Throughout history, some forms of war and weaponry have been viewed with greater horror than others. Even ancient civilisations tried to codify the rules of war – jus in bello. Homer’s Greeks disapproved of archery; real men fought hand-to-hand, not at a distance. Shakespeare’s Henry V roared with anger when, at Agincourt, the French cavalry killed his camp followers. At the beginning of the last century, dum-dum bullets, a British invention, were outlawed following an appeal by Germany. Revulsion against the widespread use of gas in the first world war led in the 1920s to an international convention prohibiting the use of chemical and biological weapons – not that the ban stopped the British using chemicals in Iraq, or the Italians in Ethiopia in the 1930s. A landmine convention was agreed in 1997, though not signed by the US, China or Russia. Today, China, India, and perhaps surprisingly North Korea are among nuclear‑armed states that have pledged no first use, though Nato, Israel and the US have not.

Other, equally horrific weapons go unchallenged. Napalm (invented on the playing fields of Harvard University), incendiaries, “daisy cutters”, depleted uranium, defoliants … the list goes on and on. And the nature of war has changed. Warfare has become asymmetric; hi-tech states fight not each other, but shadowy insurgents, terrorists and freedom fighters. Where once the ratio of soldier to civilian war deaths was 9:1, now it has reversed. Today’s hi-tech warfighters are at less risk than the civilians in whose territories they fight. The lives of each of these warfighters is precious: the US and UK mourn each of their few dead in Iraq or Afghanistan almost more intensely than they did the tens of thousands who died in 1939-45. To minimise such deaths, and to exploit developing computer and information technologies, the Vietnam war ushered in something called “the automated battlefield”.

Read the full review at the Guardian.

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