In Kosovo, war enlisted western citizens only in virtual ways. If future wars don't require mobilisation or sacrifice then what democratic restraints will remain on the resort to force?by Michael Ignatieff / April 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
The kosovo conflict looked and sounded like a war: jets took off, buildings were destroyed and people died. For the civilians and soldiers killed by Nato air strikes, and the Kosovars murdered by Serbian police and paramilitaries, the war was as real and as terrible as war always is. For citizens of the Nato countries, on the other hand, the war was virtual. They were mobilised not as combatants but as spectators. The war was a spectacle and the events were as remote from their essential interests as a football game. Virtual war is war with death removed, waged in conditions of impunity.
If this is to be the future of war for us, it raises a question: what democratic restraints will remain on the resort to force? Precision weaponry may force us to re-assess an old assumption about democracies: that they go to war less often than authoritarian regimes; and that they rarely, if ever, go to war against fellow democracies. Democracies may remain peace-loving only so long as the risks of war remain real to their citizens. If war becomes virtual-without risk-democratic electorates may be more willing to fight, especially if the cause is justified in the language of human rights and democracy itself.
For much of the 20th century in the west, the power to wage war has resided with presidents and prime ministers. As Peter Hennessy and Matt Lyus have pointed out, parliament was not consulted over the Korean war, the Suez war, the Falklands war or the Gulf war. Nevertheless, in each of those cases the executive was able to act in the knowledge that parliamentary opinion was broadly behind it. In the wars of the future, prime ministers are likely to appeal over the heads of our elected representatives to seek directly the virtual consent of voters. This is essentially what happened in Kosovo, and those who favoured military intervention strongly approved of Tony Blair’s skill in creating a consensus for military action. But there are real dangers in virtual consent. Ordinary citizens are in no position to subject a military operation to the kind of scrutiny it needs. Only parliament can do that. The institutional checks and balances of a democratic system help to clarify the goals and purposes of war. When military operations are unsanctioned and undeclared, as they were in Kosovo, their objectives can change from week to week, depending on…