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Monday, December 01, 2014

Rules? In a Knife Fight?!

Article 23 (d) of the 1907 Hague Convention IV regarding the Laws and Customs of War on Land states that, "....it is especially forbidden....to declare that no quarter will be given".

For those unfamiliar with the term 'quarter', it means that if someone surrenders or is captured, they must not be harmed or killed.

To declare that 'no quarter will be given' is the same as saying 'all prisoners will be killed'.  And as stated above, this violates all current rules governing warfare.

Sadly, this is just one of the many laws of warfare that state and non-state Islamic military forces feel free to ignore with impunity.  

The western world likes to gloss over these 'lapses' in adherence to international law, even as they engage these forces in a handful of battlegrounds around the middle east.  We might as well be standing in neat rows carrying muskets and swords, considering the hopeless disadvantage at which we are placing ourselves on the battlefield.

As we fight in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Gaza, Yemen, Somalia and other failed states, the only subtle nod to the disparity between the way these laws of war are observed or ignored, is the terminology used.

For example, when Jihadist combatants surrender or are captured, they are 'taken prisoner' by western forces and 'held as Prisoners of War'; subject to at least minimal access and oversight by the International Red Cross and a host of 'human rights' NGOs.  

When western soldiers surrender or are captured, they are 'kidnapped' and 'held hostage' incommunicado in undisclosed locations before being ransomed or summarily executed in gruesome public displays.

In the film 'Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid' there is a memorable scene where a discontent member of the Hole In The Wall Gang challenges Butch to a fight to the death in order to decide the future leadership of the gang.  He extends the challenge by offering the choice of 'guns or knives'.

While far from a perfect analogy, I've included this video clip, not for its humor, but for its instructive value:

On its face, the conflict in the scene is a struggle for dominance.  But it is also a struggle between chaos (the challenger) and order (Butch, who organized and managed the gang).

I could have used a different illustration of order vs chaos such as a cop telling an armed criminal to 'stop or I'll shoot'.  But that's a poor example because no matter what the criminal does, the cop remains bound by his own rules of engagement (actually law enforcement uses the term 'Rules for the use of force').

The film assumes that the conflict is taking place away from civilized society and therefore the combatants can decide what, if any limitations to place on the conflict and its aftermath.

Butch seeks to avoid conflict  while retaining order, and tries to negotiate.  But he is presented with a situation where he can't back down without allowing the challenger (Logan) to take over (impose chaos... or at least a new order based on force rather than reason).

Once a conflict becomes inevitable, Butch tries to limit the scope of the combat, first by choosing the least lethal weapon, and then by attempting to set ground rules (rules of war).

Logan thinks that the attempt to impose rules is a sign of weakness and is meant to protect Butch, so he makes it clear that there are "no rules in a knife fight" (i.e. no quarter).  What he fails to grasp is that this declaration of 'no quarter' frees Butch from any and all restriction in his own course of action (i.e. no limiting Rules of Engagement).

Butch, for his part, still represents society and wants to maintain some semblance of order by planning for a non-lethal attack, but puts in place a fail-safe that will result in the death of the challenger if the non-lethal gambit is unsuccessful.

Now, what does this have to do with the world today and the state of modern warfare?

The Jihadist militants (e.g. Taliban, Al Qaeda, ISIS, Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, et al) do not feel bound by the rules of war to which the western military forces adhere, but they expect - demand, actually - that their opponents respect International Law and the Rules of War.

Their words place the western forces in the position of a police officer facing an armed suspect; with no discretionary wiggle room or ability to set aside the rules that restrict his conduct.

But their actions are clearly stating that 'there are no rules in a knife fight', which should logically place western forces firmly in Butch Cassidy's dusty boots, with the freedom to preserve as much or little of society's trappings as the situation warrants.

What sent me down this path of thought is the ridiculous nature of the current conflicts in the region:

  • Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad continuously threaten to "wipe Israel off the map".
  • Syria uses both conventional and unconventional (WMDs) weapons to slaughter hundreds of thousands without regard to their allegiance or status.
  • Somalia flaunts all semblance of maritime law, turning a huge swatch of the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean into a pirate's playground while playing host at home to a grab bag of warlords and militias. 
  • Al Qaeda declares its intention to attack and overthrow western governments, making good on at least the first part of their threats).
  • ISIS captures and executes soldiers and civilians.  

I could go on, but why bother?  Each and every one of these examples is a full-throated cry of 'Guns or knives?'.  

So why are we responding with 'Stop or I'll shoot!'?

The answer is that despite all of our military and technological superiority, we see ourselves as cops and not soldiers.  You see, at a certain point after WWII, the west decided that all types of belligerence and warfare are crimes... so anyone who wages war is, by defnition, a criminal.  That mindset makes anyone who faces off against a belligerent, a cop.

That's all fine and good, except that at home, a Law Enforcement Officer can engage an armed criminal comfortable and secure in the full support and backing of an organized society.  The LEOs job is not to punish or win... but rather simply to take the suspect into custody so that the criminal justice system can do its job and either punish or acquit the perp.

On the other hand, soldiers sent to fight in Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen or Somalia is far removed from society.  They are out in the 'wild west';far from the rule of law.  

Which is not to say that they should abandon human decency and descend into unrestrained savagery.  After all, Butch didn't.  

But they certainly should abandon any illusions that the perp in their gun-sights will stop when they threaten to shoot, or that somewhere there awaits a court or detention facility capable of passing a meaningful judgement and meting out a suitable punishment.

Which brings us back to the struggle between order and chaos beyond the rule of law.

If we are ever going to have a chance of re-imposing order in the parts of the world where chaos currently reigns, we have to somehow formulate a doctrine that will recognize the special nature of conflicts with groups that offer no quarter, and respect no rules of war.  

The commanders in the field need to be given orders to strive to impose order (like Butch), while being released from obvious impediments to victory (not to mention, survival).

The civilized part of the world has been repeatedly attacked and forced to give up control of how and where to make a stand.  It seems only reasonable that once our enemies refuse our generous offers to establish and adhere to rules, that we at least understand that this refusal is tantamount to saying "Rules?  In a knife fight?  No rules!!!".  

Far from hindering us, this should remove the shackles that have kept us from winning!

One day the world will have to wake up and realize that we must come up with a creative solution to what is certainly a zero-sum game.  There's no such thing as win-win, anymore.  

In a knife fight, there can only be one person left standing. Once we understand that, all that remains is for someone to yell 'One, two, three, GO!'.  And maybe... just maybe... we'll be able to kick our enemies in the balls until they come to their senses, instead of having to kill them all.

Posted by David Bogner on December 1, 2014 | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack