The Human Condition:

Rules of Engagement – July 10, 2016

War devastation

We recently saw the movie Krigen, or A War, about a Danish commander with his country’s forces in Afghanistan who, in the heat of battle, calls down a bombing run on a village compound that, after the fact, turns out to have contained civilians. The movie examines his situation, his motives, and the trial that follows under modern humanitarian rules for the pursuit of war. The crux of the matter—spoiler alert!—is whether the commander had “PID,” positive identification, of gunfire coming from the compound before he called in the strike.

It’s an interesting story, but it left me with an unsettled feeling: what is the sense of trying to make war humane?

We have restrictions in this country, too, on how to conduct our wars, called the “rules of engagement.” Basically, before firing upon or engaging a suspected enemy, a soldier or commander must generally establish that the target is indeed an enemy and has shown hostile intent. Other rules may also apply, depending on time and place. Presumably, we need these rules for two reasons.

First, U.S. forces are not fighting on our own ground in defense of our own country. We haven’t done this since the American Civil War. We have a big country and a strong military; so no one comes here to fight us. Our wars—at least since the two World Wars, and perhaps even then—have been wars of liberation: fighting on someone else’s territory to free them from a third-party aggressor. Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan—and any skirmishes I might have left out—have all been on other ground, fighting for other people. In these situations, you have to be careful about who are the friendlies and who are the hostiles—especially since your enemies are usually just friendlies with a different point of view and with different political and strategic backing.

Second, because U.S. forces are not fighting directly in our country’s own national interest—such as beating off a foreign invader—these wars require some political finesse with the people back home. War costs money and, even with the best training and will in the world, will get the sons and daughters of U.S. civilians maimed and killed. So the country, the politicians, have to present the effort as a “just” and “humane” war, with plenty of high-ranking care and consideration, with proper caution about the expenditure of force, and with lots of civilian oversight and debate. And because we are a great power in the world, we also submit to various international conventions on the types of weapons to be used, how local civilians are to be treated, and what actions are allowed or disallowed.1

Our modern enemies, not being stupid, have noticed all this and use it to their advantage. They embed themselves in local villages and cities. They place their headquarters near, or within, schools and hospitals. They take civilian hostages against military reprisals. Their modes of attack are the car bomb, the suicide vest, and the improvised explosive device. Their targets are just as likely to be the recalcitrant or unconvinced civilian population around them as the foreign peacekeeping army they oppose. These practices have become so common that the idea of two armed groups wearing uniforms and engaging on a battlefield outside of town for possession of some strategic objective now seems so 19th century, gentlemanly, and … quaint.

The third reason for fighting a limited and “humane” war is that the major players behind these conflicts now have the capability of fighting a “total” war through first-strike nuclear holocaust. Why fight for this or that objective, why try to eliminate your enemy’s will to fight, when in one stroke you can eliminate your enemy, his countryside, his entire civilian population, and the civilization behind it? The only reason why not is that any enemy worth fighting—generally, until recently, the East vs. the West—possesses enough retaliatory capability to ensure mutual destruction.2 And so differences have come to be resolved through proxy players, regional puppet states, and limited, “humane” conflicts.

Back in the 1950s and ’60s, a common theme among science fiction stories and television programs was the attempt to find other means for conducting a war, now that nuclear weapons had made war so efficient as to make the outcome irrelevant. The notion was always that countries and civilizations would find less brutal ways of resolving their differences. They might hold an Olympic-style games to determine the superior culture and winner of the conflict. Or conduct computerized wargames that match and engage hypothetical forces in tests of strategy that do everything but consume men and matériel. Or play a championship game of chess or go—but perhaps, because accidents can happen and even geniuses sometimes make mistakes, involving three games out of five, or four out of seven.

This kind of alternative thinking is reminiscent of ancient armies that would come together in a designated spot but then, before clashing shield to shield, sent out their best fighters, their champions, to do single combat and perhaps resolve the battle without too much bloodshed. But always, outside the circle where the two champions met, would stand the entire army, ready to pick up weapons and charge if they lost the single combat.

The problem with any of these alternatives to war is that they are not serious, not binding. When you lose the pentathlon or the chess game, you can still send your army—or your missiles—over your opponent’s border. Worse, a tame form of war would encourage all kinds of reckless brinksmanship. Imagine a time when all conflicts were actually resolved by chess games. Imagine if a tiny state with a weak army—say, Thailand, in our current world—were to declare war on a much larger and more powerful country—say, China or the United States. When all you need to do is win a chess game, then you hire the best grand master you can find and cross your fingers. Hey, you might get lucky! And if you win, what do you get? Terms? Territory? Trade concessions? But if the spoils of such a toothless war are too onerous, the loser will simply repudiate them. And then what? You go to war in earnest—men and matériel fighting and dying for ground and a real chance to dictate the peace terms—either that, or you back down.

War is supposed to be difficult, dangerous, hard, and barbarous. That’s because war is the move of last resort, when a state, a country, a people are pushed into a corner from which they have no escape route, defending life, freedom, principles, and ground that they will not yield, cannot surrender, and without which they do not otherwise exist. When talks grind to a halt, negotiations break down, and the enemy’s demands are deemed unacceptable, usually then a people can still find another way. Perhaps they will ally with a stronger power, or prepare to bargain away lesser but still important goods, or cede territory outside the homeland that was actually in dispute from the beginning. But when the choice is existential—that is, fight or die—then a people will go to war. Not because they want to, but because they must.

And at that point, questions of whether they will fight a just or humane war, obey international conventions, and hold tribunals for commanders who win but with the wrong methods—all of that goes by the wayside. War is a serious business. The soldiers who are fighting almost always have no more choice about it than any other civilian involved in the fighting. And they will win by whatever means, using whatever weapons, and sacrificing whatever collateral assets, including women and children, may be necessary.

War is a terrible thing. And I believe we need to keep it terrible so that the urge to use it will remain beyond the reach of the average politician. It should be put on a special shelf, up high, and behind a thick pane of glass, to be used only in emergencies. And that is all the morality anyone can give to war: it must be so terrible that no special justification is necessary.

1. In this I’m reminded of the outraged Harvey Logan in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: “Rules! In a knife fight? No rules!”

2. And, you know, that works for me. Mutually assured destruction has kept the peace—or at least limited all the nuclear-endowed players to a cold war pursued only through brushfire engagements—for seventy years. This proves that while human beings can be barbaric, they are not entirely stupid.