|The Roman siege on Jerusalem only strengthened the resolve of its Jewish population to resist, much as what has resulted with Gaddafi forces after a no-fly zone was inacted in Libya [EPA]
In the year 70 CE, the Romans besieged Jerusalem. This was the penultimate campaign of a hard fought 'small war' that began with the Jewish revolt in 66 CE. As starvation set in, parties of the besieged sallied out into the valleys around the city in search of food. Many were captured by Roman cavalry detailed for the task.
The victims, several hundred a day, were crucified on crosses in lines facing the city's walls. Titus, the Roman commander, hoped the sight would induce the city to surrender. His soldiers, angry at their enemy for the losses and rigours of the fighting, added their own twist. They nailed up their victims in various poses in a kind of grim joke.
As with many examples of collective punishment inflicted on wartime populations, the plan backfired. The Zealots inside the city dragged the families of the victims, and anyone else considering leaving, to the walls and showed them the lines of crosses. Misinforming their fellow citizens, the Zealots said that was what the Romans do to those who try to join them.
A strategy of life or death
Titus was pursuing a rational strategy, trying to force a choice for the besieged between surrender or death. To allow food and other supplies into the city, or to allow hungry bellies and wavering spirits to leave, would only lengthen the siege. The Zealots' logic was similar, the besieged had no choice but to fight on or die.
These were logics of war. Were Titus besieging Misurata, he would surely seek to close access to its port and mine the waters around it. The great weakness of the Jewish rebels was their own bitter infighting, which Titus sought to exploit. He might try to turn the populace of Misurata, as well as the migrant workers there, against the rebel fighters.
The idea would be that their suffering was caused by the fact of rebellion. Were the rebels to lay down arms, it would end.
To achieve this result, to build pressure on the population and the rebels, Titus would need to increase their pain, suffering and loss as well as close off any exits. Roman commanders, of course, did not have to deal with the UN or the ICC.
In humanitarian logic, a besieged city consists of two classes of persons, fighters and civilians. To deny food and medical assistance to civilians or to kill and terrorise them are war crimes. From Titus' point of view, such assistance would amount to relief for the besieged. Its main effect would be to prolong the siege, allowing the rebels to hold out longer.
Curious circumstances have arisen in recent decades where the international community has effectively sought to maintain sieges in this manner. Assistance to civilians ameliorates the ravages of war. But in so doing, it sustains conflicts and plays into the strategies of first one side, and then another. Sarajevo and the Bosnian 'safe havens' are examples, but so too are relief efforts amid civil wars in many other places. The various no-fly zones have a similar effect, putting violent conflicts into slow motion, but not bringing them to a decisive end.
The humanitarian ideal of assisting the innocent tries to stand apart from war. Yet, supplying food and other assistance to a besieged city is to participate in war, to take sides, whether one wants to admit it or not. This is especially the case in civil wars, where the population itself - who they support, where they live - is part of what the conflict is about.
Western humanitarianism is justly notorious for its selectivity. While accusing Gaddafi of killing civilians, NATO and the Europeans let 61 of 72 Africans on a boat that had escaped Tripoli perish through exposure. Like Hollywood, Western humanitarianism likes violent action scenes, rescuing the innocent from armed evil-doers. Had these migrants been trapped in Misurata, they would have warranted both more attention and more action.
Instead, their disabled boat with its dying human cargo, floated right past the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle that was engaged in operations over Libya. Rather than being civilians trapped in a war zone, these Africans now became another class of person in European eyes: illegal migrants. Were the West serious about a humanitarianism that actually addressed the major source of human suffering in the world today - poverty - it would have to open its doors to black and brown migrants and redistribute wealth.
Humanitarians on the ground
Far better, and cheaper, to focus on the victims trapped in Misurata. To really help them, more direct involvement in Libya would be necessary. A brigade from the tens of thousands of soldiers under arms in Western Europe would suffice to lift the siege.
But if Western humanitarianism is complicit in war, it has also historically been a major impetus for colonialism and intervention. Pressure to assist civilians leads to calls for 'boots on the ground'. Once troops arrive, they become party not only to the war but to governing Libyans and shaping the future of their country.
Difficult as it is to accept, it is Western liberals who have most often urged their governments to live up to the 'white man's burden' and invade black peoples' countries.
The pious humanitarianism of our age, secure in its logic, can neither allow itself to appreciate the macabre humour of Titus' legionaries nor the humanity in his logic. Had Jerusalem surrendered short of a final assault, it might have avoided the slaughter of its population and the destruction of its temples.
The problem for Titus, as for Gadaffi's forces before Misurata, is that humanity plays a perverse trick on their logics of war. When groups of us suffer together, our solidarity increases. Deaths among our number strengthen our sense of unity and our desire to extract revenge.
This is why all manner of collective punishments, of efforts to apply pressure - as the West is doing now to Gaddafi's regime - so often produce the opposite effect intended. They increase rather than decrease the willingness of their targets to fight on.
War has a way of feeding itself in the cause of its own continuance. It can make meals both of Titus' hard-nosed strategy and of our humanitarian impulses.
Tarak Barkawi is Senior Lecturer, Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge. He specialises in the study of war, armed forces and society with a focus on conflict between the West and the global South in historical and contemporary perspective. He is author of Globalisation and War, as well as many scholarly articles.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.