Napoleon's troops in formation at the Battle of Fuentes de Onoro, 1811.
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Is All Fair In Love And War?

Cooperation between enemies during war is an anomaly but one that is not as unusual as you might think. Ethics during warfare has long been debated, and now there are new area for discussion – drones and terrorism.

Dr Yvonne Chiu, Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration, has always been interested in looking at things that don’t seem to go together, marrying things that are seemingly unwed.


“I’m also interested in the concept of ‘meaningful exceptions’,” she said. “War is surely one of the worst situations prompting people to do what they would never normally countenance – kill another person, and often for a cause that is not necessarily their own. So, morality in war – people actually cooperating, while also trying to kill one another – that’s a very interesting juxtaposition.”


There are famous examples, such as Christmas in 1914 and 1915 when opposing soldiers fighting in the trenches in World War I halted their combat and sang carols together, played football and exchanged rations before returning to their respective trenches to resume battle.


What is less well-known, explained Dr Chiu, is that evidence exists that for much of the war German and Allied soldiers also practised a live-and-let-live attitude, except when direct orders were given.


As well as studying war theory and international law, particularly the parameters for what is and is not acceptable during war, Dr Chiu originally focussed on civilian/military relations, including how soldiers who have been at war reintegrate into society. That led her to bigger questions about war theory and ethics in war, and she is currently expanding her paper into a book, this time looking at cooperation between individuals during wartime and at international level, particularly international constructs such as the Geneva Convention.


“The aim of these constructs is to regulate war and produce a fair fight, which is interesting because in war surely the ultimate aim is to create disadvantages – at any cost – so you can win. But it seems we have a need to be fair.”


The ethic of some kind of fairness in what is inherently an unfair situation is not new. “There are cases of World War II (WWII) snipers, whose sole job was to pick people off from a safe distance, who report that sometimes they couldn’t do it,” Dr Chiu said. “Perhaps someone was drinking a coffee or having a cigarette – it felt like the wrong time to pull the trigger. But a few minutes later they could do it, no problem.”


She is also interested in the reasoning behind measures to protect civilians, clergy, women and children etc. The logical implication of this kind of protection is that it’s fine to kill a soldier. Yet, what if that soldier has been called up? He’s not fighting because he’s a military-minded guy, he has been put in the situation. And where do you draw the lines – bombing munitions factories in WWII was considered fair game, but the people working within them were usually women.

World War I, German biplane on reconnaissance over the Marne, painting by Hans Rudolf Schulze.

The aim of these constructs [such as the Geneva Convention] is to regulate war and produce a fair fight, which is interesting because in war surely the ultimate aim is to create disadvantages – at any cost – so you can win. But it seems we have a need to be fair.

 Dr Yvonne Chiu

Modern conflict


While cooperation in war is not new, a new area has opened up within the question of ethics in warfare in the context of two aspects of modern conflict – drones and terrorism.


“War theory as a field is always more popular after a war,” said Dr Chiu. “Straight after the Vietnam conflict ended there was much theorising about war; after 9/11, there was much discourse about terrorism, and now there is the rise of ISIS. The US classifies terrorists as ‘illegal enemy combatants’ – a subjective classification.


“The dominant international perspective is the viewpoint of the modern nation state, which originated in the West. Western issues with terrorism are grounded on the assumptions of how we do and don’t cooperate during war. When we rely on cooperation between modern nation states, how we judge war from a moral perspective presupposes that cooperation.”


Drones are also changing how conflict is conducted and how people think about war. In the history of military technology, there has always been a clear desire to create distance between yourself and your enemy – from swords to long swords, from spears to arrows, etc. As the distance gets greater so the risk to yourself is minimised.


“Drones would seem to be the logical next step since there is no risk at all to the operator,” said Dr Chiu. “But people are very uncomfortable with the concept, often because its perceived as an ‘unfair fight’. The thinking is that drones are not ethical because the operator is not even close to being at risk. They are nowhere near – and never will be anywhere near – the combat zone.


“Interestingly there is a military divide in this thinking. Those in the Army tend to think it’s unfair, while those in the Air Force and Navy usually have no problem with it. One theory is Navy and Air Force fighters have always been at a distance from the enemy – if you’re five miles up in a B52 dropping bombs, the risk is minimal – while the Army traditionally fights much closer.


“Again, this comes back to ethics and warfare– it is the concept of unfairness that is interesting, when the very nature of war is unfair.”