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What the Laws of War Allow
Posted on Apr 16, 2012
By Chase Madar, TomDispatch
Here’s another recent example of a wartime atrocity that is perfectly legal and not a war crime at all. Thanks to WikiLeaks’ Iraq War Logs, we now know about the commonplace torture practices employed by Iraqi jailers and interrogators during our invasion and occupation of that country. We have clear U.S. military documentation of sexual torture, of amputated fingers and limbs, of beatings so severe they regularly resulted in death.
Surely standing by and taking careful notes while the Iraqi people you have supposedly liberated from tyranny are getting tortured, sometimes to death, is a violation of the laws of war. After all, in 2005 General Peter Pace, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly contradicted his boss Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld by commenting into a live mike that it is “absolutely the responsibility of every American soldier to stop torture whenever and wherever they see it.” (A young private working in Army Intelligence named Bradley Manning, learning that a group of Iraqi civilians handing out pamphlets alleging government corruption had been detained by the Iraqi federal police, raised his concern with his commanding officer about their possible torture. He was reportedly told him to shut up and get back to work helping the authorities find more detainees.)
As it turned out, General Pace’s exhortation was at odds with both official policy and law: Fragmentary Order 242, issued by Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, made it official policy for occupying U.S. troops not to interfere with ongoing Iraqi torture. And this, according to some experts, is no violation of the laws of war either. Prolix on the limits imposed on the acts of non-state fighters who are not part of modern armies, the Geneva Conventions are remarkably reticent on the duties of occupying armies.
As Gary Solis pointed out to me, Common Article 1 of the Fourth Geneva Convention assigns only a vague obligation to “ensure respect” for prisoners handed over to a third party. On the ground in either Iraq or Afghanistan, this string of words would prove a less-than-meaningful constraint.
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The real problem with the laws of war, however, is not what they fail to restrain but what they authorize. The primary function of International Humanitarian Law is to legalize remarkable levels of “good” military violence that regularly kill and injure non-combatants. IHL highlights a handful of key principles: the distinction between combatant and civilian, the obligation to use force only for military necessity, and the duty to jeopardize civilians only in proportion to the military value of a target.
Even when these principles are applied conscientiously—and often they aren’t—they still allow for remarkable levels of civilian carnage, which the Pentagon has long primly (and conveniently) referred to as “collateral damage,” as if it were a sad sideline in the prosecution of war. And yet civilian deaths in modern war regularly are the central aspect of those wars, both statistically and in other ways. Far from being universally proscribed, the killing of high numbers of civilians in a battle zone is often considered absolutely legal under those laws. In the pungent phrase of Professor David Kennedy of Harvard Law School, “We should be clear—this bold new vocabulary beats ploughshares into swords as often as the reverse.”
The relative weakness of the laws of war when it comes to preventing atrocities is not simply some recent debasement perpetrated by neoconservative Visigoths. Privileging the combatant and his (it’s usually “his”) prerogatives has been the historical bone marrow of those laws. In the Vietnam War, for instance, the declaration of significant parts of the South Vietnamese countryside as “free-fire zones,” and the “carpet bombing” of rural areas by B-52s carrying massive payloads were also done under cover of the laws of war.
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