The value of aggression

29th April 2018.


Of the airstrikes by US/France/UK in Syria in April, Vladimir Putin said it was an act of aggression. Aggression is an international crime enshrined in the Rome Statute. An act is aggressive if it constitutes:

(a) Invasion or attack by the armed forces of one state of the territory of another.

(b) Bombardment, including the use of any weapons, by the armed forces of one state of the territory of another.

(c) Blocking the ports or coasts of a state by the armed forces of another.

(d) An attack on the land, sea or air forces of a state by another state.

(e) Use of armed forces of a state in another territory without the explicit permission of the receiving state.

(f) Use of armed forces of a state in another territory with permission cannot perpetrate acts of aggression against a third state.

(g) Sending out, or substantial involvement in sending out armed bands, mercenaries, irregulars by or behalf of a state to carry out acts of force against another state.

According to the crime of aggression, the airstrikes of US/France/UK meet the criteria set out in (b). The exercise of jurisdiction over that crime is an entirely different matter.

Aggression in war has been an important tactic for centuries. Sun Tzu in The Art of War wrote: “Standing on the defensive indicates insufficient strength; attacking, a superabundance of strength.”

Let us first examine aggression on an individual scale. The definition of aggression according to Google search is “feelings of anger or antipathy resulting in hostile or violent behaviour; readiness to attack or confront.”

Is there value in aggression, is it necessary?

Yes, there is value in aggression:

  • Aggression can prevent a crime from happening. An opportunist thief will balk at the thought of stealing something if the potential victim shows aggression. A state will hesitate in their action against a state if that state conducts a show of force.
  • As a protection for others. To stand up for others. To dissuade the behaviour of another. An individual who threatens another individual that takes a stand can stop the threat. An observer of an aggressive act can themselves be aggressive to neutralise the behaviour. Aggression can be necessary to defeat aggression.
  • Aggression in order to stand by their values, their principles. That they will not tolerate certain behaviour, and this principle is more important than their own survival.

No, there is no value in aggression:

  • Aggression can incite retaliation. Aggression can escalate.
  • Against an unknown individual, the unpredictability of their reaction to aggression is a concern.
  • When being the recipient of aggression, our instincts give us three options: fight flight or freeze. Fighting can lead to death, as the London murder rate this year has shown. Flight leads to a beaten ego. Freezing leaves us at the mercy of our aggressor. Neither of the three outcomes is particularly desirable.
  • Retaliation of the aggressor can lead to unintended consequences. A prison sentence, accidental killings of unrelated individuals, or a hospital bed.

There is always a reason for aggression. Aggression is not an unconnected entity when employed.

When employing aggression, there are four factors that should be considered:

  1. The reason that sparked the aggressive behaviour
  2. The opponent in which aggression is to be shown to (a known/unknown opponent)
  3. Weapons involved/military capacity of the opponent
  4. Allies of yourself and the opponent

1. The reason that sparked the aggressive behaviour

If a chemical weapon attack occurs against a city by a group, this group must be stopped. Rather than an immediate use of force by an observer, employing aggression can stop this action. Aggression shows the readiness to attack without the actual occurrence of an attack. Use of force is costly, can cause collateral damage, and risks the lives of the armed forces.

Escalation of a superfluous act: an aggressive confrontation between two individuals over a spilt cup of coffee.

This is an unnecessary reason to be aggressive because:

  • It was likely an accident.
  • Showing aggression is disproportionate to the act. The spilt cup of coffee will not cause serious injury. It will cause inconvenience.
  • Aggressive behaviour can escalate to an undesired situation. A criminal record, a hospital bed, unintended harm of bystanders.  

This is a necessary reason to be aggressive because:

  • There is evidence to suggest it was a deliberate, targeted act to spill the cup of coffee over the individual.
  • Showing aggression can diffuse the situation without involving physical violence.

2. The opponent in which aggression is to be shown to (a known/unknown opponent)

Showing aggression against a known opponent is more acceptable than an unknown opponent. It is no secret that militaries around the world conduct espionage to find out state secrets to better understand their opponents.

  • There is likely to be future interaction with the known opponent. By employing aggression, it directs future engagement of what is and is not acceptable.
  • Knowing an opponent has the advantage of knowing the possible ways in which they will retaliate. If knowledge of their retaliation is minimal force that can be defended, then aggression can be a worthy pursuit with minimal side effects.
  • An unknown opponent carries the uncertainty of their reaction to aggression. The aggressive act may be met with a retaliation that is disproportionate to the aggression shown. Inciting aggression to an unknown opponent can cause more harm than good.

3. Weapons involved/military capacity of the opponent

  • Being aggressive to a nuclear state has the potential for devastating consequences for the population of the aggressor.
  • Employing Eurofighter Typhoon jets or a General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon over a foreign territory to show force with the knowledge that the foreign territory equally has a Sukhoi Su-57 or Chengdu J-20 or similar military capacity brings into question the value and necessity of aggression. A threat of an attack may lead to a state to argue precipatory self-defence at the United Nations when actually deploying use of force.

4. Allies of yourself and the opponent

  • Being aggressive to an opponent with the full knowledge of the strength of the allies of the opponent must be critically assessed before partaking in such aggression. Aggression to an opponent can ultimately mean aggression to multiple opponents and can lead to a direct path to use of force.
  • Having strong allies gives a state great resistance to aggression. On an individual level, having strong allies leads to the same effect. In practice, we can look at Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty:

Article 5

“The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall immediately be reported to the Security Council. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.”