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What are the REAL “Rules of War?”
It’s easy to understand why a card game or classroom would have rules, but at first glance, it might not be so obvious why a war would have rules. It’s like, “So, you’re saying there are rules of behavior, but those rules allow you to blow each other up with grenades, shoot each other in the heads, and set each other on fire?” Yes, that’s exactly it!
Rules of war of one form or another have been around as long as warfare, but they generally just consisted of customs or gentleman’s agreements concerning warring armies and conditions. Abe Lincoln helped change that by adopting the “Lieber Code” in 1863, which became influential and was copied by other nations. Of course, some people give more credit to the Geneva Conventions the Red Cross came up with in 1864. Either way, after the horrors of WWII, the Geneva Conventions of 1949 became the pre-eminent “rules” of warfare.
Of course, this still hasn’t answered why were there ever rules of war in the first place.
Well, first off, war may be wholesale murder, but not all forms of wholesale murder are created equal. We consider there to be a great deal of distinction between killing willing combatants and non-combatant civilians. Most people accept that there’s a world of difference between blowing up a guy in a tank moving toward you with bad intent and some family going to get their groceries. Similarly, there’s a big difference between putting a missile into a bunker full of soldiers shooting at you as opposed to an elementary school. That’s a primary reason for having rules of war. You leave our civilians alone and we’ll leave your civilians alone.
Additionally, rules of war are designed to provide a certain level of fair treatment for soldiers. You’d want your people to get medical treatment if they’re wounded and not be tortured, starved to death, or used in medical experiments. So, if both sides accept this, when the war is over, more people will get to go home to their families.
On top of all this, if you look back through history, you’ll find all sorts of distasteful atrocities that even many hard-boiled soldiers find beyond the pale. Slaughtering whole cities down to the last man. Enslaving the losers of battles or using them as human sacrifices. Mass rape as a military strategy. Poison gas. Mass crucifixions. It goes on and on and on. Even in an endeavor as horrible as war, most people still believe there should be some limits on how far things should go.
Last but not least, having “rules of war” even makes it a little easier to end the war. If there’s a sense that the other side is going to show you a certain level of mercy if they win, as opposed to taking bloody revenge, it becomes much easier to accept the idea of not fighting until the last man. This is what made something like this possible during the Gulf War:
A Loudoun County woman working as a war correspondent in Kuwait for a group of Northern Virginia newspapers accepted the surrender yesterday of a company of armed Iraqi soldiers, according to her publisher.
Elizabeth O. Colton, 45, an employee of Arundel Newspapers in Leesburg, was on foot behind allied forces in the desert south of Kuwait City when 11 Iraqi soldiers appeared suddenly from behind a sand dune, the newspaper's publisher, Arthur W. Arundel, said last night.
Waving white flags, the 11 Iraqis were followed by about 20 to 30 others, the apparent remnants of a company that had suffered heavy losses, Colton reported, according to Arundel.
Colton, a veteran Middle East correspondent who speaks Arabic, greeted them and they dropped their rifles and rushed forward, saying: "No water, no eat. We want peace. George Bush good. Saddam Hussein bad."
Of course, this is where it all starts to get very complicated for a variety of reasons.
For one thing, non-state actors can’t sign on to the Geneva Conventions, not every nation has signed the Geneva Conventions, and some of the nations that did sign on pretty obviously have never made any good faith efforts to follow it.
Additionally, if you don’t follow the rules of war, do you know what the punishment is? Pretty much nothing if you have any military power or friends. For example, I may not agree with them, but there are certainly a significant number of people who would claim that this meme is accurate and you can be sure that some of them are at the United Nations or work for the International Criminal Court:
Even if this were true, none of them would ever be arrested or tried for it because if anyone tries it, we’ll kill them. Incidentally, this is the same reason that no Chinese or Russian leader in the good graces of their country will ever be locked up for “war crimes” and a law that can’t be enforced is meaningless.
