle and the A-10 Warthog.

All of this may be distasteful and unsporting, but at least the major powers no longer formulate war plans that envisage millions of casualties – progress of a sort.  But there is no real evidence that their new strategy of assassination serves any purpose.  Islamic State, “short bench” or not, is still very much in the game.



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