Unforgivable tactics


Kevin Drum is always worth reading, and I usually agree with what he has to say, but I can’t agree with this comment about Iraqi military’s use of civilian disguise and false surrenders that turn into ambushes:

Why are we surprised at the guerilla tactics employed by the Iraqis? Granted, dressing as civilians and flying phony white flags violates the normal rules of war, but if it were Iraqis invading, say, Tennessee, and the situation were desperate, is there any doubt that the citizenry of this country would be doing the exact same thing?

Well, I don’t know what “the citizenry” would be doing, though I don’t think there’s any record of phony surrenders or soldiers hiding their uniforms under civilian dress in the Revolution or the War of 1812. Be that as it may, that behavior is intolerably wrong, in a way that even the exigencies of defending one’s homeland can’t overcome.

The rules of war have two basic goals: to protect civilians against soldiers, and to reduce casualties by making it safe to surrender. If the system of rules breaks down, the result is more deaths, and in particular more civilian deaths.

Civilians are protected by being placed off limits to deliberate attack. That only works if civilians don’t shoot soldiers. I agree with Kevin that civilians are morally entitled to shoot back at invaders, and shouldn’t be called “terrorists” for doing so. It’s true that, by doing so, they forfeit their right to immunity from attack, and if captured don’t share the protections POW status gives to captured soldiers. It’s also true that, by firing on soldiers, they make it harder for the soldiers to respect the immunity from attack of other civilians. Still, in the extremity of having one’s home country invaded, those prices may be worth paying.

But a solider who fights dressed as a civilian makes a hash of the whole soldier/civilian distinction. If that distinction is without meaning, then the care the US military is currently taking about where its bombs land would be pointless. So even if I were far more sympathetic than I am to the Iraqi cause — even if I think about French soldiers defending France in World War II, or Kevin’s hypothetical Tennessee resistance against Iraqi invasion — I have to reject the idea of soldiers posing as civilians to carry on the fight (as opposed to civilians taking up arms). Soldiers who do so, whatever the provocation, are truly enemies of humankind, because they put the lives of civilians unjustifiably in peril and present their enemies with intolerable temptations to bend the rules themselves.

As to raising a phony white flag to create an ambush, I’m simply speechless that Kevin thinks it might ever be justifiable. If a white flag doesn’t mean what it says, then surrender is impossible, and all war must be war to the last soldier. Shooting enemy soldiers trying to surrender is the paradigmatic war crime, but that can’t be a workable rule if surrender becomes merely another tactic of deception.

So the two tactics Kevin picks out — posing as civilians and phony surrender — are precisely the two that, if employed, would destroy the basis for warfare as a rule-governed activity. They ought to be condemned, without any asterisk for homeland defense.

Footnote: My colleague Andy Sabl reminds me that all of this is addressed in Michael Walzer’s magisterial Just and Unjust Wars.

Update A red-letter day! I actually persuaded somebody of something. Kevin joins the extremely select company of those capable of changing their minds based on argument.

Second update Eric Rescorla shows why such tactics are tempting to an amoral military leadership. That, of course, is why we have war-crimes trials.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com