Preface Restraint in War: Essential for a Lasting Peace?

In: Jus Post Bellum
Benoit Royal
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The question which lay at the heart of our deliberations at the EuroISME Brussels Conference in 2017 was an extension of the work of those thinkers who put their minds to complementing the first two legal frameworks of war – jus ad bellum and jus in bello – by adding jus post bellum, law following war. In his Foreword, Brian Orend heartily commends our work, and we are grateful to him.

The first two sections of this book set the scene and reflect on the philosophical thinking behind warfare and use of force. Several chapter authors consider the work of philosophers of classical times and ‘revisit’ the Just War Theory. How far it applies to today’s complex dynamics is a constantly evolving question, particularly as we look back to the recent past.

Throughout many centuries of warfare, the theory of ‘total war’ applied by numerous strategists entailed a peace imposed by the victor. The primary characteristic of this peace was a desire to punish the vanquished. No thought was given to the establishment of a just and lasting peace. Rather, the object of the exercise was to put in place elements of an armistice intended to seek revenge for damages suffered. No thought was given to the longer term consequences, which were often cruel and unbearable for those on the losing side. This is why, thanks to the concept of jus post bellum, further principles now aim to produce peace treaties in which reparations are more limited in scope and in proportion to the damages suffered.

However, the question posed goes beyond jus post bellum, as it also relates to the manner in which wars are fought. How can the recent history of our European continent, and in particular that of the First World War, help us to answer the question? What can we learn from the Versailles treaty, which stipulated the conditions of the 1918 armistice? Was it in accord with jus post bellum? Were the reparations demanded of the defeated in proportion to the wrongs inflicted on the victors? Who today would dare to determine the correct balance? We have to bear in mind the human cost – entire generations wiped from the face of the earth, entire regions made sterile and polluted, countries devastated. Put another way; is it humanly possible to envisage an armistice less harsh than the one that was imposed? Probably not. The conditions under which the war had been fought had been unbearable, hatred of ‘the other’ had plumbed new depths and despair had gone beyond the limits of endurance.

However, we all know how, in the medium term, this same Versailles treaty became unbearable for Germany. The enormous social crisis which was unleashed and the humiliation suffered by the German population explain in large measure Hitler’s rise to power, swept forward by an unquenchable thirst for revenge. But this same war had been so appalling that those who survived it swore that it was ‘the war to end all wars’. ‘Never again’ cried British Tommies, as they emerged from the trenches, in the aftermath of what was considered the massacre of a whole generation. However, within 20 short years – barely a single generation – all this was forgotten! This the prompted famous French playwright Tristan Bernard to say ‘Despite six thousand years of experience, humanity regresses to childhood with each new generation’.1 We must ask ourselves what is the reason for this cycle of failure, which has its roots in the paroxysm of violence in which conflict is trapped.

Michael Walzer, in his book Just and Unjust Wars agrees wholeheartedly with this point of view and builds his case for ‘just war’ on the rules which need to be laid down to avoid excessive use of force. He returns to this concept of limitation, in both aim and means ‘Just wars are limited wars, conducted in accordance with a body of rules intended to eliminate, so far as is possible, the use of violence and intimidation towards non-combatant populations’. He draws the conclusion from this that ‘restraint in war is the beginning of peace’.2 He reminds us that, in reality, those most affected by the aim to limit violence in war are those self-same populations. Populations which suffer war, and then which must endure a peace following defeat in war, can engender a new spiral towards war. This was the case in Germany, where it was the people themselves who brought Hitler to power.

General Vincent Desportes, in his book Probable War also states that ‘the target is no longer the enemy, but the population. In the heart of the urban environment, it’s a question of winning the fight for support while rebuilding the social contract’.3 He continues this thought by showing that, if legitimacy is essential before intervention happens, it is reinforced or undermined as a function of how the operation is conducted in the field. The issue of the legitimacy of military action amongst the people is played out through how forces behave in the field. The essential point is to force the enemy to change his mind-set and to come to the negotiating table before the level of violence in the conflict becomes too great, while at the same time winning the battle for public opinion, in order to lay the groundwork for winning the future peace.

The latter two sections, on fighting justly for ‘reconciliation’ and ‘generating peace’, explore operations and examples of restraint and incidents of lack of restraint from recent history. Peacemaking in the Balkans and Colombia reveal how difficult it is, but also worthwhile when law and moral and cultural sensitivies are jointly considered. Recent experiences in Iraq, Afgahnistan and Syria are exposed, and nowadays honest self-appraisal is seen to be more readily instilled in governments and education conducted within professional military armed forces. Elsewhere insights of restraint – and lack of it – amongst large non-government armed groups, and smaller but numerous community-based armed groups, give glimpses of hope for the future in many part of the world. If they too can be persuaded that ‘ethical behaviour’ in combat, ‘proportionality’ in the employment of military means, and ‘limits’ on the conduct of war will meet the expectations of ‘their’ people, and ‘our people’ – and not constrain freedom of action when it comes to building the peace with others, including former enemies.

History has taught us that once a war has started, we always somehow end up by making peace with our enemy. By limiting the range of the instruments of war which are used, we lay the ground for the following phase – the negotiating phase or ‘the day after’. At that point, a poor record of violence and abuse by forces on the ground will weigh heavily on the political discussions and will often dictate the terms of the final agreement which might not be ideal.

It is therefore by keeping these ‘ethical’ principles at the forefront of his or her thinking and, as a consequence, proposing a well-reasoned argument to those holding political power, that the serviceman or woman, who is the principle actor in the theatre of war, can also become the main actor not just in the theatre of peace, but in a lasting peace.


Tristan Bernard, Contes, répliques et bons mots (Le Libre Club du Libraire Mesnil 1964).


Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust War: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations,

3rd edn, (Basic Books 2000).


Vincent Desportes, Probable War (Economica 2007). Desportes served in the French Army from 1972–2010.

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Jus Post Bellum

Restraint, Stabilisation and Peace

Series:  International Studies on Military Ethics, Volume: 6


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