Obeying the laws of war

Brett M. Decker

Posted on September 30, 2008

Civilization can’t win through barbarism

Time and again, superpowers with huge armies and awesome weapons are defeated by the equivalent of David hoisting a stone at Goliath. Weaker asymmetrical opponents use creativity, flexibility and adaptability to defeat or frustrate more powerful major powers. To compensate for their comparable lack of force size and firepower, asymmetric groups use tactics that are unexpected, hard to counter, and outside the bounds of what is considered lawful or acceptable even in a bloody war. The frustration that results when a superpower is being beaten by a lesser foe typically tempts even decent law-abiding nations to try to win by breaking the rules of civility and decency. “We can win this thing if only we could drop the gloves and operate by the terrorists’ playbook,” the thinking goes.

Dr. Joel Rosenthal, president of the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, explained why the answer to defeating asymmetric opponents is not as simple as tit for tat. In his article published in the Summer/Autumn 2004 issue of the Naval War College Review, he states that there is a tenuous relationship between power and restraint. A nation, especially a superpower, has to be prudent in its use of overwhelmingly force to make sure that it maintains the ability to see the distinction between wars of necessity and wars of choice. It is counterproductive and dangerous for maximum force to become instinctive. Or as Dr. Rosenthal writes, “If you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” Real strength is having power but not having to use it all the time.

The responsibilities are higher when a state conquers and occupies another nation under the auspices of liberating it. While a government naturally balances its domestic interests and political climate at home when deciding whether to cut and run from a difficult conflict, a liberator morally has the interests of at least two peoples to keep in mind: its own and those of the country it occupies. It is irresponsible to create a power vacuum by vacating a state after having removed its government.

Likewise, the responsibility to use measured responses to violence is heightened when an occupying power is in another country by choice. For example, Dr. Rosenthal suggests that the policy of “Shock and Awe” was not the appropriate message for American liberators to send to the Iraqi people it hoped to win over: “Many see it as crude intimidation–a brutal attempt to instill, and rule by, fear. Many see it as maximizing conflict, not minimizing it–as inflaming it, not containing it.”

Fear is a tactic used by terrorists and insurgents to intimidate a population. Liberators and counterinsurgent forces succeed by instilling the opposite emotions: that of security and stability. This feeling is not generated by shocking people into submission, just as good will is generated by using minimum force rather than maximum force to subdue an enemy hiding among the civilian population. In the end, the law of war–just like the rule of law in general–is a hallmark of Western civilization, and we benefit by defending and living by the rules of warfare rather than jettisoning them. In our defense of civilization, we undermine our mission by lowering to the tactics of the purveyors of chaos. The stability Gen. David Petraeus brought to Iraq was based on insight into asymmetry similar to those expressed by Dr. Rosenthal in this article written four years ago.

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