So, why even keep this charade up? Especially when you’re fighting against nations and non-state actors that aren’t going to obey any rules of war when it comes to your men?
Because genocide is generally frowned upon. Because you might care about winning “hearts and minds.” Because it does encourage your enemy to surrender. Because it may be hard to keep your soldiers in check in the future if you allow them to act like savages today. Because you want to appear to be the “good guy” in the conflict. These are valid ways to look at it.
Still, that doesn’t mean there aren’t lines that can’t be crossed.
During WWII, the Axis was out to conquer the world and the Allies were fighting to keep from being subjugated. By some estimates, 70 to 80 million people died and roughly three civilians were slaughtered or starved to death for every soldier that died. Multiple countries lost more than 10% of their population. The Germans systematically bombed London for almost two months straight and set up death camps for Jews, along with other people they considered “undesirable.” During the Rape of Nanking, by some estimates, the Japanese massacred 300,000 civilians and raped 80,000 women. Both the Japanese and Germans ran medical experiments on captives. Things like our country dropping nukes at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the firebombing of Dresden certainly had strategic reasons behind them, but you also can’t ignore the atrocities that had happened in the war up to that point and the stakes either. If you’re not playing by any rules yourself, then you have no real leg to stand on if the other side breaks a few of them as well to win the war faster.
Similarly, you can’t disentangle the current fighting between the Israelis and the Palestinians today from the history of the region or the build-up to the war.
At the state level, the whole history of the last 75 years has been Israel making concessions to try to make peace with their neighbors and having every outstretched hand met with terrorist attacks and literal attempts at genocide. Israel never started a single war, but they have grown considerably by capturing land from the surrounding nations that have tried to destroy them.
As to the Palestinians, if they had wanted peace, they would have had it decades ago. If they wanted to run their own state and make the best of it, they've had every opportunity to do it. The reality is, they don't want that. They want all the Israelis dead and nothing short of that is acceptable to them. They preach genocide to their kids in the cradle. They name their streets after people who murder Jews. The Palestinian Territories are basically a giant death cult run by a terrorist group that is openly pledged to genocide against the Israelis.
The people there are so committed to this goal that they’re willing to act as human shields for Hamas. Worse yet, Hamas, which is the government of the West Bank, has tried to use Israel’s desire to follow the rules of war against them. At every turn, Hamas has deliberately intertwined military and civilian assets. They use ambulances as transport for their fighters. They deliberately launch attacks at Israel from areas surrounded by women and children. They consider it to be a win/win scenario because either Israel will not respond, in order to spare the Palestinian civilians, or they will fire back at the terrorists that have attacked them, kill civilians in the process and Hamas will have dead kids to parade on the news.
That is the backdrop that you have to look at before you start considering the all-out war Hamas started with Israel. Israel can’t allow Hamas to rape and murder their citizens with impunity. Still, it is also impossible to fight Hamas without destroying what would normally be considered civilian targets or killing civilians who are ready to die to protect Hamas.
But is a hospital that has a Hamas outpost in the basement still really a civilian target? No, it’s not. If you put an ammo dump in a military tunnel under a school, is that a legitimate military target? It is. If you ask civilians to leave an area where there’s fighting (and over a million Palestinians have), yet large numbers of them refuse so they can be human shields for the group you’re fighting for, are they really still civilians? That’s a question Israel is grappling with right now. Israel does have a moral obligation to try to avoid excessive civilian casualties, but if the civilians are voluntarily inserting themselves into the fighting to try to protect Hamas, are they really still civilians in a meaningful sense? I’d say, “No.”
What it all comes down to is that there’s really only one true rule of war that Ernest Hemmingway articulated long ago:
When you’re talking about a real war, not some take-it-or leave-it intervention on the other side of the globe, an all-out war like the Civil War, WWI, WWII, the Six Day War, the Yom-Kippur War or the fight Israel is in today, you win by any means necessary. Out of all the rules of war, that is the most important one.