The “laws of war”? Don’t make me laugh

I found an article in the Sydney Morning Herald to be quasi-nauseating.

The survey of 17,000 people in 16 countries, published by the International Committee of the Red Cross on Monday, found that while most people still believe war should have rules, faith in the Geneva Convention is fading and there is growing acceptance of torture and civilian casualties.

It is prompting the Red Cross, the respected organisation that works in the world’s most dangerous places, to call for a renewed effort to promote the virtues of rules in warfare.

“We were heartened by the fact the majority [of people] globally still believe the laws of war matter,” said Helen Durham, the Red Cross’s director of law and policy.

“But it does disturb us when you drill down into the statistics you … see some more cynicism and the sense that it’s pretty tough out there and so we might have to do things we’re not comfortable with.”

. . .

Globally, the proportion of people who think the Geneva Convention makes any difference has fallen from 52 per cent in 1999 to 38 per cent today. The proportion who believe it is wrong to carrying out military operations knowing there will be significant civilian casualties fell from 68 per cent to 59 per cent.

The survey conspicuously revealed that a cavalier attitude towards the laws of war are more prevalent in peaceful countries than those beset by conflict. Often those who championed laws in war most firmly were militaries themselves, Dr Durham said.

There’s more at the link.

Let’s face it:  outside the major powers, the so-called ‘laws of war’ are honored far more in the breach than in the observance.  Basically, they’re a joke.  In almost any Third World war you care to mention, they’re disregarded almost entirely.  As for so-called ‘liberation movements’ or ‘terrorists’ (pick whichever word applies according to your political perspective), they don’t know the meaning of such ‘rules’ and wouldn’t be interested if they did.  They operate on the principle that terrorizing people means they’ll obey.  If you don’t terrorize them, they won’t.

Human rights as a whole have a dismal record in the Third World.  Armed conflict merely worsens the situation.  To take just one example, why do you think Boko Haram kidnapped hundreds, possibly thousands of Nigerian schoolgirls?  Because their fighters wanted women, and couldn’t get them any other way.  They kidnapped them with the express intention of turning them into, first sex slaves, then their wives (whether they wanted to get married or not).  Now the survivors of those girls – some already mothers, others pregnant – are finding that even their rescuers regard them as ‘whores’ and ‘collaborators’.  Some have even been raped by the troops that rescued them, because that’s all they’re good for now, in terms of the so-called ‘culture’ of the area.  To put it as bluntly and as honestly as possible (I apologize if this offends some readers, but the truth often does), in typical West African society, these girls no longer have any status or value as human beings, except for what’s between their legs.  That’s all they’re considered to be good for.  No amount of protesting, or diplomatic intervention, or messages on Twitter, will change that.

I could cite many more examples, including several from my own experience (such as this one).  I won’t bother, because it isn’t worth it.  Just take my word for it:  human rights and the so-called ‘laws of war’ are honored more in the breach than in the observance across most of the world.   First World militaries aren’t much better.  Go look up how many civilians have been killed in the so-called ‘War On Terror’.  Their number far exceeds the number of terrorists killed, and the number of First World troops, too – but they’re all considered to be ‘collateral damage’.  Their lives don’t count.  The ‘laws of war’ did damn-all to protect them;  in fact, they tacitly permitted and tolerated their deaths by casting a pallor of legality over them.  They’ve done that for years.  Even gross violations of the ‘laws of war’ such as My Lai, or countless failures by UN peacekeepers to protect those entrusted to their care, haven’t done anything to change that reality . . . because most people don’t care.  It’s too far away from them to worry them.  Out of sight, out of mind.

War has no laws.  It only has agreements between opponents willing to make them . . . and only for for as long as it suits them.  Anyone who believes otherwise is way out there in cloud cuckoo land.



  1. Try to fight according to the Marquess of Queensberry Rules and get kicked in the nuts. Kinda the way the real world works.

  2. As I understand it, the rules only apply to those that abide by them. The problem, then, is that we don't take the gloves off when fighting those that don't follow them. Make it costly enough with reprisals etc to make it worth the combatants time and energy to attempt to follow them.

  3. One big mistake was the Geneva Convention of 1949, which obligates us to give privileges to soldiers from third world countries.

    But even that doesn't matter so much. We're not currently at war against countries, and so POW status doesn't apply. (FWIW: There's a case that may go to the Supreme Court that could possibly give it to Taliban soldiers, but it's a small percentage of Gitmo detainees, and they probably won't win.)

    The biggest problem is of our own making. We let the critics browbeat us into apologizing for things that aren't our fault, and aren't illegal by the law of war — the Wikileaks Apache incident being one example. We need to do a better job of calling out liars who call every incident a war crime.

    Now, I assume anyone who wants Gitmo closed to be lying when they say they oppose torture.

  4. The first four Geneva Conventions had a very strongly implied "OR ELSE" attached.
    Follow the rules, or face Total War.
    Which was fine. It worked pretty well.

    Then the Geneva Protocol Additional was drafted, which obliges signatories to abide by the previous Geneva Accords in all cases. We didn't sign it, nor did our Senate ratify it, so we are in nowise bound by it (although many globalists and communists will call you a horrible person for noting this).
    But a number of our allies are bound by it. Which makes joint operations problematic.
    And the EU is great guns for it, creating the International Criminal Court and asserting universal jurisdiction to enforce it. (Our government has rightly told them that trying to prosecute any of our citizens under it would be received as an act of war. So far, they haven't pushed their luck.)
    The UN keeps creating "rights" we're somehow bound by (although it seems to be much more diplomats saying we're bound, than any actual bond).
    Not to mention that the last few presidents have promulgated Rules of Engagement that make it very difficult to prosecute a war. (If your Call For Fire or Nine-Line Brief has to be approved by a JAG stateside, something is seriously wrong. As it is if your soldiers face court marshal for killing people in a house they've just taken fire from.)

  5. The Geneva rules also only apply to signatories. For that matter, our own ROEs are far more limiting than even Hague, Geneva, and other "laws of warfare".
    According to Geneva, unless I'm mistaken, our forces are under no obligation to treat "irregular" combatants as we would uniformed soldiers of an enemy army–hence the execution of Skorzeny's Operation Greif troops. Our ROEs demand that we treat their modern counterparts with, if not kid gloves, at least gloves with the rough side in.
    –Tennessee Budd

  6. Some things should be forbidden.
    Bio-warfare for example, or neuro toxins. Landmines without a timed selfdestruct (even if it is 5 years or so, they still find around 5k bombs and mines in Germany every year from WWII).

    It has to be forbidden to mistreat lawful combatants in any way, and that includes torture, starvation (unless the nation is starving itself, one can't demand that the PoW's are treated better than the own population in an otherwise lawful nation) or whatever.

    But much of the rest needs serious consideration.
    Unlawful combatants have to lose every single protection a regular soldier has.
    If the only discernible marking a insurgent wears is that he or she looks exactly like the native population then one has to inform said population that everybody who looks like that will be treated as a insurgent. If they don't want that, expel the insurgent, force them to mark them self, or mark the non insurgent population. And then rip up anybody that looks like an isurgent.
    Weapons and munitions that are designed to increase deadlines are to be allowed.

    And most important, any rule the opponent disregards loses its binding for the other side.
    IEDs? Allows indiscriminate bombing. Any illegal weapon and munition? You just gave the enemy the allowance to bring similar weapons to the table.
    Suicide bombers? Anybody who behaves somewhat suspicious is now a legitimate target?
    No hiding behind population and rules only the other side has to adhere to.

    If you want some really good stories about exactly this thematics, try that:

    Sorry that you have to register, but you can read it for free after that.

  7. There are only two "rules of warfare" that actually hold, in the end:

    1) War is the pursuit of "diplomacy"* when taken to the bloody, deadly mattresses.

    2) For the victors in a war, there is – or at least should be – no such thing as "war crimes"; for the losers – you're on your own…

    "Laws of war" is one of those phrases like "humane bullets", or "weapons of mass destruction" – it has a definition, but it has no Real World content or meaning…its only "utility" lies in starting arguments.

    Always remember: If you somehow find yourself in a "fair fight" – a) you're doing it wrong, and b) you're about to get your butt kicked – if you don't "smarten-up", damn quick

  8. Rules of war are like second amendment arguments. You can have all the rules, laws and "control" you want.If only one side follows the rules, they have assisted in their own defeat.
    When I left Vietnam as a Marine, I was pretty sure that I didn't want any more war, but if I did go to another one, I would be the guerilla, not the ones with ROE.

  9. War has exactly two rules.
    1 – Survive
    2 – Win
    All else must be supportive if these two rules. Any law, rule, regulation, or pronouncement to the contrary is discivilizational.

    The purpose of war is to force obedience through fear of death or pain, or the elimination of the targeted population, or the prevention of these being inflicted upon your people by an enemy. Allies may, of course, be counted as 'your people.' Pretending that war has a higher or more noble purpose is dastardly lying.

    There is no such thing as 'peace keeping' when armed groups actively want to engage in conflict. It may take two to tango, but only one is required to commit violence.

    I don't have anywhere near your depth of experience, Peter, but I have enough to have grasped the basics. I'm also enjoying the beginning of the new Maxwell book, thank you very much for that! It's first two chapters are much more entertaining than the first half of the new D. Weber book has been. Your work just keeps getting better.

  10. Very true. Very horribly true. Every time I encounter, online or face to face, some keyboard commando jackass who seems so eager for yet another war, I make the same offer. I will drive him (or her) along with all his family members of the appropriate age to the nearest recruiting station to sign up. Even better, I will personally escort them to Paris so they can apply to the Legion. I have never had any takers. *takes deep breath* Pardon my ranting, please.

  11. I'd like to see Trump make an effort to ruin all those "leagle beagles" that had a hand in developing or prosecuting our ROE's for the mid-east wars. They need to be made an example of what is not acceptable for our military members.

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