Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Firepower and the Rules of War

As I commented in my last post, every time Israel (or, for that matter, the United States) causes serious collateral damage with its firepower, the defense is always the same. It is the other side's fault for hiding among civilians, which is a war crime.

George Bush's arguments about unlawful combatants are different, but related. He argues that our adversaries in Afghanistan and Iraq are "unlawful combatants" and therefore not entitled to any of the protections under the laws of war. He even identified the Taliban as unlawful when we first invaded Afghanistan, even though they were, for all intents and purposes, the Afghan national army. The reason: they weren't wearing uniforms.

Both arguments do rely on the accepted rules of war. Those rules call for a sharp distinction between military and civilian to limit the scope of fighting to armies and protect civilians. For instance, soldiers are required to wear uniforms so that their adversaries will know who is and is not legitimate to kill. Military installations must be kept apart from civilian areas and clearly marked as such. And, of course, a wide range of protections are in force for non-combatants.

These rules, when followed, do limit the scope and brutality of war. But they contain an unstated but loaded assumption -- that war is and should be a duel of firepower. The unstated but implied preference for this type of war can be found everywhere. Some collateral damage as a result of firepower is tolerated. Requirements that military installations be kept away from inhabited areas are attempts to limit such damage, but it is assumed to be inevitable. Soldiers are encouraged to fight out in the open, away from civilians. Heavy artillery, tanks, trenches and the like are considered legitimate forms of warfare. And so forth.

The effect of these rules is to limit collateral damage, but also to privilege armies with high firepower over ones without. Consider how they look to a party with low firepower. These rules require a low firepower combatant to put on uniforms and march openly against an army with firepower enough to cut them to shreds. They require a group like Hezbollah or Hamas to mark its military installations as easy targets despite not having an airforce or anti-aircraft guns to protect them. Quite simply, they make taking on an enemy of vastly superior firepower suicidal. Or, alternately, they brand such an attempt as illegitimate. It is pointless to be shocked or morally offended when a weaker power refuses to accept the options of submission or suicide.

The response of a weaker power to a stronger one is old and long-established -- guerrilla warfare. Guerrilla warfare rejects the clear military-civilian dichotomy and instead does its best to blur the distinction. Guerrillas do not wear uniforms. They intermingle with civilians, attacking by surprise and ambush. They hide their weapons and outposts in the civilian population. They involve the entire population in the war. And when regular armies dismiss all this as a war crime and respond with firepower, the result is extremely brutal.

My own belief is that it is both pointless and immoral to simply dismiss such behavior as a war crime and insist that weaker adversaries make the choice between suicide and submission. It is better, instead, to recognize their tactical logic and try to reason from there to a moral logic. Guerrilla warfare operates by rejecting the military-civilian dichotomy. The best measure, therefore, of a guerrilla army's moral legitimacy is the lack of such a dichotomy. Or, as the best-known guerrilla theorist put it, "The people are like water and the army is like fish." A guerrilla army's moral legitimacy can but judged on how friendly the "water" is to the "fish."

For instance, an organization like the Fedayeen Saddam, that had no basis in the population but merely hid among them and intimidated them, do not have such legitimacy. They followed neither the conventional rules of separating from civilians to protect them from conflict nor the informal guerrilla "rules" of blending seamlessly into the population and relying on their support. The Fedayeen Saddam's quasi-guerrilla tactics may fairly be called a war crime. Many Iraqi insurgents were something different altogether. Indeed, in the early phases of the insurgency it was almost a cliche that a US patrol knew they were about the be ambushed because the streets would suddenly be empty. This meant that the insurgents had tipped off the locals and warned them to stay inside. That is the mark of a guerrilla force with a strong basis in the population, doing its best (in its own way) to minimize civilian casualties. Hamas and Hezbollah have both proven their legitimate base in the population by winning elections. They, too, have fish-in-water sort of legitimacy.

None of this is to deny that "legitimate" guerrilla forces can commit war crimes. Of course they can. The Mahdi Army, for instance, certainly had the support of the Shiite population in the areas where it was based, but it committed frightful atrocities against neighboring Sunnis. Mass murder, intentional killing of civilians, torture and the like are war crimes regardless of who commits them. Guerrilla armies are notorious for their cruelty and brutality toward people who oppose them. And nearly all guerrillas fighting civil wars (as opposed to resisting foreign invaders) commit serious war crimes. My point is not to glorify irregular forces but argue that guerrilla tactics should not in and of themselves be regarded as war crimes.

So, I have made the argument when "unlawful combatants" should be considered lawful. The next question is how to deal with them. That is a thorny matter, and one I do not pretent any competence to address. It is, however, the subject of all counterinsurgency doctrine.

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Blogger Alice AN said...

Nice blog you have here. Got here by way of a comment you left on Hilzoy's blog about the need for soaring liberals and grounded conservatives.

That was probably one of the few times a commenter matched my thoughts on the matter exactly. Imagine my surprise to find a blog with the guts to argue persuasively on the issue of unlawful combatants. Great work!

Keep blogging! Will be checking in to read more.

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