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Time to Update Rules of War

Don Rose 25 February 2013 No Comment

Civilization, or what passes for it these days, has been trying to define or set rules of war—what’s fair, what’s foul—since biblical times. The Old Testament and later Islamic law recognized that horrific as war may be, it could be made less so around the edges by setting down certain humanitarian practices to be followed in the treatment of human beings and their environment.


Around the time of our own Civil War, in 1864, more than a dozen European nations and empires gathered in Geneva to codify wartime behavior regarding treatment of captive soldiers, the wounded and noncombatants. Later, a long series of subsequent meetings, treaties and amendments covered weaponry, terms of surrender and so forth as the civilized world found newer and better ways of killing each other off.

Perhaps the most useful and honored stricture following World War I was outlawing poison gas and chemical weapons. The multiple new horrors of the Second World War kept the United Nations busy trying to catch up in the atomic age. As a result, the United States remains the only nation to date that used nuclear weapons in the course of a war, though the past 68 years saw at least eight more countries develop nukes while several more may have them or are close to developing them.

Today, with conventional warfare getting to be a thing of the past—two nations armies facing each other off with tanks or whatever while their airforces drop bombs all over the place—we’re trying to rethink, ignore or make up the rules as we go along. Combat against guerillas in Vietnam was as different as checkers and chess—with us as the checker players.

We find ourselves at war with stateless bands of fanatics such as Al Qaeda and its metastatic spinoffs, some harbored in ostensibly “allied” countries such as Pakistan or Tunisia, often supported by other allies such as Saudi Arabia.

Our weaponry ranges from drones to the instruments of cyberwarfare. We find ourselves killing American citizens on foreign soil without benefit of indictment or trial. Some of us have pangs of conscience—though the majority of Americans cheer it on while others are confused. Who wouldn’t be?

I didn’t support the Iraq War but happy Saddam is no longer among us; similarly, I shed no tears for Anwar Al-Awlaki, but it’s scary to think of the consequences of one man, any president, saying who dies by drone attack and where.

Barack Obama should be condemned for still failing to provide Sen. Ron Wyden with the promised full memorandum justifying the killing of U.S. citizens under murky circumstances. (Yes, I understand killing Jim Jones from Arkansas during Would War II if he were wearing a Nazi uniform and leading a charge against us.)

But the issue is bigger than that. The need is bigger. It’s past time for the UN to undertake a full reconsideration of the rules of war as it is fought today. It’s time for a Geneva Convention for today’s civilized world—if there is such a thing.

Don Rose is a regular columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer

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